One element in Alberta's initial attack arsenal is the airtanker.

One or more airtankers working together form an airtanker group. The airtankers are divided into nine groups. These groups form a provincial fleet that can be dispatched to action wildfires anywhere in Alberta.

Airtankers are used primarily for initial attack, in which the objective is to keep a fire from spreading until ground forces are brought in to extinguish it.

Airtanker Descriptions


The CL-215T is an amphibious, flying boat-type aircraft specifically designed as an airtanker. It can scoop water from suitable water bodies and deliver long-term fire retardant from airtanker bases. The CL-215T has a cruise speed of 324 km/hr, and it carries 5455 litres in a two-door compartmentalized tank. The airtanker can also inject Class A foam, which it carries in a 750-litre onboard tank, into the water load to make it more effective.

Alberta owns four CL-215T aircraft: the first came into service in the spring of 1986. All four have recently have been converted from piston power plants to turbine power plants. These aircraft operate as a single group of four airtankers.

Air Tractor 802F

The Air Tractor 802F is a 1990s single-engine turbine aircraft. It has a cruise speed of 296 km/hr and can carry 2955 litres of fire retardant in a constant-flow tank system equipped with two doors.

Alberta contracts four airtanker-type Air Tractor 802F. Together, they function as a single airtanker group. This type of airtanker can operate from both permanent airtanker bases and from remote airstrips.

Air Tractor 802F (Amphibious)

The Air Tractor 802F (Amphibious) is the newest airtanker to Alberta's provincial fleet. It can operate in multiple roles,working as a land-based or skimmer airtanker. It has a cruise speed of 260 km/hr and can carry between 2070 and 2430 litres.

This aircraft also uses the constant-flow tank configuration.

Alberta contracts four airtanker-type Air Tractor 802F. Together they function as a single airtanker group.

Convair CV 580

The Convair CV 580 is a twin-multi-engine (2) turbine airtanker originally built in the 1950s as a cargo and transport aircraft. It has a cruise speed of 500 km/hr and carries 7950 litres of fire retardant in a constant-flow tank.

Alberta contracts and operates one CV-580 airtanker group.

Lockheed L-188 Electra

The Lockheed L-188 Electra is a four-multi-engine (4) turbine aircraft, It has a cruise speed of 592 km/hr and can carry 11,365 litres of fire retardant in a constant-flow tank.

Alberta contracts three L-188's and operates them as three separate groups, with one airtanker in each group.

Clearing the Airspace

Airtankers are large aircraft requiring clear and open spaces in the air and on the water for them to perform their duties. For more on how you can help clear the way for airtankers, see:

Birddog Aircraft

Each airtanker group has an assigned "birddog" aircraft that carries an air attack officer (AAO) and a birddog pilot. The birddog aircraft is usually the first to arrive at a fire. There, the AAO assesses the wildfire and formulates and executes an air attack plan to contain it.

The birddog plane leads or directs the airtankers to their targets. To ensure a safe and cost-effective operation, the birddog plane instructs the airtankers and tells them whether to drop fire retardant or water. To ensure the safety of all aircraft in the vicinity, the birddog team also controls the airspace over a wildfire.

Alberta uses two types of aircraft used as "birddogs":

  • Cessna Caravan C208B
  • Turbo Commander (TC) 690A

These aircraft are each equipped with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera system that allows the AAO to view the fire in all types of smoke conditions and to scan for hot spots. The system can record videos of the fire digitally. This information is then passed on to the ground forces working on the fire and to the Area Duty Officers.

Airtanker Coordination

Safety takes priority over all other aspects of fire operations, both in the air and on the ground. The air attack officer communicates with the incident commander on the ground. The AAO then plans his or her operations in conjunction with the incident commander’s ground attack plan. The AAO also deals with administrative and operational concerns at the airtanker base and acts as the liaison between the airtanker group and Forest Protection personnel.

Each airtanker group has a group captain who deals with company concerns and acts as the company's representative in dealings with the Forest Protection Branch.

The provincial duty officer and provincial aircraft coordinator (PAC), both at the Provincial Forest Fire Centre (PFFC) in Edmonton, preposition the groups within Alberta and set the airtanker daily alert status as the fire danger warrants. This makes it possible to meet anticipated fire starts in any area of the province. While assigned to an area, the airtanker groups are under the direction of the fire centre and managed in conjunction with PFFC.

Airtanker Bases and Deployment

In Alberta, airtanker groups may be deployed to any one of the 13 airtanker bases (12 primary and one secondary) strategically situated around the province:

  • There is a full complement of support staff and aircraft service facilities at the primary bases, operated and maintained by Forestry throughout the fire season.
  • Secondary bases are used primarily as reloading stations. They maintain a level of readiness dependent on current hazard or risk and active fire operations.

In addition to the permanent and secondary bases, airtankers can also operate from remote locations or from airstrips. Forest Protection uses the AT 802F airtanker for remote operations.

Forward airtanker bases are used at the remote base. These units load the airtankers with fire retardant using mobile retardant mixing systems. These units have all the equipment needed to supply the basic needs of a regular airtanker base.

Remote bases are temporary, and once the operation has been completed, they are reclaimed to their original condition.

Updated: Apr 13, 2022