CAL FIRE considering acquiring larger air tankers

The agency is looking at a range of alternatives, including the C-130, but no decisions have been made

Above: C-130’s in the aircraft boneyard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. Google Earth.

(Originally published at 10:19 a.m. MST January 20, 2018)

After hearing rumors that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, is considering acquiring C-130’s to use as air tankers, we talked with Dennis Brown, the agency’s Chief of Flight Operations. He confirmed that they are exploring the idea of obtaining some larger air tankers and said the C-130 is on the list of aircraft they are looking at, but emphasized that no decisions have been made. The source of the C-130’s, if that is the direction they choose to go, would be the same as their S-2’s, military surplus, such as the 70+ seen in the photo above in mothballs at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.

CAL FIRE has successfully used S-2 air tankers for about 40 years. The aircraft have served the agency well, but since they started acquiring them from the Department of Defense through the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s the air tanker state of the art has advanced significantly in spite of converting the S-2A and S-2E/G aircraft to modern turboprop engines.

S-2T air tanker
S-2T air tankers at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Last year the 1,200-gallon tankers, now known as S-2T’s, worked alongside the 19,000-gallon 747 which holds 15 times more retardant, about the same as three-quarters of CAL FIRE’s entire fleet of 23 S-2t’s.

The agency also had on CWN contract in 2017 a C-130 from Coulson (T-133) and an MD-87 (T-105) from Erickson AeroTanker. A Neptune BAe-146 from Neptune (T-12), was on an exclusive use contract. Those three tankers each have a capacity of at least 3,000 gallons.

Perhaps looking at an S-2T parked on the same ramp as the 747 at Sacramento McClellan Airport last year got people thinking.

Since the reborn 747, which came back in a slightly different configuration after a several-year hiatus, is relatively new to the air tanker world, we asked Mr. Brown how it performed while under a Call When Needed contract with the agency in 2017. He said that in the environments where it was assigned it did very well. Like many aircraft, especially new versions, he said they noticed a few things that needed to be worked on.

For the last several years CAL FIRE has been refurbishing and converting an S-2 into an air tanker to replace Tanker 81 that crashed near Yosemite National Park in 2014, killing pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. The work is nearly complete on what will become Tanker 79 and they expect to begin flight tests in the next week or two. This will bring the number of S-2T’s in the CAL FIRE fleet back up to their traditional number, 23. The Neptune BAe-146 on contract has temporarily replaced T-81 for the last couple of years.

New CAL FIRE helicopters

As we reported in December, CAL FIRE’s intended contract  to purchase up to 12 new firefighting helicopters, Sikorsky S-70i (Firehawks), from Air Methods/United Rotorcraft (AMUR), survived the protest. An administrative law judge ruled against a protest filed by AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corporation (AWPC, part of Leonardo Helicopters) clearing the way for the acquisition.

We asked Mr. Brown how many CAL FIRE intends to purchase, and he said at least one. In a perfect world they would like to buy one a year for 12 years (or possibly more quickly than that) but it is dependant on the helicopters being available at the right times, and more importantly, the state funds.

Los Angeles County Fire Department is acquiring similar helicopters.

firehawk helicopter LA County FD
A Los Angeles County Fire Department Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk helicopter demonstrates water suppression during a 2013 airshow. Photo credit: Trent Bell.

Videos of a DC-10 working a fire in New South Wales

Above: A DC-10 drops on the Masonite Road Fire in New South Wales. Screengrab from video by Raymond Terrace Fire & Rescue.

Check out these videos of a DC-10 dropping on the Masonite Road Fire near the Newcastle Airport in New South Wales. The fire burned 2,300 hectares (5,683 acres). The airport was closed at times due to degraded visibility caused by the smoke.

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UPDATE January 20, 2018: I found another video, of the DC-10 working the Pilliga fire.

Conair to convert six Q400s into multirole air tankers for France

Q400MR Bombardier
Bombardier Q400 dropping retardant. Bombardier photo.

