The Birth of the Fire Boss
You have to love ingenuity…especially in aviation. But who would have ever thought taking a crop duster and putting it on floats would end up producing one of the most effective aerial fire-fighting platforms in existence today? How did the AT-802 come about?
Well, John Schwenk, owner of Aero Spray Inc., located in Appleton, Minnesota did back in 2007. He had been operating a small fleet of Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) AT-802s for several years in Minnesota and after running the math one day quickly came to the conclusion an AT-802 on floats would be a very cost-efficient and profitable aerial fire-fighting machine if employed in locations close to suitable water sources.
John gathered his Aero Spray team, contacted Wipaire Inc. who had designed and certified their 10000 Amphibious Floats for the AT-802 a few years earlier, and then put together a plan to field the amphibious AT-802 two years later in 2009. And there you have it…the Fire Boss was born.
So…What is it Like to Fly an AT-802 Fire Boss?
Pilots will tell you “once you go float plane, you’ll never want to go back.” Well, in the SEAT world, once you transition from a wheeled SEAT to the Fire Boss most will argue you will never want to go back either. Not only is the Fire Boss a lot of fun to fly, but its mission of direct attack is very different and more challenging than the indirect attack strategy of simply building a line around a wildfire with retardant.
Envision taking off from a small uncontrolled airfield somewhere in the middle of no-where with a set of coordinates, a couple of frequencies, and a map. The mission is to fly as fast as you can direct to the fire, find a scoopable lake or river enroute, grab a load of water, and then proceed direct to the fire with load after load after load for the next three and a half hours. Hopefully the water source is close enough so you can fly two- or three-minute scooping/dropping circuits which means you’ll do that 20 to 30 times before needing to head back for fuel. Chances are you’re scooping on a mountain lake which means the density altitude is fairly high and your scoop site is surrounded my hazardous terrain.
Birds of a feather flock together
You’re also most likely flying as a flight of two, three, four, or even eight Fire Bosses which means there is close formation flying, detailed flight tactics, and congested airspace over the fire. There is probably smoke…a lot of smoke…so the visibility is low making it difficult to keep track of each other as well as the helicopters, see the terrain, avoid the towers and wires, and even find your way back to the fire at times
Scooping the AT-802…Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
As stated earlier, once you go float plane you’ll never want to go back. Why? Because it is so much fun. The challenge of taking an airplane, flying with lots of stick and rudder, assessing the water and wind conditions, making every touchdown a spot landing on a lake, river, or even the ocean is unbelievably rewarding and satisfying. No two water landings are ever the same and each is extremely memorable for its own reasons.
And then there is scooping on top of that. Scooping is a blast. It takes everything described above and melds that with taking on a load of 500–800-gallon (4,165 – 6,664 pounds) load of water all while skimming across the water at 60 knots.
The First Scoop in the AT-802 Fire Boss
The first scoop in a Fire Boss is harrowing, wild, and usually a bit violent. The actual scoops are two three-inch pipes that hydraulically extend into the water from the bottom of each pontoon. If power, aircraft pitch, and water speed is not managed properly, the initial deployment feels like you’ve hit a brick wall. The drag is immense causing the nose of the aircraft to pitch aggressively forward. It takes 10-20 scoop attempts to finally get the hang of managing the first scoop induced porpoise with a smooth and steady power increase while gently pumping the stick aft in counter-harmony with nose porpoising. It is truly an art and all Fire Boss pilot eventually develop their own individual technique
How it Works: The Fire Boss scooping mechanism – YouTube
So, there you are…all four gear are up with blue cockpit indications and the prop pitch is set to 1700 RPM. The scoops have been cycled with no lingering asymmetric warning light which tells you if a scoop is stuck down. If it is, the aircraft will take a hard left or right on touchdown depending on which scoop is extended. The ignition has been set to continuous as a “just in case” mitigation measure and the flaps are set to 20 degrees for max post scoop lift. Lastly the rudder trim has been pre-loaded heavy right in preparation for the tremendous pedal forces that will occur once water starts pumping into the hopper during the upcoming scoop. Final approach airspeed is captured at 75 knots followed by one last pre-scoop checklist ramble to ensure nothing traumatic will occur on the water.
Landing Checklist Complete
Touch down! The stick is checked back into the lap while throttling up a bit to dampen aircraft porpoise. The hopper fills quickly…usually within 20-30 seconds. A brief scan ahead is accomplished to ensure the remaining water lane is clear and then a few seconds later scooping is complete. The power comes up to max available torque followed by a sharp but controlled pull on the stick aft and right to rock the right float out of the water. Once safely airborne it is now a demanding exercise in airspeed management while gingerly climbing away from the water enroute to the fire.
Putting Out Fires in the AT-802
Scoop to fire circuits can be fast and furious. If the water source is nearby you can be on the water to over the fire about every three minutes. There is also a lot to consider prior to the first bomb run which in reality can be minutes after climbing away from the water low and slow.Are there any hazards – snags, power lines, or ridges hidden in the shadows between enroute from scoop to the fire? Where is the helicopter’s dip site? Is it a factor or will their dip to fire route conflict with the Fire Boss run-in line? What is the bomb run objective – to cut off the head of the fire, attack a flank, tie into a dozer line, or spike the load in on a spot fire as it erupts from stray embers?
Regardless, airspeed and altitude control are essential to ensure that once released, the water column falls properly with the correct density to smother the fire.
A-T 802 WATER BOMBERS IN ACTION AKA THE FIRE BOSS’s – YouTube
Approaching the Fire in the mighty AT-802
AT-802 Fire Bosses drop at approximately 80 feet above the terrain and usually provide best effects when the final approach airspeed is hovering at 105 knots. That means 20-degree flaps are rolled to provide max lift while helping to slow the aircraft. If the slope downhill on final is steeper than 30 degrees, then maximum flap setting of 30 degrees is used to keep the airspeed from running away from you. Anything above 120 knots will cause the aircraft to pitch up violently as soon as the load is let loose which can be very disorienting and possible deadly if the pilot doesn’t react immediately to right the aircraft and bring her back to straight and level. Final approach. Airspeed-checks. Attitude-checks.
The bombing computer has been set for proper gallons per square foot and total amount to be dropped. The line looks good. Confirmation with the Air Attack or Lead Plane that all ground fire fighters are clear of the line and it’s safe to drop has occurred. Target aimpoint is off the nose. You may need to offset a wingspan or two into the wind to counter the wind drift on the falling water column. The target runs under the nose and just as it passes beneath an imaginary line drawn between the engine smoke stacks – pickle! Load away!
Max allowable torque is selected as the aircraft is steered to the briefed exit. Without even thinking about it, the left-hand slides back from the throttle to gently nudge the flaps up in small 5-degree increments as the aircraft climbs out 4,000-6,500 pounds lighter enroute back to the scoop site to do it all again!