Lead plane on the Whoopup fire

Lead plane, Whoopup fire

A lead plane is a small, twin-engine fixed wing aircraft the assists and directs the much larger air tankers that drop retardant on wildfires. They have a one-person crew, the pilot, who is very experienced in flying over fires in mountainous terrain with turbulent wind conditions. Their purpose is to determine a safe and effective flight path for the air tankers and to identify the exact location for the retardant drops. They will often make several passes over the target, sometimes from different directions, before they settle on the best approach for the much larger air tankers.

Lead plane, Whoopup fire
Lead plane, Whoopup fire. Photo: Bill Gabbert

These photos are of the lead plane working in Ferguson Canyon on the Whoopup fire southeast of Newcastle, Wyoming, on June 18, 2011. This aircraft is a Beechcraft King Air 90 twin-turboprop that was dispatched out of Albuquerque Silver City, NM at 11:40 a.m. and spent the afternoon working with air tankers 45 and 07. All three aircraft were refueling and reloading retardant at the tanker base at Rapid City Regional Airport. Some lead planes have the capability of producing a puff of smoke to mark drop locations, but I didn’t see this lead plane doing that.

Lead plane, Whoopup fire
Lead plane, Whoopup fire. Photo: Bill Gabbert
Lead plane, Whoopup fire
Lead plane, Whoopup fire. Photo: Bill Gabbert

One interesting fact about lead planes is that some of their radio antennas are installed on the bottom of the aircraft, rather than the top. This makes it easier to communicate with firefighters below them on the ground. This King Air has at least three on the bottom — two on the wings and one or more on the fuselage.

Lead plane, Whoopup fire
Lead plane, Whoopup fire. Photo: Bill Gabbert



Update 7-26-2011: we put together a slide show of more photos.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

4 thoughts on “Lead plane on the Whoopup fire”

  1. Got my vote again for number one fire/ems web site. Where else do you get pictures like this? I can not imagine arriving at a large fire without a lead “coming to pick me up”. Hats off to these men and woman.

  2. Bill,

    You have done it again by being on the spot and taking some very good photos. Not the usual incident posed fuzzy pictures of helicopters/engines with smoke in the the back ground. These are real close action action shots taken by some one who knows what’s going on and gives a good description.

    The lead plane and tanker pic’s are the best I have seen in a long time.

    Keep up the good work.

    My wife, a former pro writer/photographer is very impressed with them.

    What type of camera/lense do you use?

    B. Morgan

    1. Thanks to everyone for the kind words. I hope the property of all of those who are close to the fires remains untouched by the fires.

      BMorgan: Thanks… I appreciate it. I use a Canon EOS 20D camera body, and on fires usually use one of two Canon lenses, an EFS 17-85 or an EF 100-400. All of the aircraft shots were taken with the EF 100-400.

      An example of some of the data about one of the pictures, the profile view of Tanker 07 dropping:
      Lens: Canon EF 100-400
      Focal Length: 130 mm (35 mm film equivalent: 209 mm)
      Exposure time: 1/500
      Aperture: 6.34
      F number: f/9
      ISO: 400

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