Manitoba·Q&A

What is it like to fly a water bomber? This Manitoban can tell you

As water bomber crews fight wildfires across western Canada this week, a retired water bomber pilot in Manitoba explains what it's like to fly the giant firefighting airplanes.

'You're flying right on the treetops all the time,' says retired pilot Gordon Watt

Gordon Watt flew these planes for a decade as a water bomber pilot with the Manitoba Air Service. He retired in 2008. (Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada)

As water bomber crews fight wildfires across western Canada this week, a retired water bomber pilot in Manitoba explains what it's like to fly the giant firefighting airplanes.

Gordon Watt spent 36 years as a pilot with the Manitoba Government Air Service, including a decade flying water bombers, before he retired in 2008.

Watt, who was based mainly in Thompson, Man., said he's lost count of how many fires he battled with his piston-engine aircraft.

"You don't get bored, I tell you, because you're flying right on the treetops all the time, pretty much," Watt said.

"We don't climb very much when we're going back to the lake and it just keeps you alert, and there's always that one tree sticking up out of the bush … you got to keep an eye out for that stuff."

Watching coverage of the wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta., and near the Manitoba-Ontario border, Watt said his hat goes off to firefighting crews. However, he doesn't necessarily wish he was there.

"It's part of my past right now and I'm not too worried about it," he said. "Sometimes I wish I was there, but life goes on, you know?"

The CBC's Leif Larsen asked Watt about his experience flying water bombers. Here is part of that conversation, edited for length.

How does a typical water-bombing run work?

"We try to get there as soon as we can, as soon after the fire is reported or started," Watt said.

He explained that he would load his plane with water while a spotter in another aircraft, known as a "bird dog," would fly over the fire and identify areas where water should be dumped.

"The bird dog would go and look over the fire and then he'd explain to us where he wants us to drop the water," he said.

"We'd find a body of water … and check it over for rocks — you don't need those — and then you'd adjust your water load in regards to the amount of fuel you got on board and all that to keep your weight within proper margins.

"You just touch down on the surface of the lake and add up to your take-off power on the engines, and when you reach your load then you retract the probes and away you go and make your drop where they want you to do it, and you just keep doing that until the bird dog calls an end to it and the ground crews have everything under control and away we go."

Watt estimated that the older water bombers he flew could carry more than 4,500 litres of water (1,200 gallons), while newer aircraft could transport upwards of 5,300 litres.

What is it like to fly a plane carrying an extra 5,400 kilograms worth of water?

"The airplane is designed to handle it and it does it very well. It will get up and clear the trees — you need a mile long, at least a mile-long stretch a water just for safety's sake — and the airplane has lots of power," he said, adding that his plane had a total of 4,200 horsepower.

"When you drop the water, the whole bottom of the tank opens up and the whole 12,000 pounds was out all at once. Or you can select either tank; there's two tanks in it," he said.

"It wants to pitch up, yeah, but you get used to that and it becomes part of the job."

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