MESA — Its dropped more than 11 million gallons of fire retardant, flown 1195 missions, and battled wildfires around the world.
The DC-10 is a critical firefighting asset but before it can take to the skies, its mission starts at the US Forestry Tanker Base at Mesa Gateway Airport.
“Fire retardant crew members, they’re organized and they’re getting ready to fill the plane,” said Fred Phillips with US Forestry. “A team will take that hose out to the plane and another member is by the pumps balancing out the mixture of retardant.”
Within an hour of our arrival Thursday morning, it was time for action. Dispatch operators inside what looks like mission control, are alerted of a new fire out of the state. The information is quickly relayed to the flight crews; where they're going and what they’ll be facing.
“It’s broken down into initial attack, aircraft desk, we have fire calls, this is the first call when somethings reported,” said Tonto National Forest Spokesperson Denise Croker, pointing to the workstations set up inside the airbase.
The massive DC-10 aircraft, which measures 180 feet in length and more than 4 stories tall, can be pumped with more than 9,000 gallons of retardant at a time. Many times it depends on the mission, only carrying what they need.
So far this year, crews at Mesa Gateway have already used more than 4 times the amount of retardant they would normally use in an average fire season.
“We have incredibly dry conditions out there and the risk of wildfires is tremendous at the moment,” said Croker.
“We saved a lot of weight by removing the interior,” said DC-10 lead mechanic Chris Larchick.
Once a commercial airliner, the guts are now gone. Making room for specialized equipment and tools.
It’s lighter, more maneuverable, and uses less fuel, ready to go at a moment's notice.
“We have everything we need on board to go from base to base because our schedules could be changed in five minutes; we never know what the days going to be like or how long it’s going to be,” said Larchick.
Mesa Gateway Airport is one of just a handful of bases in the country with the infrastructure capable of launching and refilling these tankers.
In just 16 minutes from the initial call out, the aircraft can be ready for launch.
Two lead planes take off first, then massive turbine engines of the DC-10 roar across the runway.
Taking flight with ease, the massive tanker continues to be a symbol of unmatched aerial firefighting and one our state will continue to depend on.