LAGUNA PUEBLO – Flying low over scrub and dusty truck trails, the big DC-10 jet dropped a load of water onto a Laguna Pueblo cattle pasture, banked left, grabbed some altitude and disappeared, obscured by the wet cloud left hanging in its wake.
Five seconds after the plane dropped its load from 200 feet up, the sound of water displacing air murmured over the pale grass, stunted brush and cowpies toward seven observers on the ground.
“You get the temperature down and the humidity up,” Rick Hatton, one of the observers, said as the rumble of the DC-10’s engines receded in the distance. “You get out there early, get it done, get it out, so the fire never gets a name, never gets in the newspaper.”
Hatton, 73, president and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, an Albuquerque-based aerial firefighting company, talked about how to knock out a wildfire from the air before it has a chance to blossom into a disaster.
There are five companies in the United States that employ large, fixed-wing aircraft for aerial firefighting; more that use smaller aircraft; and some public agencies that own their own firefighting planes. But 10 Tanker is the only company that uses the giant DC-10, which is more than 170 feet long and has a wingspan of more than 155 feet, to fight fires.
On this day last week, two of the company’s three DC-10s, led by a Beechcraft King Air twin turboprop guide plane, were making training runs over Laguna Pueblo land west of Albuquerque. 10 Tanker has permission from the pueblo to do the training flights.
“The pueblo kind of jokingly says, ‘Hey, the cows like the water,’ ” Hatton said.
Water is for training. Planes actually fighting wildfires drop retardants – sticky or gel-like substances especially designed to curb fires.
10 Tanker’s DC -10s can haul 11,600 gallons of retardant per load, four times as much as any of the smaller tankers used by other aerial firefighting companies. And because the DC-10 is a jet, 10 Tanker’s planes can bring more punch to the fight more quickly.
“More sooner is better than less later,” Hatton said.
In fact, the company’s motto is “More, Sooner, Safer, Cheaper.”
Safer because getting a large volume of fire retardant to fires faster reduces the risk to firefighters on the ground by helping them get a handle on the blaze more quickly.
“You want to knock the fire down, so the people on the ground are not fighting 10-foot flames,” said John Gould, another of the observers and 10 Tanker’s business development manager. Gould, 59, was a Bureau of Land Management firefighter for 37 years, including 18 years as a smoke jumper.
Hatton, who flew F-4 Phantom jet fighter-bombers for the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, said the company’s DC-10s make things safer for the flight crews as well because they can get more done on fewer flights.
Fighting fire from the air is not inexpensive. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars a day.
But Hatton says 10 Tanker is cheaper because it costs less to drop as much retardant on one run as it would take other companies’ planes four runs to deliver. Also, he said being able to unload an unbroken line of retardant 50 feet wide and more than two-thirds of a mile long – or split the drops to any volume or distance required – makes for more effective and therefore more cost-efficient firefighting.
The midmorning sun glinted off the surfaces of the King Air and the DC-10 as they begin their return for another test run. For the purposes of these training flights, the DC-10s were carrying about 6,000 gallons of water – half of capacity – in the V-shaped, gravity-fed tanks fastened to the planes’ underbellies. The planes will drop about 2,000 gallons on each of three test runs.
As the planes descended, about dozen cows and steers trotted briskly to another portion of the pasture as if suddenly deciding the grass might be greener there.
Just as it would in an actual firefighting situation, the lead aircraft dropped smoke, marking the point at which the DC-10 should release its load.
“The tanker never goes lower than the lead plane,” Hatton said as he watched the approach.
The big jet came in at 150 knots (about 170 mph) and was almost directly over Hatton and the others on the ground when it dropped water. A liquid spray slapped at the observers, wetting caps, shirts, cameras and notebooks. Temperature down, humidity up.
10 Tanker incorporated in 2002 to research, develop and operate fixed-wing jet aircraft for aerial firefighting, and the company made its first DC-10 firefighting flight in 2006.
Originally located in Victorville, Calif., the company moved to Albuquerque in 2013 because the city had the runways and hangar space to accommodate the company’s planes. 10 Tanker’s offices are on south University Boulevard, near the Albuquerque Sunport.
The biggest challenge facing the company, Hatton said, has been convincing the firefighting community that, despite their large size, DC-10s are nimble, not awkward, firefighting tools.
10 Tanker’s DC-10s are stripped of all the things that make the planes comfortable airliners but are not needed for fighting fires. Hatton said the plane has proved its maneuverability in all types of terrain and atmospheric conditions and can turn comfortably within the turning radius of smaller aircraft.
“The turning radius has to do with speed and angle, not size,” said Hatton, who flew 180 combat missions in Vietnam.
With 10 fire seasons, 1,850 firefighting flights and 400 fires, including 2012’s 44,000-acre Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso, under its seat belts, Hatton believes the company is beginning to make its point.
Gould believes so, too.
“It has been quite an adventure for this company to see the evolution of firefighters on the ground accepting that a plane this big could be so accurate,” Gould said.
In 2015 alone, 10 Tanker planes made 400 flights battling 75 different fires. For the upcoming fire season, 10 Tanker has two exclusive-use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and some “call when needed” agreements with six or seven states. Hatton said he hopes to expand his fleet to four or five planes soon and envisions a future with six or seven planes.
“They are starting to call us for initial attacks” on fires, he said.
Things are looking up for 10 Tanker. So were the small group of people on the ground, as the King Air and the DC-10 approached from the south on their third and final test run. The planes were flying into a headwind, the best possible condition for dropping water or retardant because the wind helps to disperse the load in a neat line behind the plane.
Smoke. Water. Whoosh!