I’ve been lucky enough to fly a bunch of different airplanes. My first plane was a Cessna 140, the “fanciest” one that I’ve ever owned/flown is a P51 Mustang, and I’ve had a great time flying a lot of different “family haulers”. My kids still talk about different planes we had, times we flew, and places we saw.
Our SEAT is the Air Tractor 802. Genealogists would have a great time tracing the family lineage…from Leland Snow’s first creation of a “crop-duster” in South Texas back in the 50s, to his move to Olney, and his Snow and Air Tractor planes. Throughout much of the agricultural land of the nation, Thrushes and Air Tractors race back and forth across fields, stopping insects, fungus, and weeds; putting out seed and fertilizer.
(The story of Air Tractor and Leland Snow is worthy of a book. Briefly, Leland was a crop-duster who went to Texas A&M, became an aeronautical engineer, and decided to build a safer ag plane. After WWII, the surplus Stearmans became the de facto standard crop duster. The front seat was removed, a hopper and spray system installed, and they went to work. It wasn’t the most crashworthy in it’s standard configuration, and with the upper wing in the line of view as you came into the field, certain incidentals such as power lines were less visible. Leland created the “Snow” ag plane, and with the backing of the city of Olney, TX, moved there and put it into production. After several years it was sold to a corporate conglomerate who agreed, as part of buying the company, to keep in in Olney. Leland was loyal.
Shortly after buying the company, corporate headquarters moved the company to Georgia, renamed the Snow the “Thrush”, and shut down the Olney operation. Leland waited out the time of his non-compete contract, while designing a subsequent plane, the Air Tractor. As soon as the time was up, the Air Tractor was in production, and remains in production to this day…in Olney, TX.)
One of the downsides of writing stories is inevitably certain facts from the past come out, some of which my mother (probably) doesn’t know about. I spent some time in the 70s flying the Pawnee (another cropduster, piston powered, built by Piper). It, too, wasn’t terribly crashworthy. A few years ago when I decided to return to my roots in aviation (i.e., aerial application/ag pilot/crop duster) I became acquainted with the Mighty 802.
Leland had built a succession of planes, from the piston powered 301, up to the turbine powered 502 and 602. The piston engines were of surplus WWII sourcing, and have to this day a lovely sound of rumbling. But compared to turbines, they are rough, (relatively) unreliable, and much more maintenance intensive. I’ve got several thousand hours flying behind those radials, and I enjoy them a lot for play. But for work, it’s hard to beat a turbine. When it became obvious that there was a need for a new and improved single engine air tanker (SEAT), Leland created the 802. The original 802 was a two seat version, with an observer in the rear seat, and the pilot up front.
Through the airshow/formation network, I had met Jeff. He and I became friends while flying the North American T6, and had a great time flying formation. I approached him about my plan to resume ag flying, and he initially informed me I was crazy. Well, I think his phrase was more along the line of “you’re bat-guano crazy”. (This is a family read article, so, well…you get the drift). I was fortunate enough to get to fly with him in the Air Tractor 802 dual control two seat version. After doing spray runs with him in the 802 (with him in the BACK SEAT!), I am convinced that not only is he bat-guano crazy, he is also the best pilot with whom I’ve ever flown.
Flying the 802 is intimidating at first. It’s a big airplane. You don’t walk up and get in. You climb up steps, stand on the wing, and carefully placing a foot on the (tiny) footrest you lift yourself up to check the oil. You then climb into the window of the plane, holding onto an impossibly small piece of welding rod attached to the roof of the cabin, and lower yourself into the seat. Caution is advised, because it’s a long way down to the ground. (Leland made it crashworthy, not safe to climb up).
The seating is comfortable, and unlike a lot of other large tailwheel airplanes, you can see over the nose. The instrument panel is simple, except for the addition of a “light-bar”, Satloc screen, and Fire Gate control panel. The Satloc, and light bar are now the replacement for guys like me, who stood at the end of the field, waving a flag so the ag pilot could line up for his next run. It’s simple, really. All you have to do is line up a twitch set of lights (usually calibrated to show anywhere from a half-foot to 3 feet alignment), turn on the “money handle” (spray control), drop in the field, observe the boom pressure, make sure the nozzles are all spraying, keep the light bar lined up, spray off at the end of the field, get your turn lined up for the next run. Oh, did I mention that you’re not supposed to hit any wires or any trees?
The Fire Gate system is an excellent piece of engineering. Different coverage levels can be selected, the gate is computer controlled to allow dropping of fairly precise gallons of retardant, and it allows everything from a quick “bump” of the gate to drop off 50 or so gallons, to a “double bump” which releases the whole load, all at once. Pilots have been known to accidentally “double bump”, or even hold the button when working down a particularly exciting run. The designer quite correctly assumed that if a pilot was so involved with things that he gripped the handle too tightly, he might be in a spot requiring a quick reduction in load, so that too will “auto-salvo” the entire load. I can verify that procedure works.
