Three DC-10 air tankers at Castle

Tankers 919, 911, 912 at Merced 8-30-2014

Tankers 910, 911, and 912 at Castle Airport, 8-30-2014. Photo by 10 Tanker.

On August 30 the latest DC-10 air tanker to be retrofitted, Tanker 912, joined its’ sisters, T-910 and T-911 at Castle Airport near Merced, California. It has been carded by the U.S. Forest Service and is ready to go, according to 10 Tanker Air Carrier.


Report released on CL-415 accident in Newfoundland and Labrador

T-286 partially submerged

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has released an investigation report on the CL-415 water-scooping air tanker that was involved in an accident on Moosehead Lake in Newfoundland and Labrador July 3, 2013, which we first covered HERE. Fortunately the two pilots were not injured and climbed out of the partially submerged aircraft, used a cell phone to call their headquarters, and waited on the wing for 30 minutes until they were rescued.

The previous day the flight crew had completed 53 water-drop flights at a fire northeast of Wabush, Newfoundland and Labrador, with each flight taking about 3 minutes. The accident occurred on the first flight of the next day while they were working on a wildfire, scooping water from Moosehead Lake in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The scooping system on their CL-415 had a feature that when activated by an Auto/Manual switch would automatically retract the water-scooping probes that while skimming the surface of a lake inject water into the tank. The system, when on Auto, allows a predetermined amount of water into the tank. The water drop control panel computer uses the aircraft’s zero-fuel weight and the weight of the onboard fuel and chemical foam to calculate the maximum amount of water that can be scooped without exceeding the aircraft’s maximum take-off weight of 47,000 pounds.

The Auto/Manual switch was in the Manual position on the first flight that day and the probes did not retract while scooping, resulting in a 3,000-pound overweight condition. The probes being down for an extended period of time combined with the too-heavy aircraft meant that it was on the lake surface for a much longer distance than on the previous days flights, 3,490 feet versus 1,200 feet after touchdown. As land approached, the pilot turned the aircraft to use more of the lake surface. The initiation of the left turn resulted in the left float contacting the water while the hull became airborne. This created a downward force on the left float, which acted as a pivot point around which the aircraft rotated, causing the hull to impact the water.

The forward force of 1.1 g was not sufficient to activate the emergency locator transmitter which requires 2.0 g, and it was not manually activated by the flight crew. One of the pilots was able to escape with a life vest, but the other vest floated away out of reach. Neither could gain access to the life raft located in the rear of the fuselage. The pilot contacted company personnel by cellular telephone and advised them of the situation. Within about 30 minutes, Department of Natural Resources employees arrived by boat and transported the flight crew to shore.

The aircraft floated partially submerged for at least four days, eventually settling on the lake bottom about 225 feet from the southern shore of the lake. There was substantial damage to the aircraft. The report described it as “destroyed”.

On August 14, 2014 another water-scooping air tanker was involved in an accident in Canada. A single-engine Air Tractor 802 Fireboss crashed and and sank while scooping water on Chantslar Lake in British Columbia, Canada about 30 kilometers west of Puntzi Mountain.

Below are some excerpts from the report on last year’s CL-415 accident:


Because the PROBES AUTO/MANUAL switch locks in the MANUAL position, an inadvertent movement of the switch from the MANUAL selection would be unlikely. However, the switch can be easily moved from the AUTO to MANUAL selection by simply pulling the centre pedestal cover rearward during removal.

At the end of the previous day, the aircraft was shut down and the switch was left in the AUTO position. The centre pedestal cover was installed and remained there until the following day, when it was removed by the Pilot Flying (PF). Neither of the pilots purposely repositioned the switch during the occurrence flight. Therefore, it is likely that the PROBES AUTO/MANUAL switch was inadvertently moved from the AUTO to MANUAL position when the centre pedestal cover was removed.

An inadvertent movement from the AUTO to the MANUAL selection can lead to the aircraft being in an overweight situation if the flight crew does not monitor the water quantity. When a flight crew is operating with the switch in the AUTO selection, there is an expectation that the probes will always automatically retract at the predetermined water quantity, as was the case on the 53 flights of the previous day. When the flight crew expects the system to work properly, it is likely that less priority is given to the importance of monitoring the water quantity.

The aircraft flight manual (AFM) instructs flight crews to monitor the water quantity even when the PROBES AUTO/MANUAL switch is in the AUTO selection. At the time of the occurrence, the flight crew was occupied during the scooping run with other flight activities, and did not notice that the water quantity exceeded the predetermined limit until after the tanks had filled to capacity. This situation resulted in the aircraft being over the maximum take-off weight.

