Ever since its introduction by Wipaire in 2003, the Fire Boss has been a big hit in the aerial firefighting industry. Basically an Air Tractor AT-802F fitted with a highly modified set of amphibious floats based on Wipaire’s Twin Otter floats, the Fire Boss fills a niche in the specialized form of aerial firefighting known as scooping. Scooping is when an aircraft skims across a body of water to fill its tank with a load of water.
The process, which is not quite flying, yet not really landing, requires a great deal of skill and concentration on the part of the pilot. When the right conditions are met, scooping can be very effective in putting a lot of wet stuff on the hot stuff. With a suitable body of water close by, the turnarounds can be as short as two to three minutes.
I once flew on a fire next to the Columbia River in Washington State with a Canadair CL-215. That scooper was delivering twenty loads of water per hour, while I was struggling to get one load of retardant per hour.With the Air Tractor constant flow FRDS firegate installed, the Fire Boss maximizes the use of retardant dispensed on the ground due to the precise, constant retardant flow rate delivered by the gate.
The combination of the Wipline Floats and Air Tractor’s constant flow FRDS firegate, transformed the rugged AT802F aircraft into arguably the lowest cost, most effective aerial firefighting solution in terms of cost per gallon of retardant delivered.There are currently more than 50 Fire Bosses in operation worldwide.
They have been accepted and have become very popular in western Canada, several European countries and Australia as one of the primary tools in the aerial firefighting fleet.
Despite this widespread use, it may be surprising to learn that there have only been two Fire Bosses on contract in the United States since the program began. One reason is that U.S. fire agencies have traditionally relied on land-based air tankers.
Another reason for the Fire Boss’ slow start in the U.S. is the reality that there are few places in the country that suffer wildfires and have suitable water sources for scooping operations. Two areas that do meet the criteria are Washington State and Minnesota.
These are currently the only areas that employ the Fire Boss in their fire suppression activities. Fire Boss LLC, a sister company to Wipaire Inc., has been created to explore opportunities in other parts of the country and to promote the Fire Boss for use by other fire management agencies at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels.The only domestic Fire Boss operator to-date has been Aero Spray headquartered in Appleton, Minnesota and owned by John Schwenk.
John is no stranger to aerial firefighting, having been active in the Single Engine Air Tanker program for many years. His entry Fire Boss contracts came about because of a close working relationship with Bob Wiplinger, CEO of Wipaire, Inc. and Fire Boss, LLC. John’s home state is known as The Land of 10,000 Lakes (actually 11,842 that are over 10 acres) and it would be the perfect place to prove the Fire Boss. Minnesota has a short but usually intense spring fire season that occurs after snowmelt and before green-up.
None of Aero Spray’s pilots were seaplane rated, so John’s first step was to get them up to speed for flying off the water. Both experienced AT-802F SEAT pilots, John and Jesse Weaver attended a flight school in Florida that specializes in seaplane ratings.
After completing this requirement, John purchased a Scout on amphibious floats so they could build flight time to meet the insurance and fire agencies’ criteria for piloting the Fire Boss. Jesse took the Scout to his home state of Louisiana that winter.
He spent months splashing around the bayous and lakes that cover the southern part of the state building time and gaining confidence on the water.Once Jesse had enough flight time logged it was time to move up to the Fire Boss.
This was an intimating step from the diminutive Scout to the 16,000-pound beast with a cockpit two stories high above the ground. The training program was paced and meticulous, but in time, Jesse was feeling right at home. In the spring of 2007, the Fire Boss was tested on a state contract in Minnesota. Although the contract did not produce much flight time, it was a good training experience for all involved. The aircraft was also used on a state contract in 2008.
The 2009 fire season was the Fire Boss’ first federal fire contract. After completing the Minnesota contract in the spring, the aircraft was moved to Deer Park, Washington where it served a 75-day assignment. The aircraft was contracted and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), with funding provided by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WA-DNR).
