Cal Fire’s Grumman S-2 air tankers perform aerial acrobatics while fighting fires

Cal Fire’s Grumman S-2 100 airtanker flies into position to make a Phos-Chek drop during the Casino Fire Monday, July 13. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

Within minutes of the sighting of a wisp of smoke in the distance, Anza Valley residents will often witness the arrival of Cal Fire’s Grumman S-2T air tankers speeding over the hills from their base at Hemet-Ryan airport. The aircraft perform aerial acrobatics as they maneuver around smoke and water-dropping helitack units to plaster Phos-Chek fire retardant on the flames.

The Cal Fire air program is one of the largest firefighting organizations in the world. The fleet is made up of over 50 fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft strategically located throughout the state at Cal Fire’s 13 air bases and nine helicopter bases.

Cal Fire first began using air tankers in the 1950s when agriculture spraying planes, commonly called crop dusters, were used to drop water on wildland fires. In 1958, Cal Fire, then called the California Department of Forestry, contracted with a private air tanker service for the use of their converted World War II aircraft. By 1970, the department began to evaluate the use of former military Grumman S-2 aircraft as air tankers. From 1954 to 1972, these aircraft were used by the U.S. Navy as a carrier-based anti-submarine warfare airplane.

One of Cal Fire’s Grumman S-2 airtankers drops Phos-Chek during the Tripp Fire, Thursday, July 9. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

The S-2s were manufactured by Grumman Aerospace and acquired by Cal Fire beginning in 1996. A total of 26 S-2E/G planes were acquired from the Department of Defense. Cal Fire converted the aircraft to a fire-fighting configuration and fitted them with modern, powerful turboprop engines. Twelve S-2Ts were ready for the 2001 fire season.

The completely reconditioned S-2T air tankers are faster, safer, more maneuverable and capable of carrying a larger retardant payload than the original S-2. The S-2T air tanker is an integral part of the department’s air attack program modernization efforts.

A combination of S-2Ts and S-2As are being used by Cal Fire in the next few years until 23 S-2Ts will replace all of the older craft.

Cal Fire utilizes these air tankers for fast initial attack delivery of fire retardant on forest and brush fires.

The S-2Ts have a crew consisting of one pilot and has a cruise speed of 305 mph. Weighing 29,150 pounds, the planes are powered by twin Garrett TPE331-14GR turbine engines, rated at 1,650 horsepower each.

Fast, nimble and efficient, the S-2Ts continue to ply the skies with huge loads of fire-suppressing Phos-Chek to help stop the forward spread of wildland fires in and around the Anza Valley.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at