2.7 Firefighting training

Aerial firefighting is a specialized operation that not only requires the flight crew to be competent in their aircraft operation skills but also to be familiar with the specialized techniques associated with using the aircraft to fight fires. This familiarity allows crews to better adapt to difficult flying situations under intense workload. The Newfoundland and Labrador Government Air Services (NGAS)  did not provide any specific ground training syllabus for aerial firefighting.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Chris.


Wayne Coulson, on the Martin Mars and their C-130

Philippine Mars

Philippine Mars, July 17, 2014. (Screen grab from the Coulson video below.)

AirInsight recorded a very interesting audio interview today with Wayne Coulson, the CEO of Coulson Flying Tankers. Most of the interview covered the history of their two Martin Mars aircraft, the Philippine Mars and the Hawaii Mars, but he also discussed their C-130Q air tanker that carries 4,000 gallons of fire retardant. You can listen to it below.

The Martin Mars, built in 1945, were converted to water scooping air tankers and are not amphibious like the CL-215/415 — they always have to land on water. The huge aircraft can carry 7,200 gallons of water which can be mixed with gel concentrate to drop on fires.

The Hawaii Mars has been busy fighting fires off and on for quite some time, however it does not have a contract this year and is for sale, Mr. Coulson said. They have been talking to an interested buyer who wants to put it in a warbird collection in Hawaii, but nothing is finalized yet.

Below is an excerpt from the August, 2014 issue of a Coulson company newsletter in which Mr. Coulson describes some of the recent history of the aircraft:

We took the Hawaii Mars to the October, 2007 San Diego fire storm in Southern California. In 2008, we spent the summer at Lake Shasta in Northern California when the State declared a National Emergency after thousands of lightning strikes. 2009 led us to Southern California with the USFS, where we spent 160 days in the Los Angeles basin at Lake Elsinore. 2010 brought us back to BC which was a slow fire season. In 2011, we got out early and performed a 20-day contract in Mexico that was featured on a Discovery Channel show, Mighty Planes; we then ended up spending the rest of the fire season in Alberta. In 2012 and 2013, the Mars was back in BC.

The Philippine Mars has not seen firefighting action in years. In the May, 2014 newsletter Mr. Coulson wrote about the plans for the aircraft:

We continue to make progress on the transfer of the Philippine Mars to the Pensacola Naval Museum located in Florida.

This project has been three years in the making and I believe this summer we will be delivering the Mars to Pensacola as we continue to finalize the paperwork.

The trade will allow us to acquire two C-130 Hercules aircraft, currently located at the Museum, which will become a significant parts supply for our firefighting C-130. We will be sending a team to Pensacola to retrieve these aircraft and I will continue to provide updates as we move forward. Other aircraft that will be part of this trade will be a Grumman F6F Hellcat. For your information, the Grumman F6F Hellcat was one of the best aircraft carrier fighters in the Pacific theatre in 1943 and was superior to the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero.

The other aircraft of interest is the NK 1 Japanese Rex which was built in 1943 as a float plane fighter. This aircraft also operated in the Pacific theatre, and, once we receive these two colourful aircraft, we will provide the interesting history of each unique flying machine.

In the interview Mr. Coulson said he expects they will fly the Philippine Mars to Pensacola in October. With a 14-hour range, they could fly non-stop, however going over the Rocky Mountains without deicing capability would be problematic, so they are planning to land at Lake Elsinore in southern California to refuel, then fly direct to Pensacola from there.

The video below, recorded on July 18, 2014, shows the  Philippine Mars with all four engines running for their weekly start.


A DC-10 reloads at Castle Airport

Tanker 910 at Castle Airport

Tanker 910 at Castle Airport.

Yesterday we wrote about the DC-10 air tankers and how they frequently work out of Castle Airport, a former U.S. Air Force bomber base near Merced, California. Today we have some photos from the base contributed by Stanley Bercovitz who is serving as a ramp manager and public information officer at the base.

Tanker 910, a DC-10

Tanker 910, a DC-10, reloads with retardant at Castle Airport.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport

Once the tanker is stopped and the chocks are set the parking tender waves in the retardant loaders. The side of the tank has three ports and at least two are always used to fill the tank at Castle. After loading has started a mechanic will climb a ladder and monitor the level of retardant, eventually giving a signal to stop loading.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport

A mechanic talks to the flight crew through a wired headset, watching each engine as it starts. Once all three are running, he puts the headset into a compartment inside the nose gear and gives a thumbs-up to the pilot and the parking tender.

