GREAT FALLS — A pair of Bridger Aerospace "Super Scooper" firefighting airplanes have been parked overnight at Holman Aviation in Great Falls since last week. It’s not an ideal situation, but they’re here out of necessity.
The two planes are contracted to assist with aerial suppression on the Devil’s Creek fire near Fort Peck, more than 200 miles away. Normally they’d be based a lot closer to the fire they’re working on, but a critical jet fuel shortage has forced the crews to travel back and forth from Great Falls each day.
“It’s just not really something we thought we were going to have to contend with was a fuel shortage, but of course it's not just us, it’s everybody,” said Bridger Aerospace first officer Johnny Evans. “We ran Glasgow out of fuel not too long ago and they then we were in Billings for a bit, now Great Falls. Logistically with hotels, car rentals, and jet fuel it just made sense. But it makes for longer turns.”
Holman Aviation is one of the only Fixed Base Operators (FBO) in Montana that currently has fuel supply for large firefighting aircraft. In addition to the two Super Scoopers, Holman president Dwight Holman was expecting two DC-10 tankers later to arrive later in the afternoon.
“The Super Scoopers called us on a Friday, and they were here within hours of that. And so we just must adapt,” Holman said. “We have quite a bit of real estate here at the airport, but it's pretty fluid. And then these DC-10’s called and reached out to us because they heard through their channels that we might have some fuel.”
Many factors have contributed to the fuel shortage. A lack of tanker truck drivers due to the pandemic, supply chain issues at refineries, and a lack of pipeline space are just a few. Those circumstances have led to fuel being allocated based on priority.
“We are running into some difficulty with the suppliers because of our lack of priority,” Holman said. “So I've reached out to the governor's office to see if the declaration for emergency for wildfires would allow any priority to our operation, to supply fuel to these tanker airplanes.”
Holman Aviation is happy to accommodate who they can. But with no end to fire season in sight, and dwindling fuel supplies every day brings something new.
“It's the challenge of the process. We have something that a lot of airports don't have at this point,” Holman said. “And then to keep the inventory here is our current challenge. So, we're working the process pretty hard.”
As for the Bridger Aerospace crew, they’re on the phone every morning trying to work out logistics. And rolling with whatever challenges are thrown their way,
“In the morning we've been calling all kinds of FBOs making sure they've not only got room for us, but they've got fuel,” Evans said. “Everybody's been really accommodating especially when they know we’re out doing our best to fight these fires. But this year requires little bit more planning and a little bit more to think about, but we’re doing the best we can and getting the job done.”
EXTRA - a look inside a Super Scooper plane: