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Take-off Performance Aerial Firefighting

This LinkedIn post showing the dangers of deficient take-off performance calculations probably got you here.

If not, for a better understanding of the context, it would be beneficial to return there before continuing.


The aviation industry relies heavily on aircraft performance knowledge to ensure safety, efficiency, and compliance.

Firefighting and crop spraying should not be exceptions, and we should be aware of how wind, temperature, slope, and altitude affect take-off distance.

This has traditionally been determined by gut feeling and progressive load through the day to determine the maximum payload. That is what we were taught back in the days, knowing we could always drop the load at the end of the runway if the aircraft did not feel like flying.

Three-point take-offs and landings have also been a standard for many AT802 operators.

Not using checklists has been widely accepted due to flying low and not having enough time to pull out checklists.

Altogether, it is an arguable approach from the past that is proven to be outdated and ineffective to the aircraft and scenarios we face nowadays.

In case of a drastic miscalculation of aircraft performance, and a lapse in procedures as could occur during a flapless take-off at MTOW, we could get into terminal trouble, as the video proves.

In this particular scenario, even jettisoning the load kept the aircraft and its pilot within unacceptable safety margins.

The video is self-explanatory, but we will expand in some of the most relevant aspects.

Busting Myths

There are a few key takeaways and myths we could bust from analyzing the video

Myth Busted Archives - BodyMotions

  1. -Gut feeling does not work as an industry standard. We need a systematic approach based on performance charts to avoid drastic miscalculations.
  2. -In the case of dumping the load, it is an emergency procedure. It should not be normalized and considered a normal procedure.
  3. -Take-off technique matters. It’s not all about three points on tail wheel aircraft. The video above self-explains the relevance of 2 points over 3 points, as well as having clues and having distances references on the runway.

It’s time to take a closer look at some of those myths busted and link them with organizational factors that could lead this specific pilot to that situation.

Performance charts

We can’t rely on gut feeling about what someone else told us regarding a specific runway.  Take-off performance charts are an essential tool for pilots and operators in aviation, and we should use them.

These charts provide critical information regarding the take-off distance required, the climb performance, and the maximum weight that an aircraft can carry for a given runway length, elevation, temperature, and wind conditions.

Here is an example of the Air Tractor 802 fort the PT6-67AG engine.

Given the temperature, runway altitude, and aircraft ATOW we can get an indication of the Take-off Distance (over 50ft obstacle). For the specific conditions stated: Flaps 10, paved runway, no slope, no wind, we appreciate we would need a 3000ft ish, and the ground roll would be 75% of that.  That translates into using about 750m ground roll and be over 50ft trees at the end of a 1000m runway

Obviously, these charts are not accurate to the meter, and they aren’t approved above 12500 pounds either, but they give us a good starting point.

We, as organizations, could go even further and provide our front-liners with specific charts for each runway we operate.

Here is an example of a well-known firefighting runway in Chile, where an average of 6-10 SEATs coexist.

In this particular case, it shows the TOD required for two commonly used variants of PT6 for the AT802, the 67AG, and 67F, for a given weight (left column) and temperature. Two fuel scenarios are considered, 3/4 and 1/2, since the large 1400L tanks provide more endurance than the duty regulations (maximum 2-3hrs flight time, depending on the country).

Although this is an idea applicable to a very specific organization and model, the message that should continue to stand out is that we could provide our front-liners with information and training to make them more aware, more prepared, and safer.

3 points for everything:

I have discussed this topic and the need to always operate a tail wheel aircraft on 3 points several times.

Since they rated me in the Air Tractor 802, they told me that the operation of this plane is 3 points yes, or yes, and that it is safer to hit with the tail wheel first than it is to land it on the main gear. Since then I have spent 15 years watching pilots of all levels of experience dropping it like if it was hot, as Snoop Dog would say  following the established dogmas and paradigms.

3+2 is 5 but 4+1 is too, right? “

The world is full of people who hold dogmas so firmly that they don’t even realize they are dogmas” G.K. Chesterton

Here is one example of a video from a few years ago proving this aircraft lands on 1, 2 or 3 points as any other tailwheel aircraft.

From my perspective, teaching pilots to take-off and land always on 3 points, is not only an oversimplified way of training pilots, but it leads to dangerous scenarios during crosswind and gusty days, as well as the downsides we saw on the first incident where the pilot got all the way until the end of the runway on 3 points.


As Air Tractor states as part of the training syllabus,

“The unique flying characteristics of the Air Tractor, as well as the environment it usually operates in, will not usually allow a pilot to pull a checklist out and read it as a more conventional aircraft would”.

As much as I see the point on that, when they made it,  nothing stops us today from having an abbreviated checklist in the form of a flip card, to use before taking off or before other relevant phases of the flight.

The old school way of thinking is rooted in the agricultural view, when aircraft were simpler and scenarios different.

Flying a smaller Ag plane locally is not the same as operating a group of larger Single Engine Air Tankers or amphibious scoopers, overseas.

In our operational checklist (flip card), we should determine what are the killer items, which are less relevant, what flow makes more sense, which items should be “Read & Do”, and which ones can remain in memory. The items that must be crosschecked within a formation or group of aircraft should also be clarified.

Flap setting, propeller lever, and firegate condition should definitely be included.

Checklists should be brief.

Overpacking will result in not being used or being vomited without proper visual checks.

Here is an example of a self-explanatory flip card that was implemented on a new operator, where we were able to start the operation from scratch, leaving inherited paradigms behind.

The blue is the flip card for water operations and fire. The green is the flip card for land operations when interacting with a runway.

It must be crystal clear how we wish to operate through the checklist, what to read and do, what to check in memory, and what to crosscheck from one aircraft to another.


If you are still skeptical about checklists and their benefits, I recommend you to read the book “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande.

The core message of the book is that checklists are a simple and effective tool that can significantly improve the safety and efficiency of complex systems, including healthcare, aviation, and construction.

The author argues that checklists can help to address the problem of complexity and reduce the risk of errors and oversights that can lead to serious consequences. He provides numerous examples from various industries to illustrate how checklists have been used to improve safety, streamline workflows, and enhance communication and collaboration.

The book also emphasizes the importance of designing effective checklists that are tailored to specific tasks and contexts. The author suggests that checklists should be concise, clear, and easy to use, and that they should be developed in collaboration with the people who will be using them.

Overall, “The Checklist Manifesto” makes a compelling case for the use of checklists in complex systems, highlighting their potential to improve safety, reduce errors, and enhance communication and collaboration among team members.

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