Firefight by flight: pilots provide critical support during wildfires

Firefight by flight: pilots provide critical support during wildfires
Firefighting planes sitting in staging area at Rick Husband Airport; Source: KFDA
Pilot checking out plane in staging area; Source: KFDA
Pilot checking out plane in staging area; Source: KFDA
Tank of retardant before being pumped and mixed; Source: KFDA
Tank of retardant before being pumped and mixed; Source: KFDA
Propeller of firefighting plane; Source: KFDA
Propeller of firefighting plane; Source: KFDA

AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - As fire danger persists, firefighting planes remain stationed in the Panhandle, ready to provide support.

Firefighting is a tough battle, both from the ground and from up in the air. Pilot Taylor 'JT' Capers says they work in unison with the people on the ground.

"Our job is to support the guys on the ground trying to fight the fire," said Capers.

Aerial support can vastly change the attack on a wildfire.

Capers' company is currently contracted out by Texas A&M Forest Service.

"Somebody says, 'Hey we want your aircraft,'" said Capers. "The company I work for, Aerotech, will give me a call and say hey we need an airplane in Texas tomorrow by 5 o'clock."

A Single Engine Air Tanker, or 'SEAT' plane can cost more than $2 million.

In one single run, Capers' plane can drop 800 gallons of fire retardant.

"Our standard drop is anywhere from 60 to 80 feet, and we drop [at] 120 miles per hour, or knots," said Capers.

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Capers says when they get the call they are needed, they make sure to get up in the air quickly.

"From the time we get the paper, to the west [of Amarillo] it would take 10 minutes. We could be there in 10 minutes," said Capers.

Texas A&M Forest Service Regional Fire Coordinator Matthew Schlaefer says these guys are always on-call and ready to go.

"[We] wait on that call to come in," said Schlaefer. "Once the call comes in then it's on, it's game on then."

The 800 gallons of retardant is roughly made up of six parts water, one part solution.

"It has a little over 7,000 gallons of LC, liquid concentrate," said Schlaefer. "[It is] basically a liquid fertilizer."

Schlaefer says the crews work to make sure the retardant is specifically mixed for the best application.

"It's pumped from that tank, through pumps in to [a] hopper," said Schlaefer. "It's mixed with water, and from there it gets loaded in to the planes."

Capers says his job takes him all over.

He goes where the fire is.

"When the fire season actually rolls around, I've fought [blazes] in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, we go anywhere out west," said Capers. "It's wherever they need us."

Sometimes, he won't be home for months on end. But Capers knows that is what he signed up for.

"When we leave, that's it, we're gone, and we don't know when we'll be home," said Capers. "That's just part of the deal."

Big planes like 'SEAT' planes are just another tool Texas A&M Forest Service uses in order to fight wildfires.

The maintain a strict fighting front from both the ground and the air in order to protect property and people's safety.

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