Minnesota DNR to sell CL-215 water bombers

One of Minnesota's two DNR CL-215 "water bombers," a common sight at the DNR field next to the Range Regional Airport in Hibbing during the summer fire season. The DNR is selling its CL-215s because they are too expensive to maintain or replace.

One of Minnesota’s two DNR CL-215 “water bombers.” The planes are a common sight at the DNR airfield next to the Range Regional Airport in Hibbing during the summer fire season. The DNR is selling its CL-215s because they are too expensive to maintain or replace. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

One summer afternoon  my boys and I walked down the hill to the lake. I heard a low rumble out of sight. The sound grew louder. Soon enough I could feel the vibrations as well as I could hear them. Then I saw one of my life’s truly memorable scenes: a twin-engine CL-215 “scooper” plane used to fight forest fires. This big plane was flying lower and slower than any hunk of metal should. It was descending to pick up water at a different lake less than a mile away. The moment was so profound that the image of the plane flying low and slow like a ghost revisits me in dreams to this day.

The Forum News Service reports this morning that the Minnesota DNR will sell its two CL-215s because they are too old to maintain and too expensive to replace.

From the story by John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune:

“Just about everyone is getting away from the old piston aircraft like the CL-215s. They are just too much to try to maintain.

They don’t even teach it (radial engine maintenance) to aircraft mechanics anymore,” said Paul Wannarka, the DNR’s fixed-wing fire operations specialist.

While the CL-215s were built in the late 1970s, the engines that powered them were built during World War II, Wannarka said. They also used leaded gasoline, which is getting harder to find, especially at the remote airports where the CL-215s were called to battle wildfires.

The DNR briefly looked at the new turboprop CL-415s, he added. But the $35 million price tag, each, was simply too much for the state to spend.

Instead, the DNR is moving to a smaller, less-expensive airplane called a Fire Boss — a single-engine turboprop airplane that can carry up to 800 gallons of water per run, about half the CL-215 capacity.

I did a story on the CL-215s when I was with the Hibbing Daily Tribune back in 2001 or so. The two planes were often stationed in Hibbing during peak fire seasons, serving a very large area that included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, the Dakotas and parts of Ontario.

That day I was supposed to meet with Captain MacDonald, one of the pilots. This was pre 9/11, because I recall the photographer and I just drove onto the airport grounds and parked near the planes. When I asked for Captain MacDonald, a blond, blue-eyed “movie star-looking” guy in a flight suit appeared from the other room. This Hollywood-style pilot swept back his thick hair, then started speaking with one of the thickest Canadian accent I’ve ever heard.

“Soo, let’s go see what this plane’s all a-boot,” he said.

Apparently, the Bombardier-built planes are tricky to fly and most of the pilots trained to do so are Canadian.

The planes hold more than just nostalgia, though. Firefighters liked them for their brute force, particularly in fighting large fires.

“There are some things they did that we simply can’t reproduce, like their ability to get so much water so fast on a fire and keep doing it. They could just flat out kill a fire,” Wannarka said. “For me, and I’m kind of a World War II aviation buff, I’m going to miss the sound of those big engines. What a great sound.”

The Fire Boss planes pack a smaller punch, but can reload water more quickly in smaller lakes. Those are the planes people will see fighting fires in Minnesota and points nearby from now on.

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