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GRASS VALLEY, Calif. June 22, 2019 – The Grass Valley Airport had a rare visitor on Friday, a Viking CL-415 water scooping aircraft, commonly known as a super scooper. Aero-Flite, a Spokane, WA company operates a fleet of these firefighting planes under contract with the U.S. Forest Service.
Jason Robinson, the Chief Pilot of the Bombardier CL-415 Program, took us on a tour of the plane and explained the aircraft’s capabilities. The 2014 CL-215 is 68 ft long, 30 ft high and 94 ft wide with a maximum operating weight of 47,000 pounds.
The plane can carry 1,621 gallons of water and its maximum speed is 190 knots (218 mph).
When scooping water out of a lake, the speed is reduced to about 80 knots (92 mph) – it takes 12 seconds to fill the tank.
The length of a water source should generally be 1 to 2.5 nautical miles and at least six feet deep. Length needed is dependent on wind direction and strength, terrain, altitude, and temperature. The time on the water is typically 15 to 20 seconds. Water scoopers are capable of utilizing salt or fresh water. Detailed mitigation plans are drawn up to avoid the spread of aquatic invasive species.
If a lake is located 15 miles from a fire, the tanker can execute a turnaround (flying to the water source, filling the tanks and returning to the incident) in 12 minutes.
“Up in this area, there’s a lake just about every 10 miles,” Robinson said. “We work out of Folsom, Tahoe, Oroville, Union Valley, Bullards Bar and so on.” The planes can scoop water up to 8,000 ft in altitude and they can operate at a service level up to 20,000ft. “We only go that high when we have to fly over the Rocky Mountains,” he added.
The planes are used anywhere “from Florida to Nome, Alaska.” Robinson is very familiar with Alaska, having worked in seaplane operations in Alaska, the Caribbean, and Indian Ocean. In his twelve fire seasons working for Aero-Flite, Robinson has fought fires throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Scoopers are very efficient in the initial attack phase of incidents. They are most commonly used for direct attack on the fire’s edge. “The best thing to do is to use these planes in conjunction with helicopters or retardant-dropping planes.” Gesturing towards Tanker 88 and 89 sitting further up the runway, Robinson continues “We have a different mission than the S-2s, they drop retardant to box the fire in and slow the progression. We try to take the heat out of the fire, or if a spot gets over the retardant line, or a tree is starting to go, we try to get that. This is a direct tool, the S-2s are indirect tools. We drop water similar to helicopters, but we move through the airspace more like a fixed-wing tanker.”
The CL-415 is equipped with infrared capabilities, allowing the crew to see where a drop ended. Often two scoopers work in tandem, with the second plane extending the drop. “Primarily, we use the infrared to see if a fire has spotted outside the retardant lines, often times you’ll see it on the infrared before it starts smoking. There is a lot of effort put in constructing lines with dozers, hand crews and retardant. But all it takes is one spot outside the lines and a fire can take off again.”
Aero-Flite’s fleet is on an as-needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Robinson and the two-person crew are on a goodwill tour while fire activity is relatively low. While the plane was at the Grass Valley Airport, everyone was welcome to tour the plane. Kids and adults alike didn’t need to be told twice!