Tate Salas, a ramp manager for BLM, watches as a DC10 is loaded with fire retardant at the Roswell International Air Center, Wednesday. The plane, contracted by the forest service, is the first DC10 to cycle through RIAC and is involved in fighting the Thompson Ridge Fire near Jemez Springs. (Mark Wilson Photo)
In an effort to help fight a fire in Santa Fe, Roswell Air Tanker Base was the host for a DC10 Air Tanker, a plane six times larger than the usual firefighting aircraft.
Roswell is a reload base, not a primary base, meaning it opens only out of necessity. In the past five years, it has opened every other year, but this is the first time a plane this large has landed at this base in order to fight a fire.
The DC10 can hold 12,000 gallons of fire retardant as opposed to the older planes that could only carry about 1,800 gallons, said base manager Justin King.
The tanker was originally an international passenger plane, able to carry roughly 350 passengers. But along with one other DC10, it was converted into an aerial firefighting machine.
Although large, the plane is crewed by three primary crewman and two extras from the ground: Capt. Kevin Hopf, 1st Officer Todd Hallam and Flight Engineer Fred Land. According to Hallam, the captain and first officer “navigate, aviate and communicate” while the flight engineer controls hydraulics and electric.
“It’s a pretty laid out theatrical event,” Hallam said of the firefighting operation. He said everyone has his or her little piece in the puzzle.
“So it’s a real eye opening, humbling, gratifying big picture, to see everybody’s little piece of the pie and everybody’s thanking everybody for getting it all done,” he said. “And as big as this airplane is, it’s still just a little piece of the pie.”
Leaving Phoenix Wednesday morning, the crew dropped retardant on the Santa Fe fire and stopped in Roswell to refill for another drop. Their second drop, however, was cut short due to thunderstorms and lightning. Even so, 11,000 gallons of retardant were dropped.
The fire retardant is held in a detachable tank under the plane that measures 80 feet in length from front to stern. The retardant is modulated and released at a pace that maintains weight equilibrium of the aircraft, but, in an emergency, the tank can be emptied in four seconds, Hallam said.
Due to regulations, the plane can take off filled with fire retardant but cannot land carrying any. Regulations also require the plane to go out unpressurized.
“Engineers said the fuselage can take the strain from having that 100,000 pounds hanging off of the bottom or you can pressurize the airplane, but not both,” Hallam explained. “That’s why if we take off with retardant it’s going somewhere. Either to the jettison area or, hopefully, over the fire.”
Even though the plane moves around a lot and really has no home base, making the job difficult at times, Hallam said it’s the best job he’s had in all his 23 years of working in aviation, including his 17 years as a pilot.
“It’s hard work, it’s serious work, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I think it’s the gratification really, honestly. Because all we want to do is go and help. And people are so grateful when we come in, and it’s very humbling.”
The DC10 crew was planning to return to Phoenix by 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in order to recover before being briefed on their next assignment.