A rash of wildfires has been putting the United States Forest Service’s recently upgraded Helena Aviation Center to the test.
Seven tankers of various sizes, including a very large DC-10 that holds approximately 10,000 gallons of fire retardant per load, have each been flying in and out of Helena Regional Airport eight to 10 times per day for the past week, according to airport director Jeff Wadekamper. It has made the airport very busy for both airport employees and the Forest Service officials who actively fights wildfires.
The Helena Aviation Center, where fire-fighting planes are loaded with more fire retardant material, recently had major upgrades to better respond to wildfires in western Montana. This Helena base is the only one in Montana that can cater to a very large tanker, Wadekamper said. There are similar facilities in Missoula and Billings, but they can only cater to aircraft classified as “large,” which hold approximately 3,000 gallons of material, according to Forest Service public information officer Kathy Bushnell.
“It’s been an incredible benefit,” Bushnell said. “On July 26 through 28 we had a record-breaking weekend on how much retardant we made. Additionally, our load times are much shorter than before.”
Bushnell said that on July 26, which was the crew’s first time using the new systems, they mixed 28,000 gallons of retardant. On July 27 they mixed 181,000 gallons and loaded planes 55 times. On July 28, they mixed a whopping 231,000 gallons and loaded planes 68 times.
The loaded planes include the very large DC-10, four large tankers and two small single engine tankers. They achieved load times of 12 minutes for the DC-10 and five minutes for the large tankers. They managed an average turnaround of 24 minutes per plane.
The quick turnaround can be attributed to having two 24,000 gallon tanks ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“This is why we wanted to get these upgrades done,” Bushnell said.
Though the spike in aircraft activity made things busier around Helena Regional Airport, it didn’t cause any issues, Wadekamper said. It did provide an increased workload for air traffic controllers and for Exec Air Montana, the private fuel supplier at the airport.
According to Wadekamper, the increase in activity didn’t include just the tanker planes. There were also six private helicopters, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopters, three air attack planes and lead airplanes, which guide tankers into the fire zone, all helping with fire fighting efforts. The fire zone for the North Hills fire was only eight miles north of the airport and air traffic control put a temporary flight restriction in place over the fire zone.
During that time, the air traffic control tower rerouted departing commercial aircraft east or northwest when they needed to turn around. Wadekamper praised the extensive coordination between the air traffic control tower and the Forest Service dispatch center. Bushnell said any aircraft they have assigned report to their dispatch center.
“The fire zone is a really common area to make adjustments. So planes have been diverted to make their route adjustments,” Wadekamper said. “Everything has been working like clockwork, even though it’s hectic.”
This wasn’t the first time things have become hectic around Helena Regional Airport. During the 2017 fire season the airport hosted a similar number of firefighting aircraft, according to Wadekamper. It’s this expectation and preparation that allows things to operate in a smooth manner when the fires do eventually break out. According to Bushnell, the year-round training and preparation is part of why the Helena Aviation Center has a permanent staff.
“We’re happy they can be such a great asset to fight the fires,” Wadekamper said. “Fire planes coordinating around commercial and regular airline flights, being so close and working together to fight these fires — it’s pretty seamless.”