Back in 1994, a year-old air-tanker company was established in Missoula, Montana. Neptune Aviation was one of 14 aviation services that operated a...
10 Tanker: The Wildfire Globe Trotter
Arizona. California. Colorado. Canada. Chile. Australia. These are just a few of the places 10 Tanker Air Carrier has fought wildfires over the last two decades. This globe-trotting air-tanker purveyor has a rich history of opening up new markets for aerial firefighting and excelling at putting out the blazes.
Begun in 2002 by visionary CEO Rick Hatton, 10 Tanker made an immediate splash and oftentimes defied conventional wisdom.
When the federal land agencies expressed no interest in giving 10 Tanker a contract, Hatton went to the California state fire agency, CAL FIRE, and won a multi-year contract with them. When the feds finally did take a serious look at hiring DC-10s to fight fires, a new term was applied: VLAT (Very Large Air Tanker), because this was a new breed of firefighting aircraft which dwarfed the existing 3,000-gallon heavies that had preceded it, boasting a drop capacity of over 9,000 gallons.
And when foreign customers started expressing an interest in bringing DC-10s to their countries to fight fires, 10 Tanker rose to that challenge as well.
- The Next Generation
- The Ups and Downs of Business
- Seasonal Outlook
- Another Tool in the Toolbox
- A Look Ahead
10 Tanker – the Next Generation
Now, under the leadership of their current CEO, John Gould, 10 Tanker’s fleet stands at four of the massive former DC-10 airliners. Gould took time out of a busy schedule to share some insights on 10 Tanker’s place in the world of wildland firefighting. And like the company, he’s done extensive flying over fires – before parachuting into them!
“I’ve spent 37 years as a wildland firefighter, most of that as a smokejumper with the Bureau of Land Management,” he explained. “I spent my whole smokejumper career up in Alaska. I jumped fires from almost every base there is in the U.S. over the years, in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, and Nevada. The last 10-15 years I ran large fire programs for the Department of the Interior, which is where I met the guys from 10 Tanker.”
The guys from 10 Tanker liked what they saw in Gould.
“When I was 57 they asked me if I’d come and work for them. I came at this job as President of 10 Tanker from a different angle from most folks. Most of my career was about fire aviation as a smokejumper spotter, air tactical group supervisor, and as a pilot. So I was no stranger to that kind of job when I got here. It helps, because I learned a lot and still know a lot of people in the business.”
Over his years at 10 Tanker, Gould has worked his way up through the ranks as Business Manager, President, and now, CEO.
The Ups and Downs of Business
So how’s business? “It’s been a good winter for us,” Gould confided. “Like everybody, last summer was really slow, way down from 2018 in North America. We haven’t had a year down that far in quite some time. It started late and it never really got going. A couple of times we thought it was going to get going, but some moderating weather would come through. We had a couple of planes that were on Call When Needed (CWN), but we only got about a week of business on each one, which was tough. It wasn’t a lot of work for half-a-year for the fleet. It’s hard to pay the bank when expensive aircraft are sitting idle. Then California got going at the end of the year.”
And then came Black Summer Down Under.
“We had a good season down in Australia. It saved our year. We’ve still got two airplanes down there. One’s coming home day after tomorrow, and the other one will come back at the end of March,” Gould noted.
“The Australians wanted to keep our airplanes there as a precaution through what is their late fall. They’ve been happy that our planes were there. We haven’t flown any missions since the rains hit. Before that, we had 250-260 fire runs, which is a crazy amount.
“We had three planes down there, but the last one down, Tanker 914, has yet to fly a mission,” he continued. “Most of our runs were with Tanker 911, which was sent down in November, and the second one to arrive, Tanker 912, got about 50 missions. The season just kept going and going, through December and January, with no days off. At the end of February Tanker 911 had to come back for heavy maintenance. When they asked for additional planes, we had one in an “A” Check and a couple that were going through “C” Check (after the busy end of the North American season), so we struggled a bit to get them down there when they wanted them. And it never works well to pull planes out of “C” Check as fast as you can. Everybody wants them there as fast as possible, but it takes time to mobilize resources.
Needless to say, this wasn’t 10 Tanker’s first rodeo Down Under.
“We’ve been down in Australia for a number of years, but this time it was a different season from anything we’ve ever seen,” said Gould.
“We’ve seen big fires in North America, and it seems like every year some of the big ones have fire behavior like we’ve never seen before, which was kind of what we felt seeing these fires in Australia. They were in a category that was beyond what we’d witnessed to this point. I think the worst season we’d seen in past years, we flew maybe 65 runs. This time, it was hundreds. And it was just day after day after day.” Which is why, unlike previous major fires like the Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, and Black Friday fires, this collection was labeled collectively as the ‘Black Summer’ fires.
“We started to worry about what such a busy season would mean for our heavy maintenance, which is all scheduled out. We put so many cycles on these airplanes, especially Tanker 911, but it’s in its “A” Check right now, so we’ll get it back out soon.”
Where does 10 Tanker turn to find crew members for their workhorse DC-10s? “When we started out, we got most of our pilots out of the large transport category aircraft world, guys who flew for World Airways or Omni or whoever,” Gould explained. “Lately we’ve been trying to get more guys who have come out of the fire world – lead plane pilots or smokejumper plane pilots. We’ve got pilots who come from a lot of different backgrounds. We spend a few years getting them experience after typing them in the DC-10, and they bring us a lot of knowledge about the Fire Traffic Area, the way fires work. Right now we look for pilots who come from that world with aptitude and the right attitude. We treat them pretty well and they like flying the airplane. We have some guys in their late 50’s and a couple of guys in their early 60’s, but it doesn’t matter, they’re all good pilots.”
