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 22 aircraft including 17 fixed wing airplanes and five helicopters. Aircraft are utilized in forest management, fire mitigation and detection, as well as fire suppression and direction to 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 two single engine airtankers (SEATs) can operate from remote airstrips near the fire scene and deliver up 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 six 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 four 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.
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 had been the Ayres/Thrush Snow and Melex M-18 Dromader Single Engine Airtanker (SEATs). However, the older piston powered Dromader aircraft were retired at 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. NCFS currently operates two of the new AT-802-F tankers.
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.