Firefighting Planes: An In-Depth Guide

Published:January 3, 2023
Edited:
February 21, 2024

Explore the details behind the most popular firefighting planes used in the fire service. From the single-engine air tanker to water scoopers to air attack planes.

A large white plane with a red stripe behind the cockpit, red on the tail, & four propellers on the wings. The side reads 'Coast Guard.'
Air Tractor AT-802

Firefighting planes are an essential tool to help get large fires under control. There are many types of firefighting planes, which we will cover one by one in the following guide.

Plane Type #1: Single Engine Airtanker (SEAT)

Aircraft Types: Air Tractor AT-8021

Top Speed: 221 mph2

Capacity: up to 800 gallons of fire retardant

The single-engine airtanker (SEAT) is the smallest of the firefighting planes. It is mostly used to put out hotspots – areas of land where a fire has either just started or is hot enough to blaze up at any moment. Because of its small size, it only carries about 800 gallons of fire retardant. However, its size can also be an advantage, as it can easily land and take off on various types of terrain with very little runway.3

HC-130H Aircraft

Plane Type #2: Large Airtanker (LAT)

Aircraft Types: P2V, HC-130H, BAe-146, MD-87, C-130Q, RJ85, C-130 H & J

Top Speed: BAe-146 at 498 mph4

Capacity: 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of fire retardant

Large airtanker (LAT) planes, with their capacity for 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of fire-retardant, offer higher and more widespread coverage. This is helpful for putting out forest fires, as they can fly above the canopy. However, their size can make it difficult to land and take off.5

A very large white plane with an orange underside. Rows of windows run down the sides.
DC-10 Air Carrier

Plane Type #3: Very Large Airtanker (VLAT)

Aircraft Types: Boeing 747 Supertanker and DC-10

Top Speed: Boeing 747 Supertanker at 598 mph6

Capacity: over 8,000 gallons of fire retardant

Very large airtankers (VLATs) are extremely useful for dousing vast swaths of landscape in fire retardant. These planes are designed to hold over 8,000 gallons and dispense at 250 ft above the ground or a forest canopy. The Boeing 747 Supertanker can hold up to 24,000 gallons.7

A small yellow plane with red on the underside & red side stripes. It is dumping water from the underside.
Bombardier CL-415 Aircraft

Plane Type #4: Water Scooper

Aircraft Types: Bombardier CL-415 and Air Tractor Fire Boss

Top Speed: Bombardier CL-415 at 223 mph8

Capacity: up to 1,600 gallons of water

A water scooper is exactly what it sounds like; a small plane that flies just over a body of water, such as a lake, and intake up to 1,600 gallons in a span of about 12 seconds. This allows it to refill its water reservoirs at near full speed without having to circle back to a water station. They fly low, no more than 150 ft above ground level, so that they can more accurately dispense water on specific areas to help keep the fire from spreading.9

A large white plane with two propellers on the wings. Equipment dangles from ropes beneath it.
Smokejumper Aircraft

Plane Type #5: Smokejumper Aircraft

Aircraft Types: DeHavilland DH-6 300 series Twin Otter, Short Sherpa C-23A and SD3-60, Dornier 228, and CASA 212

Top Speed: Dornier 228 at 269 mph10

Capacity: 8-10 smokejumpers

Smokejumpers are firefighters who are specially trained to fight fires. The smokejumper aircraft drops 8-10 of them, as well as cargo, into areas where a wildfire is burning close by. In some cases, this is the only means of transport to a wildfire, depending on where it’s burning and if the roads leading to it are blocked.11

A small white passenger plane with two propellers on the wings. It has 3 windows on the side.
Beechcraft King Air 90

Plane Type #6: Aerial Supervision Module/Lead Plane

Aircraft Types: Beechcraft King Air 90 and King Air 200

Top Speed: Beechcraft King Air 90 at 311 mph12

Aerial supervision modules, also known as lead planes, are typically the types of firefighting planes to head to the scene of a wildfire first. Their job is to assess the area for the rest of their team. They also mark the areas where airtankers should dispense their fire retardants by releasing a plume of white smoke.13

A small white passenger plane with two propellers on the wings.
Twin Commander Aircraft

Plane Type #7: Air Attack Plane

Aircraft Types: Twin Commander 500 and 600

Top Speed: Twin Commander 600 at 498 mph14

Air attack planes are small, highly maneuverable planes that allow the leader of the air contingent of firefighters to get up close and personal with the wildfire. From the vantage point of a Twin Commander 500 or 600, the Air Tactical Group Supervisor can choose access points to the wildfire for the units on the ground as well as decide where the air tankers should dispense fire retardant.15

Visit the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA) blog for more helpful guides to anything and everything you need to know about wildfires.

Sources

  1.  Forest Service, “Managing the Land – Fire Management – Planes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  2. Aerospace Technology, “Air Tractor AT-802 Firefighting Aircraft.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  3. AeroCorner, “7 Different Types of Firefighting Airplanes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  4.  Aerospace Technology, “BAE 146.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  5. AeroCorner, “7 Different Types of Firefighting Airplanes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  6. AeroCorner, “Boeing 747 Supertanker.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  7. AeroCorner, “7 Different Types of Firefighting Airplanes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  8. WinAir, “Everything that You Need to Know About the Canadair CL-415.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  9. AeroCorner, “7 Different Types of Firefighting Airplanes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  10. Airliners, “Dornier 228.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  11. AeroCorner, “7 Different Types of Firefighting Airplanes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  12. Executive Fliteways, “King Air C90.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  13. AeroCorner, “7 Different Types of Firefighting Airplanes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  14. Global Air, “Twin Commander Twin Commander 690.” Accessed December 10, 2022.
  15. AeroCorner, “7 Different Types of Firefighting Airplanes.” Accessed December 10, 2022.

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