It’s the end of an era for the Convair Conair 580 tankers. The wildfire fighting aircraft have called the Penticton airport home during wildfire season for more than 20 years, and this season will be their last.
Tankers 44, 49, and 55 will officially retire after their contract ends next week, unless extended by BC Wildfire Service (BCWS).
Long-time Convair pilot Grahame Wilson said the tankers have become a staple in the community.
“There’s kind of a fan club in Penticton for these plans. I’ve had people come up to me, people know the tanker numbers and who flies each tanker,” said Wilson.
Wilson plans to do a final water drop and fly over Penticton before the three planes are flown to Abbotsford.
“I’d like to thank all the people in the Okanagan for all their good wishes for the Convair program and seeing them off,” added Wilson.
This will also be Wilson’s final season with the team.
“I’ve kind of been the unofficial curator of the Convair at Conair. I teach at the ground schools and train pilots and so it seems to be the right time for me to follow the airplane to the museum in Victoria,” said Wilson.
The Convair tankers were converted from commercial airliners, stripped right down to the skeleton in the cabin to maximize the load that the planes can carry.
“The engines have up to 4000 horsepower each, so one of the great things about the Convair is it’s power. It’s really nice to have a lot of power in terrain that we have here in southern B.C.,” said Wilson.
“And they carry 8,000 litres of retardant and as directed by the Bird Dog, we can drop that in a long line or we can make a drop on the ground whatever [the air attack officer] directs.”
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The new tankers will be a modern version of the old fleet.
“The newer aircraft are very modern. They have things like autopilots, flight management, system hydraulicals, boosted flight controls,” said Wilson.
“The Convair is all manual and to be honest, flying this airplane it’s like driving your car when the power steering isn’t working. So it’s very it’s very arm strong to muscle this around.”
The tankers, owned by Abbotsford-based Conair Group, have supported BC Wildfire Service fighting blazes across the province.
“The BC Wildfire Service tries to focus its efforts on initial attack and that’s the prime rule for our tankers is to hit them hard and fast, was the old terminology,” said BC Wildfire Service Air Attack Officer Ben Moerkoert
“Air tankers try to suppress the fire, contain it with retardant. It’s to retard the growth of the fire, it doesn’t put it out. Some people think we drop on the fire to put it out, we don’t, we just try to contain.”
The tankers try to contain the fire and hold it and until ground crews, helicopters and heavy machinery can put the fire out.
BC Wildfire Service Air Attack Officer Ben Moerkoert directs the three tankers from the Bird Dog plane.
“I supervise their activities on fires,” said Moerkoert.
“Basically, I’m the firefighter and they are the people that drive the aircraft. They follow my instructions, to the best of their abilities.”
There are plans for one of the Convair aircraft to go to the Centre for Excellence Museum in Kelowna, another will go to a museum in Victoria and another will be taken for parts.
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