Inside the Chico Municipal Airport’s largest hanger sits Air Spray USA, a company that retrofits passenger planes into air tankers to drop fire retardant.
“We call ourselves aerial firefighters,” explained pilot Lowell Slatter.
From the cockpit, Slatter talked about his job of the past nine years: fighting fires from the sky. He added he has been a pilot for 40 years.
“We drop stuff,” Slatter stated. “Could be water. Generally retardant in airplanes like this, because it’s much more effective on the fire or away from the fire, to help the firefighters on the ground.”
Ravi Saip, Slatter’s boss and the general manager of Air Spray USA, explained how the company is converting passenger planes to air tankers.
“These two aircraft are being retrofitted from airline passenger use with a 3,000 gallon retardant tank made out of metal,” said Saip.
Air Spray guts the planes of their seats, overhead bins and carpet. Then they prepare them to drop the red retardant to help fight fires from the sky.
“We further modify the electrical system, hydraulic system, to accommodate the computer control for the tank system and to feed it live through the hydraulics of the aircraft,” explained Saip.
The British Aerospace 146 model they are working on will hold around 3,000 gallons of retardant. Once retrofitting is complete, the retardant can be dropped out of doors in the back of the plane with the push of just one button by the pilot in the cockpit.
“Water has a different effect on fire than retardant does,” said Saip. “Retardant is much more effective. It will stop flames if it’s put on correctly.”
“So the whole challenge in this gig is to have a tank that disperses retardant in a very specific amount on the ground to be an effective tool to be counted on to stop the fire,” he explained further.
As complex as the process is to furbish the plane for firefighting, the job of flying it is just as much of a challenge, Slatter said.
“When you’re in a fire area, there’s an ever changing environment, a lot of times because of the fire,” Slatter said. “The fire is not static in any way shape or form. You have to change rapidly as that changes.”
Once the retrofitting is complete, the planes will be contracted out to agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service or state governments. Saip said the planes go wherever the fires are.