I often get questions about whether a given helicopter or airplane flying in our area means there is a problem. We get a lot of private aircraft that circle and look around, the occasional police or sheriff helicopter, and even the air national guard from time to time, but those aren't usually something we have to worry about. The important ones are the fire fighting aircraft and air ambulances, and they are the ones I document here

Note that Cal Fire owns and operates a wide variety of aircraft, most of which aren't often used locally. You can find a nice brochure full of pictures of the various equipment they use here, if you want more information, or see something that doesn't match the ones documented below:


The fixed fire fighting aircraft that usually work fires in our area come from an airfield in Hollister, though they can come from elsewhere if the usual equipment is busy or down for maintenance.

Air Attack

This plane circles overhead, above the tankers and helicopters. The chief on board directs the aircraft on what to go after, and controls traffic to avoid accidents. They also do reconnaissance and report on fire conditions to the dispatchers and the people working the fire below. For the curious, it's a Rockwell OV-10A "Bronco".

Air Tanker


These planes drop retardant on or around the fire as needed, then fly back to base to reload and return. Usually they are dispatched in pairs, along with the attack plane for command and control. These are Grumman S-2T aircraft.


Our usual helicopter is #106, a Bell UH-1H "Super Huey" from Alma station, down by Lexington reservoir. It carries a crew of firefighters it can drop off to work on the ground, and has a built in tank and siphon hose so it can do airdrops without the old style bucket hanging below. 106 is also fitted for rescue work, and can be used to get injured people out of tight places. It is not, however, an air ambulance, and doesn't usually transport patients to hospitals. (For that, see CalStar and Life Flight air ambulances below.)

Air Ambulances

The air ambulances we usually get come from Calstar. The helicopters in the middle and on the right are the old and new paint styles those units fly with. Occasionally we will get an air ambulance from Stanford Life Flight, which is the helicopter on the left. These come in response to traumatic accidents, like car crashes where the airbag deploys, falls, and similar things. Other medical events can also cause the medics to request an air ambulance if they determine something serious is happening and the patient needs to be sent to a trauma center immediately. Occasionally a CHP helicopter may transport patients as well.

Those are far and away the most common aircraft that work emergencies in our area. In rare circumstances - big fires, fires during the off season, and similar events - you may see unfamiliar fire fighting aircraft, but these are the ones we get the vast majority of the time.


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