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Airborne fire-fighters often confront awesome conflagrations

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles on Tuesday, 31 July 2012

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This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 757 published on 17th July 1976.

CL-215, picture, image, illustration

The Canadair CL-215 in action over an extensive forest fire by Wilf Hardy

Bobbing helplessly on the sea in their life raft, the men from the trawler that had broken its back on a ridge of submerged rocks, waved frantically as a plane began searching overhead.

The distress radio signal, transmitted by their raft’s emergency equipment, had enabled the aircraft to “home in” on them.

Suddenly, a rocket fired from the raft streaked through the black sky, bursting into a blaze of light that floodlit the survivors on the water.

At once, the pilot began to descend towards the sea, aware that the floats on his flying boat would enable the plane to remain buoyant in the water while the men were helped on board.

Two more lives had been saved by the versatile Canadair CL-215, a twin-engined, high wing, amphibious flying boat powered by engines of the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 series.

It was built when the Canadian aircraft company, Canadair, designed a fire-fighting plane and developed it into one that had many purposes. In addition to bombing forest fires with water, the CL-215 can carry people or cargo. It can be used as a fishery protection plane, for it is able to land on the water and lift fishermen to safety, or to spread insecticide.

Its principal job is to put out forest fires, which can destroy vast areas of valuable timber, and threaten animal and human lives and homes. Carrying 1,200 gallons (5,400 litres) of water, which by landing on its floats it scoops up from Canada’s lakes, the CL-215 can drop its water load in less than a second. This load covers a very large area with the equivalent of 1 mm of rain.

A typical fire would have dried this out within 15 minutes. So, to have any chance of controlling a fire, a CL-215 must drop a load every eight to ten minutes. This shows how important it is for the plane to be able to recharge its tanks while taxi-ing across a lake or on the sea.

So that the water load can be dropped, two hinged doors along the outboard edge are opened. For water scooping, there are two retractable probes, one for each tank.

Water is forced directly into the tanks, with the probes extended, by the forward velocity of the aircraft.

Provision can be made for the plane to carry eighteen folding canvas seats or nine stretchers. But when the plane is wanted for the evacuation of people in an emergency, up to 36 passengers can be carried.

In these jet engine days, it is unusual for an aircraft of the size of the CL-215 to be powered by internal combustion engines. However, these were chosen for their fuel economy, the power plants being Pratt & Whitney eighteen-cylinder, two-row, air-cooled R-2800 Double Wasp radials, each developing 2,100 bhp for take-off.

Each drives a three-blade, constant speed, fully feathering propeller which gives the plane a cruising speed of 181 mph. Its range, with a 3,500 lb. payload, is 1,405 miles.

Apart from Canada, these planes are also used in Spain, France and Greece. With these nations, the plane has established a fine reputation for fire-fighting efficiency.

A good example of their use is given by experiences in France, where the country was losing more timber annually than it was able to grow.

Typical of the fire-fighting operations of which these planes are capable was one carried out in Canada where several forest fires broke out near a town of 20,000 people.

Six planes were deployed to attack the fire. The pilot of one of these saw the fire sweeping through the tops of the trees. In its path lay a railway junction, a propane and petrol store, a brewery and the town.

At the same time, a second fire broke out 1¬Ω miles to the east. To fight these, the six aircraft began a rapid and accurate attack on the two fires, and soon their tremendous loads of water were falling on the fires at one minute intervals.

Now and again one of the aircraft dropped its load of water on to the roofs of nearby houses to protect them from flying embers.

Eventually, the fire was quelled within a short distance of the propane plant, close to the brewery and almost at the back gardens of many houses.

In two hours, the aircraft had made 65 drops and drowned the fire with 33 tons of water. This operation had saved thousands of pounds worth of property and amply repaid the cost of the operation. And it proved the value of this aircraft as an efficient fire-fighter destined to save lives, property and woodland wherever threats to them exist in the future.

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