• Virginia Tolles

To Honor Donald Douglas

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Southern Airways DC-9 (RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license 3.0)

The wildfires are starting early in California this year. High temperatures, little rain, and lots of wind are contributing factors. When grass fires started in the San Bernardino area last week, the aerial firefighters set to work.

Aerial firefighting is no simple work. Imagine flying through dense smoke in hilly terrain. Not only are you supposed to find the area to discharge your load of fire retardant, but you have to do it without slamming into a hillside. More than one plane has gone down that way. In fact, it’s how Kobe Bryant’s helicopter went down last year; only, instead of smoke, it was fog that obscured his pilot’s vision.

Originally, slow-moving aircraft were used: helicopters with water buckets swinging from ropes beneath them and propeller-driven planes flew low over lakes and rivers, scooped up water, and headed to the fire zone to drop their loads.

Today, jet aircraft are being used. They are outfitted with large tanks to take on loads of fire retardant at retired military bases, like Mather and McClellan Air Force Bases in California. Then, off they go. They fly endless sorties (missions), stopping only to refuel, refill, and rotate flight crews, until the job is done.

A group of us, who are particular fans of Donald Douglas and his DC-9 family of t-tails with their Pratt & Whitney JT8D fanjets,* are delighted to see Erickson Aero Tanker taking on ten retired MD-87s (DC-9-87s) for use in aerial firefighting. Here’s a video showing one of them at work:

Nor are those ten alone. Air freight companies are buying the retired DC-9 successors [MD-80 (DC-9-80) through MD-90 (DC-9-90)] for use in their operations.

They say Mad Dog’s** too old to work. Wanna bet? You tell ‘em, Mad Dog!


* Hear the JT8D engines growl as Delta Airlines’ last DC-9 takes off from Atlanta, Georgia. The aircraft turns onto the runway and waits for quite a while. Then, after the camera closes in on Delta's 1950s signboard "Fly Delta Jets," the JT8Ds come to life, and the aircraft races down the runway. Watch her steep climb.

** The 80s and 90 series wear the name McDonnell Douglas (MD), since they were built after McDonnell Aircraft and Douglas Aircraft Company merged in 1967, and are known affectionately as Mad Dogs.

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