Retardant mixing operation at Castle Airport.

Retardant mixing operation at Castle Airport.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport

The flight crews prepares to receive a meal via a bucket on a rope.


DC-10 air tankers find a temporary home at Castle airport

Over its 73-year history Castle Air Force Base just northwest of Merced, California has hosted a variety of large aircraft on the 30 parking pads, including B-52 bombers and KC-135 refueling air tankers. After the base closed in 1995 it became known as Castle Airport, operated by Merced County.

In 2013 when the 257,000-acre Rim Fire was burning nearby, the airport started to host a different kind of air tanker, firefighting aircraft that drop retardant on wildfires. Last year and this year it was designated as a Call When Needed air tanker base, activated only when specifically needed. The taxiways, parking areas, and the 11,802-foot runway, all designed to support large bombers, make it a facility capable of handling quite a few Large and Very Large air tankers, including C-130s, MD-87s, BAe-146s, and DC-10s. The reloading base has been set up just northwest of the 30 B-52 parking pads. (map)

This year while hosting the 11,600-gallon DC-10s and other air tankers, the base has pumped almost half a million gallons of retardant into aircraft. A Very Large Air Tanker such as a DC-10 departing the airport in the center of the state could reach the Oregon or Mexican borders within about 45 to 50 minutes.

The two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers at Castle today, Tankers 910 and 911, have been there often over the last several weeks, however they do move around to other bases depending on the need. Occasionally this year they have both attacked the same fire, placing over 23,000 gallons of retardant on the vegetation as the pair assisted firefighters on the ground. The two aircraft both dropped on the fast moving Oregon Fire near Weaverville, California shortly after it started late in the day on August 24. Their air drops along with efforts from other aircraft and of course boots on the ground held the fire to 580 acres. Today it is 85 percent contained.

Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their third DC-10, Tanker 912, is in the process of being “carded” by the Interagency AirTanker Board at Albuquerque, New Mexico. Engineers are fine-tuning the computer programming for the three external retardant tanks. Next week, he said, it should be ready to go and will be brought on as an exclusive use air tanker under the “additional equipment” provision of the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest service.

The video below reports on the Junction Fire in California, and how air tankers played a vital role in minimizing the damage.

National Public Radio has an interesting article about air tankers. Below is an excerpt:

…Bill Hahnenberg, an incident commander with the Forest Service, was initially skeptical of this new generation of air tankers — he wasn’t sure how helpful they’d be in the fight against Western wildfires. Then, in August 2012, Hahnenberg was leading the fight against the Springs Fire in the Idaho mountains.

If firefighters hadn’t been able to get a handle on it quickly, there was a chance it would be unusually destructive: “There was a high likelihood we would have been managing that fire for, rather than a few more days, probably a few more weeks,” he says.

Hahnenberg says the fire was at risk of jumping over a mountain and burning into two small towns. He had just a few hours to get fire retardant on the ground.

“At that point we’re looking for the biggest, heaviest hammer we could bring to the table,” he says.

That hammer was sitting at the Boise airport, about 40 miles away. It was a giant DC-10 air tanker the government had just hired to fight such fires. Two retardant drops later, the fire was boxed in and ground crews began to get the upper hand. In the end, the Springs Fire turned out to be sort of a nonevent — a sign of success.

“Once an air tanker has contained that fire, we never see that, because it doesn’t show up on the news,” says Scott Fisher, who oversaw the Forest Service’s air tanker program until his retirement this summer.

The DC-10 used on the Springs Fire was part of the agency’s effort to grow and modernize the tanker fleet. In 2000, the government had more than 40 air tankers on contract. But many of those were built during World War II and the Cold War, and two crashes of so-called “legacy” air tankers led many to be parked for good. The number of air tankers would later fall to just nine.

Fisher says that number was simply too low. “Not having sufficient resources caused the system to be stretched,” he says. “And certainly because of that there were fires that we just did not get to.”



Wildfire activity in the Northwest requires more aviation assets than in an average year

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association has collected information about what some of their members are doing this summer.


“WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2014 — In what appears to be a record-setting year for wildland fires in the West, aerial firefighters are battling more wildfires in the Pacific Northwest states, and deploying their aircraft and crews accordingly.

For example, CHI Aviation has spent more time on wildfires in Washington State compared to previous years, according to Larry Kelley, the operator’s Director of Fire Operations in Boise, Idaho. In that regard, the company’s Ogden, Utah-based Bell 212 has been flying out of Wenatchee, Washington, for the past 30 days.

