This week marks the 50th anniversary of the use of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft equipped to drop water and fire retardant on wildfires in Pennsylvania. Since 1960, the Bureau of Forestry has been using various types of aircraft to suppress wildfires. Both fixed and rotary wing aircraft have been used very successfully in a variety of roles.

The concept of using aircraft was intitated by Horace B. Rowland, Chief Forest Fire Warden for the then Department of Forest and Waters. Mr. Rowland proved to be an energetic and innovative leader. He continually searched for new ways to protect the forested areas of Pennsylvania. His vision of aircraft had a place in wildfire suppression, saving the Commonwealth money.

The very first use of an airplane in wildfire control was in the spring of 1932. Douglas Brown, a Volunteer Forest Fire Warden, was flying his Taylor Cub Aircraft from Clarion, Pa. to Oil City, Pa., when he spotted a forest fire from his aircraft. He flew over the nearby Plumer Fire tower at 100 feet elevation, circled the tower, and pointed to the direction of the fire to the man in the tower. The tower man spotted the smoke, and dispatched crews, who subsequently extinguished the fire. From that point, small aircraft proved invaluable for wildfire detection.

The Pennsylvania Division of Forest Fire Protection undertook a dual experiment during the 1960 Spring Wildfire Season. Aircraft were obtained under contract to test the water bombing of wildfire as an aid to fire suppression. Two Bell Helicopters and one Stearman crop dusting airplane were contracted by the Division of Forest Fire Protection. On April, 14, 1960, a Stearman A-75 airplane, carrying 180 gallons of water, dropped water on a fire near Sandy Ridge, Centre County, Moshannon State forest. From that, the "water bomber" became a vital tool in initial attack on wildfires. As a note, the millionth gallon of water was dropped on May 2, 1969.

Many types of aircraft have been used to suppress wildfires in Pennsylvania: Bi wing Stearman aircraft, Chase aircraft, TBM Torpedo bomber, Douglas B-26 bomber, Lockheed PV-2 aircraft, Beechcraft Air Tanker, C-47 bomber, F7F Tiger Cat, Single Engine Air Tankers, Bell 47-G Helicopters, Sikorsky S-55 Helicopter, in search of the most economical, efficient means to put water on a wildfire.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry contracts aircraft for a 6 week contract period, beginning near the end of March, and continuing into the 2nd or 3rd week of May. Normally, this is the most severe time of Spring Fire Season. Contracts are advertised and bid out during the winter, as the contract process can be very lengthy. The contractors are few in number, and usually begin in the Southern states in early February. As the woodlands green up, these contractors move northward, following the fire seasons.

Firefighters depend on early fire-sighting reports to get to the fires quickly while they still are small. Water and fire-retardant drops from helicopters and planes are one of many tools used in aiding firefighters to keep the wildfire.

Tanker bases for the aircraft are located at Hazleton in Luzerne County and Mid-State Airport near Phillipsburg in Centre County, chosen for their proximity to the greatest concentration of wildfires.

The only airtanker tragedy occurred on April 20th, 1997, killing the pilot, Walter John Hirth of Buffalo, Wyoming, and co-pilot William Babka of Columbus, Nebraska.

The Lockheed PV-2 airtanker took off from Black Moshannon Airport at Black Moshannon State Park, Centre County, to assist a helicopter and ground crew in suppressing a 200-acre fire near the Bellwood Reservoir in Blair County. The plane crashed near the fire site in Cambria County, shortly after releasing its load of fire retardant and water mixture. The fire was contained shortly after the crash.

Rick Deppen

PA Bureau of Forestry

Wildfire Prevention Specialist