The Conair Group has purchased six Q400 MR aircraft from Bombardier which it will convert into multirole air tankers for France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defence and Emergency Preparedness). Fire Aviation first covered France’s decision to acquire six  Q400s in July, 2017, but now we have confirmation that Conair will purchase the aircraft, convert them into multirole air tankers, and then transfer them to Securite Civile.

The Q400 MR can carry up to 10,000 liters (2,600 gallons) of water or retardant. The “MR” stands for multirole,  meaning the aircraft can be converted in a few hours to carry passengers.

In a medevac configuration it can accommodate six stretchers along with the necessary nurses stations and life support equipment, or it can transport 9 tons of cargo.

For several years Securite Civile has been pondering what to do about replacing their nine S-2’s that are approaching their structural life limit of 25,000 hours, according to the agency. Their plans announced in 2016 were to retire the S-2’s between 2018 and 2022 which would require a two-year extension of the type certificate. The goal was to acquire aircraft that could carry more water or retardant, would reduce operating costs, and would be multi-role.

France considered the CL-415 water-scooping amphibious tanker formerly made by Bombardier, but it is no longer in production with the program being sold to Viking Air Limited in 2016Viking is considering manufacturing them again, but for now they are providing service and support for the CL-215’s and CL-415’s operating around the world.

Securite Civile has operated two Q-400 air tankers since 2005, so retiring the S-2’s and acquiring more Q-400’s will reduce the complexity of the maintenance and operation of their fleet.

In addition to the nine S-2’s and two Q-400’s, France also has eleven or twelve CL-415’s and 40 helicopters.

Here is the automatic translation of the text in the following tweet by the Minister of the Interior:

I was involved this summer, with the fires that have affected our country: I just signed the acquisition of 6 Multirole aircraft for civil security. ✅ We renew our fleet air for fire fighting & project forces and material.

If you do not see the photos in the tweet below, click HERE.

A second 737 air tanker emerges from paint shop

Coulson’s Air Tanker 138 makes its debut

Air Tanker 138, the second of Coulson’s six recently acquired 737-300’s to emerge from the paint shop, is sporting the same livery as Air Tanker 137 that was introduced to the public in May.

Britt Coulson said the conversion of T-137 is almost complete. When it’s done in early February, T-138 will be inducted into the modification process.

The conversion of the company’s fourth C-130, T-134, is nearly done, Mr. Coulson said.

Air Tanker 138 Coulson
Air Tanker 138. Photos by Coulson.

Erickson receives contract to build two Aircranes for South Korea

Above: An Erickson Aircrane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 11:58 a.m. MST January 10, 2018)

Erickson Incorporated has received a contract to build two new Aircrane firefighting helicopters for the Korea Forest Service (KFS). These aircraft are in addition to a previously ordered S64E Aircrane currently under construction at Erickson and due to be delivered in the third quarter of 2018.  These two additional aircraft will be equipped with firefighting tanks, sea snorkels, foam cannons, glass cockpit, composite main rotor blades and night vision goggle capability.

In 2001 KFS became the first foreign government to purchase S-64s from Erickson. To date it has operated five Aircranes in South Korea while maintaining a contract for parts and service support.  This new contract brings the total number of orders for the KFS Aircrane fleet to eight, with the expectation of delivering the seventh and eighth aircraft by the end of 2019.

Erickson owns 20 S-64 Aircrane helicopters as part of their total fleet of 50 aircraft. The S-64 Helitanker is equipped with a 10,000 liter (2,650 gallons) tank capable of rapid snorkeling either fresh or saltwater.

Nominations being accepted for 2018 Aerial Firefighting Award

Aerial Firefighting Award

Nominations are now being accepted for the 2018 Aerial Firefighting Award, which recognises  a significant contribution by an individual or organization to aerial firefighting.

The Award was inaugurated in honor of the late Walt Darran and is previously known as the “Walt Darran Award”. Walt was a pioneer and advocate for advances in aerial firefighting. Being a highly experienced S2-T air tanker pilot and former highly decorated US Navy aviator from California, USA, Walt was a constant and passionate advocate for safety and improvement in the international aerial firefighting.