And unlike the airline industry, where there can be a specified retirement age, air-tanker pilots can work well beyond that age if they are still competent at what they do.
So what about the coming fire season in the Northern Hemisphere? “I think it’s shaping up good,” Gould said. But like everybody else in the air-tanker business, he’s waiting to see what the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is doing with its contracting this year. “We’ve got two Exclusive Use (EU) contracts which are both starting in April. We’ll start one early April and the other late April, then we’ll see what USFS decides with their contracts. I think this year will be a bit more active than last year. But through all my years as a firefighter, the thing I’ve learned is that I’ll tell you what the fire season is going to be like when I get to November,” he added with a chuckle.
“We have four DC-10s that are active right now, and we don’t have any solid plans to do anything more. We’re waiting to see how the USFS contracts situation settles out and then we’ll decide after that whether we build another one, or two more, or no more. USFS awarded the CWN contracts in January, with most of the same players, though it was a little more crowded than the last time on CWN. I don’t know where USFS is at with Next Gen 3 contracts. But we think there’s going to be five line items on that. They would have 18 air-tankers and fill in the rest of their needs with CWNs."
Another Tool in the Toolbox
When asked about his thoughts on initial attack on wildfires, Gould had this to say.
“I think there are some people who have made a career chasing after fires with aircraft that are too small. Their first priority is cost control, not getting a handle on the fire. In my fire career I’ve seen it a thousand times: we’ll chase after a fire all afternoon and we never catch up, and the next day we go and do it all over again. So it makes sense to me to do your initial attack with an airplane that allows you to put a circle around a fire within the first hour and let the firefighters put it out. So to say you’re going to chase after initial attack fires with small airplanes seems a bit short-sighted, so some people need to change their plan a bit if that’s the case. Some people want to save $100,000 on an initial attack fire and they see it turn into a $100 million fire. So, where do you spend the money?”
Nevertheless, he sees the virtue in a variety of firefighting aircraft at a fire.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for every tool we’ve got in the toolbox. I’ve been on many fires where we used a SEAT or a Type 3 helicopter very effectively, but all things considered, with the state of the fuels out there and how dry they get, along with the temperature and humidity we’re dealing with, when we get a new start, it’s not the same as what we saw back in 1980 or 1990 or 2000, and it’s better to have all the muscle you can get early on a fire. These are starts that move faster and get larger, so it makes sense to think about a different tool to get after those things with. And that’s where we fit in."
“People have learned a lot about the DC-10 VLAT in the last 15 years, and I think the demand for our airplane increases all the time. It’s not ‘how much does a DC-10 cost to sit at an air-tanker base’ or ‘how much does it cost to fly,’ but rather how cheaply can you get retardant on the ground in support of the firefighters. What we do in an hour it takes other airplanes three hours to do. I think we put the line in cheaper than anybody else out there, and that’s the name of the game.” After all, how much more is it going to cost if the retardant line isn’t put down in time and a bunch of homes burn?"
“It’s a hard argument for some people to wrap their arms around intellectually,” Gould confesses. “The economies of scale are real, but when it comes down to contracting an airplane, how do you budget for this airplane instead of that airplane?”
But if you don’t budget for air-tankers, it can cost much, much more, like Southern California’s Station Fire in 2009, where two Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel died in the blaze after air attack on the fire began late, allowing the blaze to get away from firefighters. A quarter of the Angeles National Forest burned before the fire was finally contained and it remains the largest wildfire to ever burn in Los Angeles County.
“If you run a program, you want to run it as efficiently as you can. But we’re an emergency response industry and you have to understand that it costs money to do things right. If we could do it for nothing, we’d be doing it for nothing. But in today’s world, resources at risk are so valuable that you have to make sure you get it right the first time,” he concluded.
“There’s some folks out there who are still planning to fight the fires they fought in 1975 and 1985. But there’s a new generation of guys out there who know what they’re doing and know what the best tools to use will be.”
A Look Ahead
Having had a successful run to date, what does Gould see in 10 Tanker’s future? “We believe that aerial firefighting is becoming more of an international business. A year ago February we spent six weeks down in Chile, then went back to Australia last year. I think that the Southern Hemisphere is the market where we see more work. There are countries down there that have the organizational skills to fight fires and they have the budgets to do it, and the demand is there, so I expect that that is going to continue. We have a business development manager who looks for work for us all around the world. One of the exciting things about being in this job is that you find work all over the world. Fires are happening in South America, in Europe, and in Southeast Asia because of climate change. We go out, find a customer, and find out how what we do fits into their program.”
Intel is useful as well.
“Every time I get Wildfire News of the Day I see that, unlike even just five years ago when there was nothing going on in January, February, there are things going on now, like a fire I saw in your newsletter three or four weeks ago about wildfires in Austria in January. So what does that tell you about the state of drought conditions over there? Things are changing.”
But for 10 Tanker, one thing remains constant: the need for VLATs that can paint line to protect lives and property from encroaching wildfires. You will continue to see DC-10s over wildfires, doing the job it might take half-a-dozen smaller planes to do.