Austin airport's air tanker base critical in Texas' fire fight

A modified DC-10, known as the 10-Tanker, is not only big, but it's capable of dropping a big water bomb.

"It’s not like anything you'd imagine watching it on TV," said pilot Matt Ringlein.

From the cockpit, Ringlein has a clear view of the job ahead. The challenge in Texas, he says, is typically the swirling winds.

"We had a drop a couple of days ago where we had about 30 knots of cross wind. Cross wind affects the retardant dramatically. The wind can actually move it to a space where maybe that’s not exactly where the firefighters wanted it," said Ringlein.

The 10-Tanker can drop more than 9,400 gallons of water in eight seconds, covering a mile-long stretch of land. It can also fly as low as 250 feet off the ground.

The 10 Tanker, along with other aircraft, fought the San Gabriel fire in July, one of the first missions from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport's Tanker Base after the Texas A&M Forest Service set it up on July 15

On Tuesday, the 10-Tanker flew four missions.

"It’s an amazing feeling actually, I never pictured myself in this industry," said Bobby Jones, the 10-Tanker's flight engineer, who essentially serves as the tanker's bombardier. "Our main job is not to put out fires, but to help the ground firefighters, the guys that are the most important, do their job."

The DC 10 was built back in 1975. It originally carried passengers for Continental Airlines, and later it took troops to Afghanistan. 

In 2009, the plane became a firefighter. The 10-Tanker is currently one of 34 aircraft positioned at 19 airports across Texas, in addition to nearly three dozen ground teams. 

The site at ABIA near the South Terminal, according to Base Manager Jonathan Ross, is similar to one in Abilene. But from here, 10-Tanker can respond faster to fires in east Texas.

"Down from 2 and a half hours from Abilene to 30 minutes form here," said Ross.

The eight people assigned to Austin are like a NASCAR pit crew. There are different jobs from mixing the water to clearing the tarmac. "They have to put the VLAT or any aircraft at a specific spot, so the hoses will reach," said Ross.

An incident north of Houston at Lake Livingston, Tuesday, is an example of the dangers the crews face. A plane known as a fire boss, which looks like a crop duster, crashed while scooping up water. The pilot survived.

"Some of the most dangerous things that we do are actually driving, shortly behind that is aviation work, after that comes chainsaw operations falling trees falling rocks, safety is always paramount," said Kari Hines with the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Aircraft, like the 10-Tanker, have flown more than 6,000 hours this fire season, dropping more than 10-million gallons of water and suppressant. The missions, like the tanker base at ABIA, will continue as long as the threat remains.