Clad in an olive green Nomex flight suit and white helmet, pilot Chris Bohan climbs into a red and white Air Tractor 802 on Monday.
Deep in the woods — on a windy, but warm and sunny morning near Black Moshannon State Park — a ground crew fills the one-seat, single-engine plane with 800 gallons of water and blue dye, and then into the sky it goes for a test run.
Bohan takes the plane up and does a loop.
The pilot does a dry run so the people on the fire line know he’s there, said Larry Bickel, public information officer for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry.
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Bohan brings the plane around again and drops 400 gallons — a blue mist drifts down and lands on a field next to the Moshannon Wildfire Air Operations Center at the Mid-State Regional Airport.
After a second drop, he comes back down to earth and waits as another 800 gallons flow into the plane.
Bohan, a former military pilot who’s been flying general aviation since the ’80s, is on contract with the DCNR until at least May 5.
When wildfires in the state are a high threat, air support gets called in, and Bohan suits up. Another pilot is set to join him soon, with another Air Tractor.
Add in a Bell 206 (JetRanger) helicopter — which has a basket that can drop 80 gallons of water — and that rounds out the firefighting aircraft available for dispatch from the Moshannon air tanker base during wildfire season.
The air drops on Monday served as a trial run, a way to make sure everything’s ready to go before wildfire season kicks into gear.
Joe Miller is the Moshannon air tanker base manager, and he’s been working there since 1980.
“No one’s been doing this longer than I have,” said Miller, who was recognized on Friday for 40 years of service to the commonwealth.
When a call for a wildfire comes in and it’s determined that an aircraft is required, Miller sticks a pin in the fire’s location on the giant 20-by-10-foot map on the wall of the base’s office.
The map is set up with compasses around the air tanker bases and fire towers, so that Miller can determine the bearing and then measure how far away the fire is from the base, he said. Around the perimeter of the map are 5-minute markings of latitude and longitude.
It’s also marked with red and yellow lines — red indicate forest districts (there are 20 in the state) and yellow indicate high-speed, low-level military training routes, he said.
When Jason Williams, aircraft operations and safety specialist, first saw the map, he said he thought the base needed an update and to start working on the computer — until he realized the map works better.
“It’s so simple using this old-fashioned, old technology here to easily just plot it out and send them,” Williams said.
Once the pilot has all the necessary information, Miller and others, including 50-year volunteer George Straka, load the plane with a mixture of 800 gallons of water, three gallons of retardant and colored dye (so the pilot can see where he’s dropped from the air), Miller said.
Air Tractor 802s can hold 800 gallons of water, which mixed with 3 gallons of retardant and a colored dye helps fight wildfires
Then, he said, they make sure the pilot and guy on the ground have made contact by radio.
“Once they’ve done that, I’m very happy,” he said.
A remote airport, with less traffic around, is necessary for air operations, which is why Mid-State works so well, Bickel said.
Moshannon isn’t the only air tanker base in the state. There’s another primary base at Hazleton. Alternate fill sites in Wyoming County, Williamsport and Bedford also have retardant.
He said last year the Moshannon base dispatched aircraft to 14 different incidents, but incidents can span days or even weeks.
There’s a certain amount of risk involved with using the aircraft, so we don’t use it unless it’s necessary.
John Hecker, district forester for Moshannon State Forest
“There’s a certain amount of risk involved with using the aircraft, so we don’t use it unless it’s necessary,” said John Hecker, district forester for Moshannon State Forest.
Sometimes the planes will get to the fires before the ground crews, Bickel said.
That’s because access can be difficult when wildfires are in heavily forested areas, with steep terrain and far away from roads, Hecker said.
“People on the ground have to put (the wildfire) out because you can’t hardly put it out with an airplane,” he said. “But you can slow it and give people on the ground time to get around it.”
Among the quirkier aspects of Joe Miller’s job is dealing with wildlife.
“We have to be concerned with porcupines. They love eating stuff,” he said.
They have to move the retardant in each night so the critters don’t eat “the ding dang thing,” Miller said with a laugh.