USA — Imagine standing inside a DC-10 aircraft that has no seats or overhead compartments. Its nothing but space and large enough to probably fit a few classrooms.
It once had 380 seats. Now its gutted and all it holds are hanging flight suits, a picnic table and a few other supplies. The plane needs to be light as possible to hold thousands of gallons of fire retardant.
Whats below the plane is its most important asset, 12,000 gallons of fire retardant.
The DC-10 has been used to fight fires in San Marcos, Magnolia, Panorama and Northeast Texas this summer.
But the plane goes where its assigned. The pilots dont get to decide which fire they will fight; its coordinated from the ground by incident commanders.
“It’s a big team effort, decide where to put the retardant , what coverage levels we want to use so that the retardant is effective on the ground, said air tactical support pilot Ken Perry.
Perry pilots what is called the lead plane. It flies about a quarter of a mile ahead of the DC-10 looking out for tall trees, towers and other planes. It also communicates with the DC-10 pilots telling them the exact spot to drop the retardant.
“The wind is a factor but the visibility issues with the smoke and the towers and other aircraft are, quite frankly, the biggest risks,” said Perry.
“We try our best to stay out of the smoke, said DC-10 pilot Kevin Hopf. Flying the airplane from here to the fire is just like flying it when we have passengers onboard. Once we get into that fire area then things change up a little bit more of a hands on, seat-of-the-pants-type flying.”
Flying the DC-10 requires concentration and pilots have just a few chances to get it right. They can’t do it without the lead plane though.
“We have a smoke generator on the airplane just like the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds have, and we’ll punch a trail of smoke out to show them exactly where we want that retardant,” said Perry.
Crews from the U.S. Forest Service and National Guard are in Austin from all around the country, including as far away as Canada. They will stay here as long as they are needed.
Currently, the DC-10 is grounded, sitting at Austin-Bergstrom International airport just waiting for its next assignment.