Crop Dusters Turned Fire Fighters

Nov 19, 2017

Credit CCO Creative Commons

The yellow Ag Tractor swooped in low, the wheels maybe 30-feet above the ground, as it approached Taxiway Charlie.

Suddenly, a mass of water gushed from the back of the plane, causing it to jerk quickly upward. Banking its wings, the pilot turned the plane toward the Hutchinson Airport.

One after the other, aerial spray planes took off and practiced dumping 500 gallons of water on the farthest reaches of the airport’s property during a fire suppression training. Each pilot had the assistance of a ground crew filling the plane’s hopper with water. If it had been a real wildfire, there would be an urgency to reload and take off again.

Wednesday’s training session was for members of the Kansas Agricultural Aviation Association to practice techniques for the Wildfire Aerial Suppression Program. The program is designed to help ground-based firefighters by providing the services of experienced ag pilots to do water drops from the air, which can suppress a fire very quickly and aids the fire crews on the ground, said Rhonda McCurry, the aerial association’s executive director.

Bill Garrison, Nickerson, and Dusty Dowd, Syracuse, organized the day. Both men are crop dusters who have experience fighting fires by air in Kansas.

Garrison, the owner of Ag Air Service, flew his yellow single-engine Air Tractor 301 over the Highlands wildfire last March, dumping more than 20,000 gallons of water on the blaze, 500 gallons at a time.

There are criteria the ag pilots must meet to qualify for the WASP program, Garrison said. That includes having a radio in the cockpit so they can communicate with the crews on the ground.

“Last year during the Highland fire I was talking to the Blackhawk helicopters,” Garrison said.

The “agcats,” as some standing around the tarmac called the single seat yellow spray planes, also need an instrument to help with direction when they fly through heavy smoke. Additional venting of the hopper is necessary so the water will flow easily.

Despite having fought fires from the air, Craig Stratton took his turn dumping water Wednesday.

“You can never have too much training,” said Stratton, a pilot from Mead. “As the weight goes off the aircraft, you want to climb, and you have to compensate.”

Rodney Redinger a fire training specialist with the Kansas Forest Service and long-time rangeland firefighter taught a morning class going over wildfire behavior and terminology pilots might hear from those on the ground.

“The group met 10 to 12 years ago in Great Bend trying to get WASP off the ground,” Redinger said, “no pun intended.”

Funding was hard to come by, and it costs money to fly aircraft.

Over the past couple of years, as the state has faced more wildfires, the ag pilots have been a useful resource. Some have worked out agreements with local fire departments.

“If we have a fleet of aircraft and pilots already trained it would be another tool in the toolbox,” Redinger said.

Many small planes were parked on the tarmac. There were 27 ag pilots attending the sessions. However, only seven ag pilots participated in the hands-on mission.

“We are still putting the pieces together,” said McCurry, regarding WASP.

They are getting the Forest Service and Emergency Management on board and plan to have a map of Kansas available with all the aerial applicators who are trained to fly and drop water during a fire.

“We are being proactive,” she said.

They want to be ready by 2018 before the next wildfire season begins.

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