The Californian airman flying the DC-10 waterbomber in Canberra's skies

Captain Dan Montelli says he comes from the world's best wine-producing region. On that we disagree.

But the pilot of the giant DC-10 which sorties out of Canberra airport does think Australia exceeds his homeland in terms of fire.

"I come from California and we've had some fires, but I don't really think anything like this where there was a concentration of a lot of fires in one area before," he said as he gave The Canberra Times a guided tour of the waterbomber he flies over the fire-ravaged southern part of the ACT.

"It was eye-opening."

The aircraft was built in 1988 and saw service with passenger airlines before being stripped out and converted for firefighting.

The big conversion was to put three tanks on its underbelly. In the aerial firefighting depot on the far side of Canberra Airport from the passenger terminals, the tanks are filled with a mix of water and fire retardant.

For the past two weeks, the plane piloted by Captain Montelli has been dropping the pink liquid to slow the spread of fires across the south of the ACT and NSW. It has been renamed "Nancy Bird" after the Australian aviator Nancy Bird Walton, who in the '30s became famous as the "Angel of the Outback".

On each trip, he and his two crew members can put down about 44,000 litres.

"What we normally do is put it on the flanks or the head of the fire to kind of slow it up so the firefighters can get in and put the fire out," he said.

It is dangerous work because it's low-level flying of a big and cumbersome aircraft, "by hand", as the pilot puts it, rather than relying on computers and automatic navigation.

Flight engineer Gage Lowery - the man who presses the button. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Flight engineer Gage Lowery - the man who presses the button. Picture: Jamila Toderas

As Mr Montelli's crew arrived in Australia, the three-man American crew of a different type of air tanker died when it crashed in heavy smoke in the Snowy Mountains.

Captain Montelli recognises the seriousness of the job, but loves the pleasure of it.

"It's probably the best aviation job I've ever had. You actually get to fly the plane. The auto-pilot's hardly ever used because you're doing a lot of hand flying," he said.

"But at the same time, when you're having fun, and we're doing a job that I really love, you're looking down at the area because you've got a good view of everything, and you're seeing homes burn.

"You know that animals are being killed down there. It's sad so when I come in and make my drop I want to make sure that everything is right on spot. I want to make sure I lay my retardant down. It's a lot of pride putting retardant down where it needs to be."

The plane is stripped out inside to keep the weight down. There is the basic insulation and all the internal cabling and a bare floor, but not the 380 seats and overhead lockers which would be in the passenger version.

The stripped interior. Picture: Jamila Toderas

The stripped interior. Picture: Jamila Toderas

At the end of the inside of the Canberra DC-10 is the Australian flag alongside the Stars and Stripes - and a hammock for crew and the accompanying American maintenance staff to relax while waiting for the call from the sky. The tanks underneath are kept filled with retardant and ready to go. Fires wait for nobody.

There are three seats in the cockpit, for the captain, co-pilot and, behind them, the flight engineer.

"The best job in this cockpit is for the flight engineer because he actually makes the drop," Captain Montelli said.

"When we're flying on a typical run, I usually have a 'bird dog' (a smaller plane). He's my lead plane - he's out in front of me.

"He's talking to me on the drop, where they actually want the retardant. I'm just basically following him and when he gives me the command to drop, I tell my flight engineer to do the drop and he pushes this button and it releases about 44,000 litres of retardant."

Our man has the inside story on the DC-10 engine. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Our man has the inside story on the DC-10 engine. Picture: Jamila Toderas

The plane can't land if the liquid isn't dropped. Because of the tanks underneath, the undercarriages had to be altered and that means they simply can't bear the weight and pressure of landing with a fully laden aircraft. If the DC-10 goes out on a mission but can't lay down the retardant line, it has to dump the retardant in the wilderness before landing.

The crew travels light - or as light as you can travel in a big aircraft. The hanger at Canberra airport is packed with spare tires (which can be changed by jacking up the aircraft by a few millimetres) and a spare engine.

And they carry spares with them in the plane in case they get diverted and land elsewhere. "We're able to go anywhere in the country of Australia. We have spare parts so that if anything breaks, we can throw them on our plane," Captain Montelli said.

"Down below in the cargo hold we carry spare tires, jacks, brakes - anything we need in order to make us ready to fight fire."

Captaining a huge firefighting waterbomber is not routine.

"When that call comes and it's time to go fight fires, it's exhilarating," he said.

From the ground, there is gratitude.

This story Inside the huge waterbomber helping fight our fires first appeared on The Canberra Times.