After spending years starting the old radials, the turbine start seems strangely simple. Starter on, observe enough engine rpm (engine speed), and add fuel. Keep an eye on the temperatures, and if they start to get too high, turn the fuel off, and keep the starter running to keep an expensive flame from burning too hot. You would correctly assume that it’s not exactly that simple, or they would start student pilots on turbines, and only after lots of experience would they get to learn to start piston engines. The reality is that most of us start on pistons, where the mistakes usually aren’t expensive, and the worst thing that typically happens is that you drain the battery or burn out a starter. On a turbine, even a brief mistake in the procedure can completely destroy the engine in seconds. Accidentally let off the start switch at a critical point in the light-off? Expensive. Move the “condition lever” (us piston guys would think of it as the mixture) too far too fast? Expensive. Introduce fuel prior to a high enough rpm in the gas generator? Expensive. Attempted restart too soon, or downwind? Expensive.
Once the engine is started, “in feather” (prop blades turned sideways, so the prop turns much slower than when the blades are ready to take a “bite” of air), all is confirmed ready, the avionics (radios) are turned on, and the air conditioner is fired up. Ah, the bliss of the air conditioner. Taxi is similar to the T6, with a tail wheel that is either “locked” or “unlocked”. No steering. You use the rudder to full travel, then a tap of brake to move the monster in the desired direction.
The 301, the 402, the 502, the 602 were all named with the first digit expressing the number of gallons in hundreds that it would carry. The 402, four hundred gallons; the 502, five hundred gallons. Well, at least that’s what the hopper would hold. The 802, in fact, has an 800 gallon hopper. I can tell you for a certainty, it will carry 800 gallons.
For “flying fires”, we taxi up to the loading area. We feather the prop again (makes a whole lot less noise and wind for the ground crew). Retardant is delivered to the base in the form of “LC” (liquid concentrate). LC is the consistency of a good West Texas mud. It is pumped into a mixing tank, where it is mixed with water, the specific gravity is tested, and it is pumped into the plane. Already you can see where things can go wrong. It is rumored that LC has been pumped directly into the plane, and the increased weight can cause significant problems. Properly diluted LC, ready to drop weighs 9.3 pounds per gallon. We typically don’t load out to the full 800 gallons; at 760 gallons you have just over 7000 pounds in the hopper. The pilot monitors the load via the gate control system, as it has a readout of gallons in the tank.
Through a well defined system of hand signals, the loading commences. As you near the desired load, a hand is raised to signal “close”, and then is dropped as you get within approximately 25 gallons of the desired load. Depending on the pump, you get a certain amount of “roll on”, and after loading at a particular base you begin to judge that more accurately.
You can see, of course, that even a brief moment of inattention at the wrong time can lead to a real mess. The loading event takes only a few minutes, and although the loader is watching the “slave” meter on the side of the plane, its ultimately the pilot’s job to cut off the load on time. The 802 has an overflow if loading from the left, but none for loading from the right. Guess where we load most often at tanker bases? If you overflow while loading from the right side, the overflow conveniently goes right on top of the radio and computer control for the fire gate in the baggage compartment. This is not good.
After loading, hand signals are exchanged with the loader, and we close the window and come out of feather on the prop. Now, the formerly sprightly feeling 802 feels more like I do on an early winter morning….not real anxious to get moving. Sufficient power brings it out of the pit, and I take care not to blast the ground crew…getting momentum prior to turning the tail toward them, so I can decrease power as the tail comes around.
Taxiing to the runway….no, make that “waddling” to the runway, I can feel the retardant sloshing around. Have you ever ridden in a truck carrying water? Feel the shift of the water as it moves around? That’s exactly the feeling as you taxi out in the loaded 802.
Prior to take off, I do the final check of things. I learned long ago to “double check the stuff that will kill you”. Controls, free and proper (not long ago a jet crashed, with what preliminarily looks like a control lock still in place). Instruments (really embarrassing to take off with an altimeter incorrectly set, or a high temperature, or a low oil pressure). Fuel (just a reminder to make sure you have enough, and that it’s in the tank you think it’s in. Fortunately, the Mighty 802 has simply an “on-off” lever. Flaps (loaded, I’m not sure the 802 would ever get off the ground without flaps) Trim (take off with the trim incorrectly set, you get a workout, and run a risk of losing control on takeoff) Runup (not much of a runup on the 802, but if the prop hasn’t been cycled this is the time). Time. Tailwheel (must be locked on the 802, and as the great John Deakin told me when we flew the C-46…”it’s gonna be interesting if you don’t”) Fuel caps (if you leave one off, fuel comes out at a prodigious rate. Doors (okay, in the 802, it’s a “window”…and I can tell you that if a window comes open in the air, it’s an “event”).
