Toys of a Different Sort

The weekend of 6/5 found me teaching a dual cross country here in central AZ. Unknowingly, as I advised my student to plan a route Chandler->Safford-San Manuel->Chandler, the Wallow Fire was getting started, located about 60 nautical miles north of Safford. I didn’t expect visibility 10 to 15 in smoke for the day of the flight, but that’s what we had, and it became a useful exercise in VFR pilotage without the usual great visibility.

Landing at the end of the first leg, I noticed 2 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) tied down at the fire suppression base near to the fuel pump. Seeing them, I couldn’t resist a couple of photos of machines one just doesn’t see everyday. At first, this looks like an ordinary crop-duster; perhaps a typical ordinary little airplane with a tailwheel:

Air Tractor AT802 parked at KSAD

Just an average small airplane, right? Not so fast…

Walk up to this machine and you realize it’s more than a little larger than just “average”. With a 5-blade Hartzell propeller being driven by an uprated P&W PT-6 breathing through 2 huge exhaust stacks, there’s clearly a chunk of horsepower hanging off the nose. Walking up to the tailwheel, I realize that it’s a 6.25, more than the mains on the 172 we just showed up in:

AT802's 6.25 tailwheel - proof this airplane carries a little weight...

At the time, I didn’t have the presence of mind to note the size of the main gear wheels (big…with double-caliper brakes), yet this machine really makes an impression once you get close-up. Observing that the entire center-section of the fuselage over the C/G is one big monster tank (and can be emptied almost all at once), you realize that this is one serious piece of flying hardware.

Located next to it at the base is a big poly mixing tank with 2 good-size gasoline-engine pumps feeding hoses that load the slurry mixture onboard. Behind that mixing tank are several other more permanent tanks containing various materials for final mixing to spec before loading. It looks as if, once the loading operation is running, someone is mixing into the poly loading tank between airplanes, possibly continuously, and as soon as an airplane pulls up, the hose is connected, and pumps started to load several hundred gallons into the airplane as soon as practical. With this setup, a crew can turn over loads of retardant very, very quickly.

After we left, I began thinking about what it might be like to fly one of these. Obviously, it’s not a hot rod like we’d typically think of it; it’s a machine meant to move large liquid loads over tight spaces at low altitude. It has to lift lots of weight, maneuver it to a specific point at less than a few hundred feet, unload all at once, and then head back for more (at which point it probably does seem like a hot rod). Thinking about the size, it seemed as if it’s slightly larger than an airplane many pilots would consider the definitive piston-engine hot-rod; the North American P-51 of WWII.

How close would they be? Let’s see:

Air Tractor AT802:
Length: 35′ 11″
Wingspan: 59’3″
Empty Weight: 6505lb
Gross Weight: 16000lb
Cruise: 221mph
Power:  1350hp
Service Ceiling: 25000′

North American Aviation P51D:
Length: 32′ 3″
Wingspan: 37’0″
Empty Weight: 7635lb
Gross Weight: 12100lb
Cruise: 362mph
Power:  1490hp
Service Ceiling: 41900′

Thus the P-51 has a smaller, lower-drag wing, optimized for speed and maneuverability at altitude and speed. The AT-802 has a large, high-lift wing optimized for load carrying and maneuverability at low altitude and low speed. Other than that, they do spec a lot alike.

Both are quite a bit more airplane than the N-model 172 we were flying…but that’s OK, we could afford that.

All fun aside, note that the haze in the background of the photo is residual smoke from the Wallow fire, which was under 100K acres when this was taken. As I write this, six days later, it has become a 430K acre monstrosity that now spans into New Mexico, and is still only 5% contained. In the southwest, we haven’t seen a wildland fire this bad for a long time, and my best wishes and prayers go out to the displaced families, and the guys and gals both on the ground and in the air fighting this awful beast, as these airplanes are likely doing right now…



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