by Bill Lavender
From a modest beginning in the 1940s, the North Carolina Forest Service (NCFS) aviation program has grown into a formidable fire management tool. The original force was composed of Piper observation planes and surplus Navy N3Ns, used as water bombers.
Today, the agency operates 23 aircraft, including 18 fixed wing aircraft and five helicopters (three Bell UH1Hs and two Astar 350B3s). Their response time to emergencies can be measured in minutes. Aircraft are utilized for fire mitigation, detection, suppression and directing suppression activities. They’re also used in a variety of forest management missions such as assessing storm damage to forests after a storm and other forest health related activities.
The SEAT Program is based at Kinston Regional Airport, at Stallings Field (KISO), which is one of three aviation hubs. The NCFS aerial fleet operates anywhere in the state where it is needed to fight wildfires. For instance, a good deal of the NCFS aerial fleet was used in the mountains this fall. The recently purchased AT-802F was delivered to North Carolina on November 16, 2016, at the same time as many wildfires were raging in the North Carolina mountains. However, while the AT-802F was dispatched for standby near the fires towards the end of November, it was not used at that time.
The NCFS Aviation Program has been advocating to update their fleet for a long time. Prior to the arrival of the AT-802F, the NCFS aerial fleet had three M18 Dromaders and one S2R 600 Thrush. These aircraft have flown in the NCFS Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) program for 22 years. A year ago, one of the Dromader engines needed replacing, costing the state almost $100,000; this is after two previous engine replacements. North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler went before the North Carolina legislature in the spring of 2016 to appeal for funding to buy the new AT-802F and update ground support equipment. The North Carolina legislature recognized the need to upgrade the NCFS aerial fleet and appropriated the needed funding. The AT-802F was purchased with a price tag of nearly $2 million through Southeastern Aircraft Sales, an Air Tractor dealer in Fort Pierce, Florida. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is the parent agency of the NCFS.
The AT-802F Air Tractor is powered by a PT6A-67F engine that develops 1,425 SHP. The aircraft has fully operational dual controls in its dual cockpit configuration. In addition, it uses Garmin GNC 650 and Garmin 796 navigation systems and has the Air Tractor Gen II Fire Retardant Delivery System (FRDS) fire gate built by Trotter Controls. While it uses other products, the delivery system mainly uses FireIce as its fire suppressant. Approximately five gallons of FireIce are injected through the load hose with a vacuum system as 800 gallons of water are pumped into the hopper, producing a true solution that doesn’t need agitation.
In addition to aerial firefighting, the AT-802F is being used to train NCFS SEAT pilots. Chief SEAT pilot Wayne Slaughter is designated, by the Air Tractor factory, as an authorized AT-802 instructor based on his previous experience flying Air Tractors as an ag-pilot. This permits Slaughter to train NCFS SEAT pilots and endorse their logbooks as qualified to fly the aircraft. Of the three NCFS SEAT pilots he has been training, one has been signed off and the other two are still working to complete their logbooks as of this writing. The flight training in the AT-802F is made in accordance with the required FAA Exemption No. 5651 that allows a pilot to fly the aircraft in excess of 12,500 pounds gross weight without a type certificate.
Prior to the purchase of the AT-802F, the NCFS used piston-powered T-34Bs as lead planes for the M18 Dromaders to make water drops. With the increased airspeed of the AT-802F, the state updated their lead planes with the acquisition of two turbine powered T-34Cs through the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. Through an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, the NCFS is allowed to obtain Federal Excess Personal Property from the federal government for use in fighting fires.
Since the delivery of the AT-802F, one M18B Dromader and the S2R 600 Thrush have been sold. The remaining two M18A Dromaders may be for sale if the NCFS acquires more AT-802s in the future. The plan is to replace them with single seat AT-802F Air Tractors.
Taking delivery of the AT-802F Air Tractor are (L-R): North Carolina State Senator Brent Jackson, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, North Carolina Forestry Service SEAT pilot Wayne Slaughter and North Carolina State Representative Jimmy Dixon.
T-34/T-34 Final paint:
One of the recently acquired T-34C in its Navy colors before being painted to the North Carolina Forestry Service’s aerial aircraft paint scheme.
North Carolina Forestry Service’s new Air Tractor AT-802F ready to work. The state self insures its aircraft.
(L-R) North Carolina Forestry Service SEAT pilots Wayne Slaughter, Shannon Coleman, Shane Caison with North Carolina State Chief Pilot and Lead Plane Pilot Robert Delleo.