CANADAIR CL-215 - FIREBOMBER “Duck”
The Canadair CL-215 is a twin-prop amphibian built to fight forest fires. The first model in a series of flying boats built by Canadair and later by Bombardier Aerospace, it first flew in October 1969 and was out of production by 1989.
Today, the Canadair CL-215 and its five series of cousins can be seen in newsreels covering forest fires in Italy, Croatia, Serbia, France, Greece and California, as well as across Canada's vast and heavily forested northern regions.
Seven Canadair firebombers are operated by Buffalo Airways in the Northwest Territories and around the world. Compared to the bulk of the Buffalo Airways fleet, which is primarily made up of WWII-era aircraft that have been adapted from various military duties for use as passenger carriers and cargo transport, the Canadair is youthful and purpose-built.
The Canadair carries a crew of two, and much like air support for infantry operations, the crew works in strategic synchronicity with ground crew. The primary job is not to put out the fire, but to reduce its intensity, enabling the ground crew a chance to attack the fire using hand pumps, chain saws, axes and other hand tools before the suppressant evaporates in the intense heat. In a well-run operation, the bomber crew runs a continuous circuit back and forth from the nearest water source to the fire, giving troops on the front line as much support as possible. The job is demanding, with high risks.
With its lowered scoop, the Canadair, also known as a "Duck" or a "Scooper" (depending on where in the world they are flying), planes over a water source at 75-80 knots (140-150 km/h, 86-92 mph) to fill its tanks. As long as the water source is about 1.5 km long and two metres deep, the CL-215 can collect up to 5,000 litres of water in 10 seconds and drop it over a fire in less than one second – a concept known as "litres per hour." This concept and approach is key to getting the crew and plane safely back to base each day.
The aircraft are usually equipped with foam-injection equipment that mixes the water with fire-retardant foam to maximize the effectiveness in suppressing wild fires. With a suitable water supply close by, whether river, lake or ocean, the Canadair can deliver a payload of 75-125 loads of water and suppressant in a single day.
The CL-215 is designed with important features. Powered by two shoulder-mounted Pratt and Whitney R-2800-CA3 Double Wasp radial piston engines that generate a top speed of 291 km/h and a range of 2,094 km, the aircraft is designed to land and take off from short, unpaved airstrips, and to operate efficiently at low speeds. It has also been designed with high wings to allow for greater visibility over drop zones – an important feature given the pilots often fly in rough weather and heavy smoke conditions while dodging flames and wind-blown debris only 30 to 35 metres above treetops and rugged terrain. Another important operating characteristic is its ability to maneuver in gusty winds, violent updrafts and the fierce turbulence created by forest fires and firestorms.
Although still known primarily as a firefighter, the Canadair CL-215 is a versatile aircraft capable of several configurations, such as maritime patrol and search and rescue, with a carrying capacity of 19 passengers or 3,864 kg of freight. Later variants on the initial platform, like the turbine powered CL-215T model, allow for greater loads and longer ranges. The turboprop Canadair 415, whose production began in 1991, is a further advance on the aircraft, with an EFIS avionics suite. Other innovations over the years include winglets and finlets, higher operating weights and an increased capacity firebombing system. The new CL-415GR has the highest operating weights seen to date.