A lake is near where both helicopter and plane can access the water and fire.

Which aircraft (if you had access to only one) is more efficient in putting out wildfires? Which aircraft is preferred to fly for this? What cost less to operate and which aircraft can deliver the most water per load and on the average?

I have added this link below on how this airplane delivers water. Sorry it is longer than 4 minutes. In the video at 4:49 the plane can touch down and refill without stopping.

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    $\begingroup$ If one type was better, the other type wouldn't exist. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ Please, who makes that airplane and where was the video shot. They seem to be on to a very good design! (A smaller prop amphibian also is seen). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ @RobertDiGiovanni en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beriev_Be-200 $\endgroup$
    – DeepSpace
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Tim You're completely agreeing with me... $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby - it's the way you tell 'em! Bit like chalk and cheese. $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 13:39

2 Answers 2


Both have their respective uses. A fixed-wing carries far more water (3,200 gallons or 12 tons for the Be-200 vs 100-700 gallons for helicopters), but takes more local infrastructure to operate, and is more difficult to discharge exactly where you want it. A helicopter is more precise, but carries less water. A heli is quicker to load up and discharge near the water, but a fixed-wing flies faster, so is better suited to delivering water or a custom mix a longer distance away.

You want both, not just one. You'd use helicopters to suppress smaller fires if possible before they get out of control, attack larger ones at specific spots, and fixed-wings to lay down longer lines of fire retardant against developed wildfires. Larger helicopters also support fixed-wings in this. Which is "better" if you could only have one kind... that's not so much an aviation question as a fire-fighting one.

As for cost, helicopters are normally less cost-effective, being far more expensive to operate per ton-mile. A large aircraft is more expensive in absolute terms. Being smaller and less demanding of the infrastructure, helicopters can be stationed in a more critical location and react more quickly.

It's not a worse/better question, it's tools for the job. Fixed-wing fire-fighting aircraft are more specialized, with their internal water storage, while fire helicopters can be as basic as a light utility heli carrying a water bucket.

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    $\begingroup$ During a local (San Jose, CA) fire in hilly terrain I observed the following division of labor: an airplane laid down strips of pink fire retardant. A chain of three or four helicopters ferried water from a nearby reservoir or lake, with only a few minutes spacing between helicopter arrivals at the fire. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ Another example that I've seen: a helicopter was able to easily get water from a nearby small lake surrounded by hills that'd make it difficult to get a Piper Cub to it. And that helicopter could have been used for e.g. search & rescue just by unhooking the water bucket, unlike the special-purpose fixed-wing aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ question revised $\endgroup$
    – Muze
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Helicopters may cost more per ton-mile, but usually require far fewer miles to do the job. I watched a variety of aircraft knock down an urban-interface fire: in an hour, the helicopter made twelve runs of a mile each pulling water out of a nearby stream, a gaggle of floatplanes made three ten-mile runs to a lake, and the big tankers made just a single run each, from an airport 30 miles away. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark With a body of water nearby, helicopters win, but you don't always get that luxury. Note that purpose-built fire aircraft like DHC-515 or Be-200 can scoop water bodies as well. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 17:08

It depends on what you are trying to do.

The planes aren't doing direct attacks. In other words, they don't usually drop on fires. They lay down lines of fire retardant or water as a fire break. The fire burns up to the line, slows or stops, and ground crews can go in and stamp out hot spots. The big Erickson helis can also carry retardant or water and perform a similar function. Since helis can be more precise, they can hit specific hot spots and cool off the fire.

Direct attacks can be used in some cases, but it's not really a great way to extinguish a fire. Actually putting a fire out isn't going to happen with a plane or a heli. They may succeed in cooling the blaze but they probably won't stop it.

Simple version: the fire goes out when it runs out of fuel. It runs out of fuel when there is nothing left to burn. A bomber doesn't carry enough slurry or water to snuff out a fire that is worthy of national news coverage. The strategy is to contain the blaze with retardant or water and allow it to burn up to lines and let crews and fuel exhaustion take care of it.


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