Lining up on the runway, radio calls made, final check of tailwheel, and arm the gate. Power is increased to 3800 lbs of torque. While advancing the throttle, a close eye is kept on the TIT (turbine inlet temperature) gauge. Again, hot is expensive. If you don’t use enough power, or don’t use it rapidly enough, the end of the runway will appear before you’re ready to fly.
The rumble of the airflow from the 5 blade propeller shakes the entire plane. The “P factor” pulls to the left, and a quick application of “just enough” right rudder keeps it tracking straight. Torque is good, temp is pushing redline. Back off throttle just enough to keep it just at redline. Too much green between the needle and the redline is performance wasted. Beyond the redline is expensive. While acceleration is present, with the load of fuel and retardant the Mighty 802 doesn’t leap off the ground. It sort of gathers itself up, lets you know it’s ready for the tail to come up. And you wait. As the lift from the wings is felt, a gentle nudge back on the stick converts the Mighty 802 from it’s truck-like feel on the ground to an airborne vehicle. I keep my finger ready, just in case I need to use the “Gross Weight Reduction Device” (emergency dump…or, in the case of the 802s with the good Fire Gate, a tickle of the button will dump 50 gallons). I’ve not had to do that yet, but I remain poised, just in case the power lines that seem to inevitable reside just down from the runway’s end loom too large too quickly.
One of the items Jeff firmly planted into my head is “don’t raise the flaps too soon”. Many planes allow you to raise the flaps very soon after takeoff. Don’t do that in the 802. The resultant sink might bring you back to terra firma much quicker than you planned. A power reduction soon after takeoff brings the prop rpm lower, which lowers the TIT back to a happier level. The 802 climbs to a good cross country altitude, and soon is merrily level in cruise.
The obligatory radio call is made to dispatch, and the cross country begins again. Air Attack is called, and I’m allowed into the “Fire Traffic Area”. If you’re a pilot and see all those red circles on your gps, that’s where the “show” is. It actually is very similar to an airshow. You have the “air boss” (air attack), the ground folks (fire fighters), the “show line” (flame front), and we are the fighters. At least that’s how I like to think of it.
The line is chosen. Some are straight and smooth, some are crooked, some are level, some are on a steep hill. Despite what the Air Attack requests, I hear Jeff’s voice in my ear…”don’t ever, ever, ever drop uphill. Plan your escape route before you go in to drop. Plan a run that if something happens and you can’t drop, you can still get out. So I circle, evaluate to the best of my (inexperienced) ability, and agree with Air Attack as to the best plan. Yesterday the plane prior to me dropped uphill (but on a shallower part), and Air Attack wanted me to go uphill, on a steep part. I very politely negotiated a different run. Yes, it would be far easier to “tag” onto his line going uphill, and far easier to see the line. But, if I couldn’t outclimb the terrain it would be a quick end to my fire career.
One of the most entertaining parts of flying the 802 is the “drop”, or “dump”. I have friends who have told stories about flying ag planes in which a key part of the story is “I didn’t want to dump because the plane might not be controllable”. Heh. They should fly with Jeff. As part of my training, we dumped slow, we dumped fast, we dumped with power, we dumped power off. I suspect we raised the water table in North Louisiana a couple of inches from all the water we dumped. It is quite a ride.
Imagine a plane, carrying a load of 7000 plus pounds, that suddenly is 7000 pounds lighter in a matter of seconds. You get a sudden pitch up of the nose, which you counteract with moving the stick forward, followed by a sudden response. As with most things aeronautical, what you as the pilot induce into the equation makes a huge difference. I’ve had students insist the wind was bouncing them around, and when I took the stick the turbulence suddenly stopped. This is true with the sudden release of a load as well. I may as well admit it…flying in over the fire, at the mandated 60-90 foot height, working down below canyon rims, lining up, releasing and getting the ride, then rapidly negotiating my egress out of the fire…it’s addicting.
Back at the airport, the 802 seems suddenly Cub-like. No load, big wing, feels light…but the prop is set up that when power is reduced all the way, the prop goes “flat”. The blades are turned to track straight, with no “pull” being generated by them. That acts as a huge speed brake. That’s handy for running downhill on a drop, but not so handy when you pull off the power suddenly on your final approach. After several dozen landings in the Mighty 802, I can usually pull off an acceptable landing. I get a really nice squeaky greaser landing when no one is watching. I get a guaranteed bounce if a crowd is around.
Taxiing the 802, empty is a piece of cake. Prop reverse helps to slow the plane, so brakes can be spared. At our current base we have the interesting job of backing the plane into parking. You line up, lock the tailwheel, and put the plane in reverse. It will back right into the parking spot. There are a few things to remember…don’t let it accelerate, and know that to slow it you move the power lever forward, not back. Also, the engine air flow isn’t designed for this, and the TIT will rise rapidly.
The cooldown, the shut off, is calming. Log book entries made, and a flight is completed.
The reason Leland called his new plane the Air Tractor is….it flies like a tractor.