This Is the Huge Plane That Fights America's Wildfires

Several aircraft types are used to fight America’s largest fires, like the ones burning in Oregon and California. The U.S. Forest Service breaks these into three categories. The first is the small Single Engine Airtankers (SEATs). The second group is called Large Airtankers (LATs). And the third is designated as Very Large Airtankers (VLATs). Only one plane falls into the final group, the DC-10. It was first put into commission as a passenger jet in 1970.

The DC-10 can carry a cargo of fire retardant much larger than the smaller two categories. Its capacity is 8,000 gallons. The capacity of LATs is 2,000 to 4,000 gallons. SEATs can carry up to 800 gallons. The SEAT category includes only one plane, the Air Tractor AT-802. The LAT category includes several aircraft: P2V, HC-130H, BAe-146, MD-87, C-130Q, RJ85 and C-130 H & J.

The DC-10 was designed by McDonnell Douglas, which became part of Boeing in 1997 as part of a $13 billion merger. The first DC-10 was delivered to American Airlines in 1971. It was one of the earliest wide-bodies, which are long-distance jetliners built to travel up to 5,000 miles. A total of 386 were delivered to airlines. Production of the plane ended in 1989.

When the first DC-10 was converted to a tanker for firefighting, in 2006, it was designated as the DC-10 Air Tanker. They were built to drop their contents in as little as eight seconds, fed by three large containers in areas that primarily used to hold passengers and luggage. The large amounts of fire retardant they can carry are in part due to the fact that they need to carry very little fuel compared to when they were used for a transcontinental flight. The plane can release retardant flying as close as 300 feet above the ground.

The first missions flown by the DC-10 Air Tanker were in July 2006 to help fight the Sawtooth Complex fire in San Bernardino County, California. It made only two drops of retardant. One expert reportedly commented, “the two fire drops made a greater impact on containing the fire than the 12 helicopters drops for the past 10 days.” Over the next several years, the plane was used more in California, then in Texas and Australia.

So far in 2020, the DC-10 Air Tanker has been used to fight wildfires near Tucson, Arizona, and in Idaho, Colorado and northern California. Cal Fire, which manages wildfire fighting in California, said it began to call into service air tankers that include the DC-10 Air Tanker on September 9.

The DC-10 Air Tanker spot as the official largest firefighting tanker may be short-lived. Officials have begun to test Boeing 747 Supertankers, which can carry up to 19,000 gallons. However, they have not yet been designated as part of the U.S. Forest’s firefighting fleet.