“We almost never got to Washington in previous years, but now we’re seeing more activity there,” Kelley noted. “In most years, the majority of our flying was in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Colorado.” Currently, CHI Aviation has three Bell 205s and one Bell 212 under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts, the same number as last year.

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, also cited greater fire activity in the Pacific Northwest. “The fire season in the Pacific Northwest began far earlier, and has been much more active to date this year, than in prior years,” he said. “That has contributed to a greater tempo of flying, and accounted for a 10 percent increase in the number of our flight hours, although part of that is because we are currently operating 10 tankers, versus the eight we operated last year.”

Snyder pointed out that the company’s fleet now includes four BAe 146 regional jets, modified for aerial firefighting as next generation tankers—along with six of its legacy P2Vs. “We are now fielding more next-generation airtankers than any other operator in the US,” he noted. “The reviews from the field about their performance have been extremely positive.”

Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters, Inc., in Portland, Oregon, reported that the operator currently has five aircraft engaged in the Pacific Northwest, including four Vertol 107s and one 234 Chinook. Last year at this time, the number of helicopters deployed there was four.

“Because of the severe fire season in the Pacific Northwest, the Model 234 has been working on fires under an exclusive use contract, from Leavenworth, Washington for the past five to six weeks,” Saylor said. “We have also assigned one of the Vertol 107s to Winthrop, Washington, where it is operating on a call-when-needed agreement.”

He explained that, to date, the number of hours flown on wildland fires has about equaled what was flown at this time in 2013, although the company is preparing for a longer period of activity. “Last year’s fire season was very active, but it tapered off quickly by September. While I can’t say for sure—given what we have seen so far—we don’t believe the 2014 season will drop off as quickly,” Saylor said.

Columbia, he added, hired a few additional copilots to cope with increasing demand, along with the acquisition of six Army surplus CH-47D Chinook helicopters. “We anticipate two will be operational and possibly under wildland firefighting contracts next year.”

This year, Intermountain Helicopter of Sonora, California, began operating its Bell 212 for the first time in USFS Region 1, which encompasses the Northern Rocky Mountains and much of the Pacific Northwest. In prior years, the helicopter was used largely in Northern California, according to Drew Njirich, President of the Sonora, California-based operator. The helicopter, he reported has been flying from a base near Bozeman, Montana.

“Although we were on one small fire in Nevada, most of our activity has been in Montana, Oregon and Idaho because of lightning strikes,” Njirich said. In fact, the Johnson Bar fire near Grangeville, Idaho, was the company’s most recent assignment, which concluded with the release of the helicopter on August 19.

For this fire season to date, the company has flown about 100 hours on the fires—a number which Njirich called “a very low-end estimate.” That included initial attack missions which involved transporting firefighters, firefighting equipment, and back haul of smoke jumper gear, as well as water drops on some of the larger fires.

“There is no question that the wildland fire danger is increasing in areas of the country where the risk had historically not been as great,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “The privately operated aerial firefighting industry has long demonstrated that it has the resources to meet the wildland fire threat anywhere, especially we are experiencing longer, more destructive fire seasons.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry in the US.”


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kelly.


Video of Hughes NH 500 helicopter during firefighting activity in Italy

The video shows an Italian Forest Service Hughes NH 500 filling a Bambi Bucket from a variety of water sources, and then finally at the end shows it dropping water on a wildfire.

Here is a description of their firefighting helicopter program:


“Among the Italian Armed Corps, the Corpo Forestale dello Stato (CFS, Italian for Forestry Service) acts as a police and ranger force, responsible for protecting Italy’s natural and environmental resources and eco-systems. Its duties include the prevention of environmental violations and wildfires, safeguarding animal species, ensuring antipoaching and habitat protection, and providing SAR in mountainous areas.

The CFS has a fleet of helicopters which includes NH-500Ds, AB-412s, Erickson S-64Fs and AW-109Ns used for fire-fighting, early spotting of wildfires, and coordination of other aircraft or with ground-based firefighters.

The Service also owns a P.180 fitted with a forward looking infra-red (FLIR)/TV camera system for ground surveillance in anti-pollution monitoring and geological/wildlife control, which can easily be configured as an air ambulance by means of a medical kit, and can ferry specialized teams or VIPs to various helicopter stations.

In summer, the aircraft are strategically deployed in areas where wildfire risk is higher.”