World’s largest helitanker can drop 3,000 gallons on fires

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A record-setting wildfire season requires a record-setting response.

This week, Orange County fire officials unveiled the “Very Large Helitanker,” — a 3,000-gallon capacity CH-47 Chinook — that is now on-hand to assist fire crews battling Southern California’s many blazes.

Considered the largest helicopter water tanker in the world, its capacity far exceeds that of the county’s standard helitankers, which typically drop about 350 gallons, officials said.

“In our view, this is that next generation of helitanker,” Orange County Fire Authority chief Brian Fennessy said at a live-streamed press conference Wednesday. “It’s state-of-the-art. There is no other tanker like it in the world.”

The tanker will be based out of Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County and will be available to regions served by Southern California Edison, which provided $2.1 million toward its lease from owner Coulson Aviation. Regions served include Los Angeles County — where the Bobcat fire has seared through more 114,000 acres — and San Bernardino County, where the El Dorado fire claimed the life of firefighter Charles Morton.

The record-breaking tanker arrives as soaring temperatures and extreme fire conditions threaten threaten much of the region.

“This is an important moment in a really incredible wildfire year,” Southern California Edison president and CEO Kevin Payne said at the news conference. “It provides added firefighting resources to fire agencies across Southern California right when we need them.”

The helitanker will be manned by pilots from Coulson Aviation and an OCFA crew chief. Agencies requesting the tanker will pay for its flight time and usage, officials said.

Wayne Coulson, president and CEO of Coulson Aviation, told reporters that the twin-propeller, twin-engine tanker was designed with the functionality of helicopters and transport aircrafts in mind.

“It kind of plays two roles,” he said. “It can go direct-attack atop the fire, or, if we load it up with retardant, we can drop retardant ahead of the fire like an air tanker.”

The helitanker is also night-vision certified, and can drop water or retardant both day and night.

On Wednesday, crews demonstrated the helitanker’s power by dropping 250 gallons of water — about three quarters of a typical load — from a standard Bell 412 utility copter over Los Alamitos.

Moments later, the helitanker soared overhead and dropped 2,600 gallons of water, showering the base in a rainfall of relief.

“This helitanker is a force multiplier,” said Fennessy, the Orange County Fire Authority chief. “This literally is the largest tanked helicopter in the world.”