Once, the Forest Service flew a fleet of the half-century old DC-3 cargo planes. Now, they're down to two of the venerable aircraft.
But since Forest Service officials still find that there's nothing like the twin-engine DC-3 for getting smokejumpers and firefighting equipment to a wilderness fire, the agency is spending millions to refit the planes.Both of the aircraft will be based in the Intermountain region, ready to assault fires that erupt in hard-to-reach forest areas.
Ron Bell, aviation officer for the Forest Service's Intermountain Region, recently showed off one of the planes subjected to a cockpit-to-tail refurbishment.
The Forest Service began phasing out the DC-3 after one of the aircraft crashed in 1979, killing 10 firefighters. One of the Forest Service's old DC-3s was given to the Hill Air Force Base Museum.
But two of the planes - one that was on display in Ogden last week, and the other, based in Missoula, Mont. - were kept and refurbished at a cost of more than $2.5 million each.
"It would take $6 million to $8 million to replace them and you still wouldn't have the same lift capacity; we think it's a great deal," Bell said.
The refurbishment includes upgraded aviation electronics and twin turbo-prop engines that increase the plane's speed from 180 mph to 230 mph.
Bell said the DC-3 works well for the Forest Service because its large landing-gear tires enable it to put down just about anywhere. Its large wing span gives it a quick, high lift that doesn't need a lot of runway, he added.
The plane flew over Ogden on a training flight Monday and will be around for additional training flights in the next few weeks. After that, it will be kept in McCall, Idaho, until needed for firefighting efforts.
Bell said the plane can carry 20 smokejumpers - firefighters who parachute from planes to tackle blazes in back-country areas - and their equipment.
John Chambers, director of fire management for the region, said the Forest Service is bracing for a severe fire season.
In anticipation, he said the region has hired 360 more ground firefighters and 10 additional smokejumpers.
The Forest Service also plans to station two medium-sized helicopters in Salt Lake City. Chambers said that would allow firefighting efforts to begin almost immediately along the Wasatch Front.