Sept. 22, 2020

General aviation (GA) airports play a vital role in the U.S. infrastructure – from connecting rural communities to bringing a wide range of critical services to people and businesses throughout the country.

In late summer each year, when wildfires inevitably spark to become massive and dangerous conflagrations, GA airports, such as California’s San Bernardino International Airport (SBD), provide a life-saving service as bases for firefighting fixed-wing and rotorcraft operations.

“It’s no surprise that, considering a vast majority of airports in the United States are GA airports, these airfields are vital infrastructure, for not only transportation and economic viability, but also public safety,” said NBAA Western Regional Representative Phil Derner.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has called SBD home for its San Bernardino Air Base for more than 20 years, serving as the backbone of aviation firefighting in Southern California. At the height of fire season, a wide range of Air Attack aircraft including small, large and “very large” airtankers and numerous firefighting helicopters will refill at the facility from a plant that holds 100,000 gallons of mixed fire retardant.

Boeing 747-400 SuperTanker 944

This fire season, the Air Attack base at SBD has been a vital asset in the major firefights that have engulfed the region. According to CalFIRE, as of Sept.16, 17,000 firefighters remained on the frontlines of 27 major wildfires in the state, burning over 3.3 million acres with more than 4,200 structures destroyed.

“SBD proudly supports USFS on these critical aerial missions by providing support services such as fuel, GPU, stair trucks, tugs and forklifts. SBD also provides aircraft ramp space that often extends well beyond the 20-acre USFS air tanker base property,” said Mark Gibbs, the airport’s director of aviation. “Airports can be a vital link for people, emergency resources, and critical supplies during normal times – a role that is often amplified during emergency situations.”

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87

While today’s next-generation Air Attack aircraft, such as the Boeing 747-400 SuperTanker 944, were operating off of SBD’s massive 10,000’ x 200’ Runway 6/24, the airport experienced an average annual growth rate of 16% per year over the past five years. The airport supports more than 57,000 flights annually for charter, business aviation and GA operators.

“As we deal with wildfires on a scale we’ve never seen before, each airport becomes a close-in access point to deliver air attack resources that is no different than having a firehouse right on your corner,” said Derner.