News>Business is hot at McClellan-based Aero Union
Aero Union Corporation P-3 Orions fly out of the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. Modified for firefighting, the aircraft are equipped to dump up to three thousands of gallons of red Phos-Chek fire retardant on wildfires. (Photo courtesy of Aero Union)
An Aero Union Corporation P-3 Orion drops red Phos-Chek fire retardant on a wildfire in an effort to save a building. Aero Union aircraft fly out of the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Aero Union)
2/4/2011 - SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AFNS) -- Aero Union, a corporation that specializes in aerial firefighting, now flies and maintains P-3 Orions at the former McClellan Air Force Base here.
Although P-3s are used by the military in many countries, Aero Union is the only commercial operator of P-3 Orion aircraft in the world, according to chief pilot Michael Grimm.
"The P-3 is an incredibly forgiving airplane," he said.
Since 1991, company officials procured eight P-3s, which they modified for aerial firefighting. Each is a "heavy tanker," and can carry up to 3,000 gallons of a fire retardant called Phos-Chek.
Aero Union has one client: the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, agencies responsible for fighting wildland fires on huge expanses of federally-owned land.
From 2000 to 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 Agency.
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 firefighting help to state agencies if requested.
Aero Union, which has been in business 50 years, started out in Redding, Calif., 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," Mr. Grimm said. "They have everything they need for six months, almost like a sailor. 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, a pilot and a co-pilot, and, Mr. Grimm said, 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.
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," he said.
Despite these stressors, the company has low turnover, both with pilots and the maintenance crews back at McClellan, Mr. Grimm noted.
Technology has improved connectivity with home, as each plane is issued a wi-fi hotspot. That makes the separation a little easier. Mr. 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," he said.
The Air Force Real Property Agency is responsible for remediation and property transfer at 40 former Air Force installations throughout the United States under the Base Realignment and Closure program. At the height of BRAC, AFRPA officials managed 87,000 acres, but since 1988 have 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 fleet of P-3s to McClellan Business Park.
2/5/2011 7:22:36 PM ET I wish they would have never closed McClellan. Sacramento would be an awesome place to be stationed.