This arrangement worked well for all agencies involved, as the aircraft was used on BIA reservations as well as state and federal lands.At the end of the contract, SEAT manager Bruce Jourdain reported that the Fire Boss had flown on 24 incidents for four separate agencies for a total of 49.57 flight hours.
There were a total of 179 drops made in the following amounts: 121,900 gallons of water, 12,750 gallons of Thermo-Gel and 4,850 gallons of retardant. A typical mission saw the aircraft depart its land base with a load of Thermo-Gel and once that load was delivered to the fire, scooping operations commenced.
A federal contracted aircraft is not allowed to scoop from a body of water after having retardant in its tank. Whenever Jesse flew out of the Omak Tanker Base delivering retardant to a fire, the hopper had to be cleaned before the Fire Boss could go back to scooping. All agencies agreed that the Fire Boss was a great success and are looking forward to its return in 2010.
I asked Jesse about some of the differences between flying the Fire Boss and a standard wheel-equipped AT-802. He told me the hardest thing he had to adjust to was the shear height above the ground or water while seated in the cockpit. The aircraft sits about two feet higher on land than it does in the water. Another big difference between the two types is that the Fire Boss has retractable landing gear.
As one Canadian Fire Boss pilot demonstrated last summer, if you attempt to scoop with the wheels extended you will wind up inverted in the water. For this reason, Fire Boss pilots are required to attend marine survival training. In this program the trainee must be able to demonstrate the ability to extricate from the cockpit while upside down under water. Jesse completed a course provided by the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. Fire Boss pilots are also required to wear a life jacket during operations. The aircraft are equipped with a small oxygen tank intended to allow the pilot to breath for a short period while immersed.
Scooping operations are pretty straightforward. The pilot selects a body of water that is at least one mile long, oriented into the wind and a minimum of four feet deep. A normal approach is made and once the aircraft is on the water, the probes that scoop the water are extended and full power is applied. It takes twelve to fifteen seconds for the hopper to fill, at which time the probes automatically retract and the aircraft can be flown off the water.
The Fire Boss is a very heavy aircraft, with its empty weight of 9,000 pounds tipping the scales almost 2,000 pounds more than its wheeled brethren. To avoid exceeding the aircraft’s certified gross weight of 16,000 pounds, the pilot must select the volume of water to be scooped. When that amount is reached, a computer shuts down the process.
As fuel burn lightens the aircraft, the load is steadily increased. The aircraft Jesse flies has 380 gallons of fuel capacity and a maximum foam capacity of 78 gallons. With foam concentrate onboard, he starts out scooping over 500 gallons and winds up taking on a full 800-gallon hopper. With the big fuel tanks, he can stay on the fire scene up to four hours.
The early Fire Bosses equipped with the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67AG engine were underpowered, especially during high-density altitude conditions where fires are often fought. Recently Pratt & Whitney introduced a more powerful version of the engine and labeled it the F-model. With 300 additional horsepower, it is a good match for the big amphibian Fire Boss.
The extra power meant scooping distances were reduced, climb rates were increased and the cruise speed was upped. Jesse says with the PT6A-67F engine, he experienced climb rates of in excess of 500 feet per minute and cruise speeds that almost match those of a conventional-gear AT-802F equipped with the PT6A-67AG. He stated that with the bigger engine, the airplane could really do the job it was intended for.
It is possible that there could be two more Fire Bosses in the U.S. fleet for the 2010 fire season. The only hurdle may be finding qualified crews to pilot the scoopers. There just aren’t that many pilots around with the credentials and experience to meet the contract and insurance requirements.
As a result, Fire Boss LLC is planning to create a Fire Boss training center at the South St. Paul airport in Minnesota. The Fire Boss Academy will provide in-aircraft flight training from an initial float rating through to a Fire Boss endorsement. It will also incorporate advanced aircraft system and aerial fire-fighting simulation technology.
The Fire Boss has been a great success story and is here to stay. There is no doubt that their numbers will grow worldwide. As they are accepted by the different agencies, more will be contracted in the U.S. Now I’m waiting to see how long it takes Air Tractor and Wipaire to put amphibious floats on the AT-802’s big brother, the AT-1002.