Welcome to McClellan: <em>Business is Hot at Aero Union</em>

  • Published
  • By Susan Wolbarst
  • Air Force Real Property Agency
Aero Union, a recent transplant to McClellan Business Park from Chico, about 90 miles away, flies and maintains what Chief Pilot Michael Grimm laughingly refers to as the "Finding Nemo plane," a P-3, which has the same coloration as the tropical clownfish character in the popular Disney film.

Although P-3s are used for military purposes in many countries, Aero Union is the only commercial operator of P-3 Orion aircraft in the world, according to Grimm. "The P-3 is an incredibly forgiving airplane," he says. The company owns eight of them, which Aero-Union has modified for aerial fire-fighting since 1991. Each is a "heavy tanker," which can carry up to 3,000 gallons of a product called Phos-chek at a time.

Most states use fire-fighting aircraft which can carry only 800-1,200 gallons at a time, necessitating more frequent restocking stops. Restocking takes about 15 minutes once the pilot reaches a base or temporary base where more Phos-chek is available.

"Air tankers are primarily designed to do what's called an initial attack," Grimm said. "It works for all but 3 percent of fires. You try to reinforce a barrier like a road or rock outcropping, so the ground guys can get in there." Phos-chek -- made of fertilizer, water and red dye - is dumped on or near a fire to stop it from spreading or cool it down.

Aero Union has one client: the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the USDA Forest Service, agencies responsible for fighting wildland fires on huge expanses of federally-owned land. How much wilderness burns in a year? During 2000-2009, 3.5 million to 9.8 million acres of wildland went up in smoke each year, according to statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration branch of the Federal Emergency Management Association.

Fire season typically starts in the southeastern U.S. around March, often in Florida, Grimm reports. It continues moving around the U.S. to places like Texas and Minnesota in April and May, then on to places like Alaska in summer. By September-October, when the season has ended in most of the country, fires usually begin raging in dried-out Southern California, fanned by the notorious Santa Ana winds.

Aero Union's planes are contracted to the federal agencies and based at airfields around the country, closest to National Parks and National Forests. Contracts are usually six months, but can be extended if warranted by fire conditions. Sometimes the planes provide fire-fighting help to states if needed.

Aero Union, which has been in business 50 years, started out in Redding, CA in 1961. The company currently employs about 80 people, including about 20 pilots. Most of their pilots live in the western U.S., but not in Northern California. "As soon as they start on a contract, they go wherever the Forest Service needs them. They have everything they need for six months, almost like a sailor," Grimm explains. Their gear - bicycles, clothing, lawnchairs, books - goes into the plane and travels with them on unpredictable routes following fires across the country. "They can start the morning in Lake City, Florida and finish the day in Abilene, Texas."

Each plane has a crew of two - pilot and co-pilot. Grimm says their relationship is "like a marriage" during the extent of each contract. Flight crews have six days on, one day off, and can fly a maximum of eight hours a day. Grimm says most fires don't start until afternoon, when the air temperatures go up and the winds start blowing.

Dan Gibson, a part-time relief co-pilot, says the hardest part of the job is not fighting fires. "It's the waiting around, and the time away from home." Despite these stressors, the company has low turnover - both with pilots and the maintenance crews back at McClellan, Grimm noted.

Technology has improved connectivity with home, as each plane is issued a wi-fi hotspot. That makes the separation a little easier. Grimm also uses GPS trackers on all the planes. "At any moment, I can pull up a web page and see what they're doing."

The Air Force Real Property Agency (AFRPA) is responsible for remediation and property transfer at 40 former Air Force installations throughout the United States under the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program. At the height of BRAC, AFRPA managed 87,000 acres, but since 1988 has transferred 88 percent, or nearly 77,000 acres to local communities for public use. These transfers play a key role in attracting businesses like Aero Union with their eye-catching fleet of P-3s to McClellan Business Park.