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Aviation Resources

From a modest beginning in the 1940s, the North Carolina Forest Service aviation program has grown into a formidable fire management tool. The original force was composed of surplus Navy N3Ns and Piper observation planes.

Today the agency operates 24 aircraft including 19 fixed wing airplanes and five helicopters. Aircraft are utilized in forest management, fire mitigation and detection, as well as fire suppression and direction of ground forces battling wildfires. Based strategically throughout the state, the response time of these aviation resources to emergencies can be measured in minutes.

A fleet of three single engine airtankers (SEATs) can operate from remote grass airstrips near the fire scene and deliver 500 to 800 gallons of fire suppressant or retardant during an initial attack or in support of ground firefighting forces.

The N.C. Forest Service operates seven aircraft that are Federal Excess Property and are technically owned by the USDA Forest Service. These aircraft are on loan to the N.C. Forest Service specifically for fighting wildfires and include five fixed wing airplanes and two helicopters.

Types of Aircraft:

Observation and Support

Observation and support aircraft help detect wildfires and provide firefighters with advanced visual support. The agency has transitioned from older military aircraft to more modern Cessna 182 and Cessna 185 airplanes.

Lead Planes

Fast and agile lead planes are used to guide air tankers and other aircraft when dropping on wildfires.

Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs)

For many years, the mainstay of the agency's wildfire suppression aircraft has been the Ayres/Thrush Snow and Melex M-18 Dromader Single Engine Airtanker (SEATs). A single Dromader can drop up to 500 gallons of water or fire retardant. However, the older piston powered Dromader aircraft will be phased out by the end of 2017 to make way for newer aircraft. In the fall of 2016 the agency began transitioning to the AirTractor AT-802-F turbine powered tankers capable of dropping 800 gallons of water or fire retardant.


The five helicopters in the agency are utilized in transporting initial attack crews in the mountains and dropping water or fire retardant on fires with 200 to 300-gallon dip buckets across the entire state. The helicopters also perform a very important role in hazard reduction and site preparation prescribed burning. The agency currently operates three former military Bell UH1Hs and two Airbus Eurocopter Astar 350B3s.

This page updated: Friday, May 12, 2017 15:52

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