In the first four months of this year there were 22,500 wildfires recorded across the United States affecting more than 2.2 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center — and that was before the prime summer wildfire season had even started. Aviation is key to maintaining around-the-clock vigilance for wildfires and, when one is reported, aircraft are typically the first on the scene to assess the situation and coordinate a response.
Twin Commanders have taken the lead for one company that’s contracted by federal agencies to assist in fire-fighting efforts. According to Shawn Perry, director of operations for Ponderosa Aviation in Safford, Arizona, Commanders are uniquely qualified for the demanding aerial reconnaissance role that they play in the fire-fighting mission.
The high-mounted wing, which provides excellent air-to-ground visibility, is the key to the Commander’s effectiveness in observing wildfires, Perry says, adding there’s a lot more to like. “We like Commanders for the low cost of operation, the good payload and performance, and it’s a bulletproof airplane if it’s maintained properly,” he says. “Above all else, our customers enjoy it because of the visibility, the stability, and the platform.”
The “customers” Perry refers to are the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the two federal agencies with primary responsibility for battling wildfires throughout the U.S. Both agencies contract with private operators like Ponderosa for “air attack” aerial support. The term refers to aircraft that are first responders to reports of a wildfire. A pilot and a tactical supervisor who represents the USFS or BLM launch in a Commander from a tanker base to locate the fire, and then will loiter for hours around the fire — up to 4.5 hours for the piston Commanders, and 5.5 hours for the turbines — at about 2,500 feet AGL to coordinate ground fire-fighting units and air tankers that disperse fire-retardant chemicals on the blaze.
Ponderosa Aviation has 21 Commanders in its fleet, including 13 500S Shrikes, a 500B, a 500U, a pair of 680Vs, a 680W, and three 690Bs. Among the Shrikes is the first Commander that Ponderosa bought. That was in 1975, just a year after the company was founded. It had 800 hours on it then; today, with 21,000 hours on the airframe, it’s Ponderosa’s fleet leader.
Over the years Ponderosa has operated just about every model piston Commander built, including the 700. The company’s future will see more turbine Commanders on the line, according to Perry. “We like the 690B,” he says. “That’s what we’re moving toward. We’re slowly phasing out piston aircraft in favor of the 690B.”
In Kern County, California, officials are forecasting a busy fire season this year. Winter and spring precipitation reached record levels, which virtually eliminated drought conditions but led to explosive growth of vegetation. Once that lush vegetation dries out, the fire hazard will rise, officials note. The fire season normally begins during the month of May, but grass fires had already broken out weeks earlier.
The county, which has operated a Grand Renaissance Twin Commander for several years in the air attack role, experienced four major fires (over 1,000 acres each) in 2010. Two of the four fires destroyed homes in the towns of Tehachapi and River Kern. The county’s Twin Commander flew more than 100 hours last year in its fire suppression role.