You’ve seen those massive jets fighting Colorado’s wildfires. Meet the pilots who get “down and dirty” flying them. |

You’ve seen those massive jets fighting Colorado’s wildfires. Meet the pilots who get “down and dirty” flying them.

A pair of DC-10 widebody jets from New Mexico dump 10,000 gallons of retardant in a single trip as part of an expanding, quick-strike aerial strategy.

Jason Blevins / Colorado Sun
A DC-10-30 crests the the hillside above the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park gondola, dropping a load of firefighting slurry on the Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs. The plane is part of 10 Tankers' fleet of firefighting planes, many of which are working three large fires in western Colorado.
Nick Kuhlmann, Special to The Colorado Sun

When he’s nosing his widebody jet into narrow, smoke-choked Colorado canyons, Capt. Dan Montelli says that’s when things get  “sporty.”

It’s smoky. The massive jet with a 155-foot wingspan is barreling 300-feet off the deck. The trees that are 150-feet tall feel like they are tickling the plane’s belly. The flames can be taller than those trees. His three engines are screaming as his wings dip below the canyon walls. As his flight engineer releases up to 10,000 gallons of fire retardant on the flames below, the plane wants to climb. Montelli has to jam down on the yoke, a counterintuitive move for a pilot captaining a jetliner a few hundred feet above craggy, flaming mountain terrain.

“It’s unreal and eye-opening for someone who is new to this,” says Montelli, a former military pilot who captains DC-10s for 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the New Mexico-based operation with two of its massive air tankers working Colorado fires from the Colorado Springs Airport.

The mundanely-named Very Large Air Tankers, like 10 Tankers’ DC-10s, are changing the game for modern wildland firefighting. With bellies spewing fire-snuffing retardant, the airliners prowling Colorado’s skies are helping ground crews battling the Pine Gulch, Grizzly Creek and Cameron Peak fires. The planes that once carried as many as 380 passengers are the newest tool in a growing arsenal of aerial strategies deployed by federal firefighters trying to beat back wildfires that are exploding after a particularly parched summer in a warming, arid climate.

10 Tanker Air Carrier started in 2006 and now has four DC-10s that work with the U.S. Forest Service fighting wildfires. Since 2007, the company has received $102.7 million in federal firefighting contracts, including a 10-year, $70 million contract for on-call fire suppression services awarded in 2013 by the Forest Service’s National Interagency Fire Center. In the winter, the Albuquerque-based company sends its tankers to fires in Chile and Australia. 

The company’s DC-10 air tankers’ 10,000-gallon capacity translates to about 94,000 pounds of retardant split between three tanks in the belly of the aircraft. With three jet engines, the DC-10 has a “humongous power-to-freight ratio,” says Rob Burrus, 10 Tanker’s head of operations. 

“Every time we drop a single load, it’s like three loads by a Large Air Tanker,” Burrus says.

And those big loads are essential right now in Colorado. More than 2,400 firefighters were in Colorado Wednesday fighting the four largest fires burning in the state.

The Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction ballooned to 125,100 acres with only 7% containment on Wednesday, making it the second largest fire in Colorado history. The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon grew to 28,030 acres with 4% containment. The Williams Fork Fire in Grand County was at 6,726 acres Wednesday afternoon, with 3% containment. And the Cameron Peak Fire north of Rocky Mountain National Park was nearing 16,000 acres Wednesday, with 0% containment. 

To read the rest of the Colorado Sun, click here.

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