You can complete a nomination form at www.aerial-firefighting-award.com/

The closing date for nominations is March 2, 2018. The winner will be announced March 13 at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento CA, USA.

Previous winners:

  • 2014: George Petterson, USA
  • 2015: Philippe Bodino, France
  • 2016: Jim Cook, USA
  • 2017: Jacques Bonneval, France

NPS to hire branch chief for aviation

Above: National Park Service photo.

The National Park Service is expecting to hire a National Aviation Program Manager to fill the position vacated last month by the retirement of Jon Rollens. The GS-14 position provides leadership and direction for NPS aviation programs with specific emphasis on national aviation policy, standards and procedures.

There is only one “selective placement factor”. Applicants must have at least 90 days of wildland firefighting experience.

A pilot’s license is not required.

Skills the candidates should have include knowledge of:

  • Aircraft and associated support systems for resource management;
  • Wildland fire management, law enforcement, search and rescue, and related flying activities;
  • Evaluation and audit processes for aviation safety and risk management analysis.

Neither Mr. Rollens or his predecessor, Susie Bates, were pilots.

Before becoming NPS Branch Chief of Aviation in 2011, Mr. Rollens was the Regional Aviation Officer  for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northwest Region for nine years. From 1997 through 2002 he was a National Aerial Attack Systems Specialist for the Forest Service, and before that, a Helicopter Operations Specialist for the USFS Intermountain Region.


Our opinion:

The National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other federal land management agencies would benefit from having qualified pilots in their top regional and national aviation positions. We have been told that the USFS National Aviation Officer is not a pilot and only one of their Regional Aviation Officers is. A person in these jobs who does not know what they don’t know can be dangerous.

For a position that leads the entire aviation program, if it comes down to two applicants, one with 90 days as a wildland firefighter and another with a pilot’s license, the pilot should get the nod. Most of the complexity in these positions is on the aviation side, not the firefighting aspect. There is a great deal of fire expertise in the organizations that the Aviation Officers can tap into. A wealth of specific and detailed aviation knowledge from a pilots perspective is more rare.

Federal hiring procedures are ridiculously complex, but these agencies should figure out a way to be able to hire at the GS-13 and 14 level, a pilot with extensive program management skills, even if they don’t have firefighting experience.

Georgia buys two single engine air tankers

Above: File photo of two Thrush 510G aircraft, a standard model and one with a dual cockpit. Thrush photo.

(Originally published at 6 p.m. MDT December 27, 2017)

The state of Georgia’s Forestry Commission has purchased two Thrush 510G Switchback single engine air tankers (SEATs).

The 510G model was introduced by Thrush in 2012 featuring a redesign of everything forward of the firewall including a different engine, the 800 shp GE H80 turbine.

The version acquired by Georgia has a dual cockpit and control systems, unusual in a SEAT, but it enables the aircraft to serve in a training role for Georgia Forestry Commission pilots.

The “Switchback” part of the name is an option which means in addition to delivering 500 gallons of water or fire retardant, it has the ability to switch from agricultural spray duties to firefighting capabilities in a matter of minutes thanks to its unique fire gate delivery system. These were the first Switchbacks delivered by Thrush, even though they have sold more than 100 510G’s.

“We’re extremely proud to be adding the Switchback to our aerial firefighting fleet,” said Georgia Forestry Commission’s director, Chuck Williams. “It boasts many advantages for our firefighting efforts and heralds an exciting new chapter in our commitment to protect and conserve the more than 24 million acres of timber land across our state. You’ll see these aircraft deployed not just for rapid fire suppression – but also in the very important role of rapid fire detection, which can sometimes make all the difference in being able to contain a wildfire, versus having it become uncontrollable.”

Specifications of the 510G:

  • Working speed: 90-150
  • Stall speed as usually landed: 55 mph
  • Take-off distance at 10,500 pounds: 1,500 feet
  • Landing Distance as Usually Landed w/Reverse: 350 feet
  • Cruising speed at 55% power: 159 mph