Story and Photos by Del Laughery
As a guy who works in the aviation industry who also carries around an FAA pilots license, I know very well that airport people are very friendly, and prone to saying “yes” if you know to ask and how to ask. On this visit to California, I discovered the NWS ramp and though I’d ask if they’d mind if I wander their ramp and took photos of their fire=fighting aircraft. I participated in some polite chit-chat, a portion of which was aimed, I’m sure, at detecting if I was full of BS or truly someone who is a kindred spirit. After assuaging their fears with reasonable and informed responses to their questions, I was cleared to walk around as I saw fit.
Walking out on the ramp I was greeted with four aircraft, that were cocked and ready to fly in the event that a fire call was received. Most notably was Erickson Aero fire bomber 105, a P&W JT8D-powered McDonnel Douglas MD-87. The twin-engine aircraft caught my eye first because it’s no longer all that common to find flight-worthy JT8D-powered aircraft. Standing there in its shadow I was caught by how large this aircraft is. I mean, it’s not large compared to, say, a 747, but let’s face it, these pilots fly this jet at low altitude over the top of forest ridges that are on fire, so the size of the aircraft makes that eventuality quite impressive. Sitting their fully fueled with cabin door open, this aircraft, and all aircraft on the ramp, is on alert from sun-up to sundown with contract-funded crews remaining near the aircraft during those times for periods of ten to twelve days before getting as many days off.
Nearby, were a pair of Vietnam War-era P&W JFTD12 (T-73)-powered CH-54 Sky Crane helicopters (one from Erickson Aero Tanker and one from Siller Helicopters). These aircraft are equipped with submersible pumps at the end of a significant hose that can dip into nearby water sources which can allow them to attack fires with many loads of water before returning to base after a typical 2.5-hour mission to refuel. Nearby their crews waited on the call. As you can see in one of the photos, the Siller crew was handling the stress of waiting quite well.
Also on the ramp was Bell 205A Huey from Coastal Helicopters also equipped with the submersible pump arrangement.
Finally, and possibly most notably, I found an old KC-97G with serial 53-0272. This old tanker was sitting on the ramp adjacent to the NFS flight line in front of an A&P school. Interestingly, the school doesn’t use this aircraft as a teaching aid. Instead, it’s left over from a time when the hangar at that location housed an aviation museum. Sadly, even in this hot, dry environment, time is taking its toll on this classic aerial refueler.