Divebombing the Inferno: The Near-Crash of a DC-10 Fighting California’s Wildfires

Nick Kolakowski
10 min readJan 26, 2018

Ten years ago, a now-defunct aviation magazine sent me to Southern California to cover an unusual incident involving a firefighting jet. The resulting story ended up mangled in the editing process, and the magazine shut down soon after. As the American West fights through yet another year of vicious fires, I thought it appropriate to re-edit and re-release my original article, which is a testament to the courage and ingenuity of the firefighters (both on the ground and in the air) who ensure that civilization stays intact.

If you’ve ever seen footage of a firefighting jet swooping low over a burning ridge, dispensing a bright red cloud of fire retardant in front of the inferno, and wondered how it all works, here’s your chance…

Smart deer.

Outside of a dogfight, it might prove some of the most dangerous flying in the world. It starts with a DC-10, a jumbo jetliner designed to cruise at 30,000 feet and 600 miles per hour, and a 65-foot-long aluminum tank bolted under the jet’s fuselage sloshing with 12,000 gallons of blood-orange colored fire retardant. This payload is then lowered to an altitude of 200 feet, and at 165 miles per hour — just 1.3 times the stall speed — the crew angles it straight into the blinding black smoke of a raging wildfire. And pushes the button.

Inside the cockpit of Tanker 910 — the only such DC-10 in existence — pilots Jack Maxey, Roger Hughes and button-pusher Brad Pace are on their third run of this June day fighting a blaze in a par- ched valley near Tehachapi, 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The fire, which started a day earlier, is on its way to burning 12,400 acres, its temperatures so hot it has reduced 150-foot trees to carbonized nubs. Tanker 910’s first few runs managed to clamp off several edges of the blaze, but other portions are still spreading out of control. In the distance, framed by the windshield, the crew can see the wall of smoke rising against the blue sky. About a mile in front of them, and a couple hundred feet below, a tiny King Air lead plane shows them their approach, the radio crackling with the dry chatter between the crews. “Twelve miles… Airspeed 180 knots…Seven miles…500 feet…Roger.”

Maxey grips the yoke and muscles the giant airliner down through the thick, hot…

Nick Kolakowski

Writer, editor, author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday' and 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club.'