747 Supertanker obtains interim approval

Above: Firefighters in Santiago, Chile pose with the 747 Supertanker January 27, 2017.

(Originally published at 4 p.m. MDT July 25, 2017)

Today the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) bestowed “interim” approval status on the 747 Supertanker so that it can help suppress wildfires. This means the operator of the aircraft, Global SuperTanker (GST), can compete for federal air tanker contracts, if any become available, and can drop on fires for the duration of the 17-month interim period.

States and countries that will only contract for air tankers that have IAB approval may now consider signing the aircraft. California has not been hesitant to use very large air tankers like the DC-10 when they first became available. The U.S. Forest Service is much more conservative about making significant changes to their fire aviation program, and only used the DC-10 after it had been proven successful by California. The agency is also very hesitant, for example, to use water-scooping air tankers that have been in service worldwide for decades.

IL-76 747
An IL-76 air tanker and 747 at Santiago Chile, January 30, 2017.

The 747 received interim approval from the IAB in January of this year but it expired six months later on June 15 even though most new air tanker designs are given 18 months of interim status, the objective of which is to provide a period for real world use on actual fires so that bugs, if any, could be worked out and the users of the service could evaluate the effectiveness. During the winter and spring there was little opportunity for an additional very large air tanker to be called up to fight wildfires. However during that period it was used for several weeks in Chile, dropping on dozens of fires.

The video below, filmed in Chile, shows the 747 dropping water because retardant was not available. But it was mixing into the water an enhancer that increased the effectiveness.

Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of GST, said that during retardant drop tests in June the aircraft passed every one except for the last one on the last day, and that was because it was done during strong winds. The maximum wind speed allowed for the tests, Mr. Wheeler said, is 10 mph, but at the time of that last drop the wind was gusting at 17 to 25 mph. The test was suspended, and since it was the last day there was no opportunity to repeat it during allowable wind conditions.

We asked the USFS about the results of the test and they declined to answer our question, saying to check with GST.

Today the USFS released a statement confirming the interim approval for the 747:

The interim approval is for 17 months during which time GST must take steps to ensure its 747 aircraft delivers retardant in a manner that is effective and efficient and aids firefighting efforts on the ground.

Under certain circumstances, limited contractual options for VLATs are also available to the Forest Service and various states that maintain agreements with the agency. These certain circumstances could potentially include the severe wildfire situations in California and Colorado.

GST filed a protest with the USFS when they were not allowed to bid on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for air tankers that had specifications making very large air tankers ineligible to apply. The USFS denied the protest, and Mr. Wheeler said he will be deciding soon if their company will carry the protest further to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Last week the USFS posted a notice that it intends, sometime in the future, to accept bids for CWN very large air tankers, such as the 747 and DC-10 that can carry at least 8,000 gallons. The 747 carries 19,200 gallons while the DC-10 can hold 11,600. Most “large” air tankers can carry 2,000 to 4,000 gallons.

The initial version of the Supertanker built by Evergreen in a 747-100 made its first ever drop on a fire eight years ago at the Railbelt complex in Alaska in 2009. It last received Call When Needed contracts from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service in 2013. When Evergreen went bankrupt Global Supertanker bought the hardware and the rights to the retardant system and installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.

C-130’s at Fresno Saturday

Above: MAFFS 6 and Tanker 116 at Fresno, July 22, 2017. Photo by Mathew Kirkpatrick.

Mathew Kirkpatrick and L.S. Braun took these photos of four C-130 air tankers at Fresno July 22. Thanks Mathew and L.S.!

MAFFS air tanker Fresno
MAFFS 4 and 9 at Fresno, July 22, 2017. Photo by Mathew Kirkpatrick. Click to enlarge.
Tanker 116 Fresno
Tanker 116 on final approach at Fresno, July 22, 2017. Photo by L.S. Braun.
MAFFS 9 Fresno
MAFFS 9 on final approach at Fresno, July 22, 2017. Photo by L.S. Braun.

A third MAFFS C-130 air tanker activated

Above: File photo of two MAFFS aircraft at Cheyenne, Wyoming April 30, 2014 for annual training and recertification.

The Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center has activated a third Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 airtanker. The aircraft will come from the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing in Reno, Nevada.

On July 10 the governor of California activated the two Air National Guard MAFFS aircraft based at Channel Islands in southern California, so this will bring the total number immediately available for firefighting to three.

There are still four others that could be activated — two each at Cheyenne and Colorado Springs.

The Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that convert a military aircraft into an air tanker can be installed in a C-130 in a matter of hours. The units hold up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant that is forced out of the tanks by compressed air.

Below is a time-lapse video of a MAFFS refilling during training at Boise April 21, 2017.

(If the video does not work, you can see it on YouTube.)

The concept behind the MAFFS is to have surge capacity. The units can be activated when ongoing wildfires reduce the ability of the 20 large air tankers on federal exclusive use contracts to respond to new initial attack and extended attack fires, as well as campaign fires.

Governors in the four states have the authority to activate their one or two MAFFS as needed. The National Interagency Fire Center can also call them up.

MAFFS 8 tail
The tail on the Reno MAFFS. Uncredited photo on the MAFFS – Expeditionary Group Facebook page.

Airport used for refilling air tankers with retardant on Detwiler Fire ran out of fuel

retardant p2v Redding
Reloading a P2V with retardant at Redding, August 7, 2014.

Most of the large air tankers working on the Detwiler Fire at Mariposa, California are reloading with retardant at Castle Airport 25 miles west of the fire. When an air tanker needs fuel, they will often have it pumped onboard at the same time the retardant tanks are being refilled. And sometimes a pilot will prefer to work a fire with less than a full tank of fuel so they can carry more retardant. They will have to refuel more often, but the weight savings is very important.

On Wednesday, according to a spokesperson for CAL FIRE, the vendor at Castle Airport ran out of fuel, so air tankers needing more had to divert to Mather Airport southeast of Sacramento to get fuel, and then fly to Castle for retardant before returning to the fire. The spokesperson said that by Thursday the fuel shortage had been resolved.

Fire officials are establishing a retardant site for helicopters so that they can drop long term retardant on the fire rather than water, which is less effective. This was also done on the Whittier Fire, as we reported a week ago. Below is the video from that fire.

DC-10 sets company record for hauling retardant

The operator of the three DC-10 Very Large Air Carriers, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, announced today that they set a company record yesterday, July 18, when Tanker 911 flew 10 missions in less than six hours of flight time to deliver 108,000 gallons of retardant to the Detwiler fire. That’s 10,800 gallons per sortie.

It is our understanding that they were reloading at Castle Air Force Base 25 miles west of the fire. Another one of the company’s DC-10’s, T-912, was also working the fire.

DC-10 dropping Detwiler Fire
DC-10 dropping on the Detwiler Fire on the afternoon of July 18. Screenshot from KCRA video.

Three SEATs in formation

Fred Celest sent us these photos he took from Tanker 873. Thanks Fred!

The Single Engine Air Tankers were returning from the Lee Creek Fire in Montana on July 9.

The middle plane in the formation is T-803 with pilot Matt Lutz. The third plane is T-855 piloted by Matt Jurgensen. All three planes are with New Frontier Aviation out of Fort Benton Montana.

3 single engine air tankers
Photo from T-873 of T-803 on the foreground and T-855 in the background. Photo by Fred Celeste.

Lead plane pilots evaluate the DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker

With the national media reporting on the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) and the Interagency Airtanker Board’s refusal to issue a meaningful interim certification or Exclusive Use or Call When Needed contracts to the 747 Supertanker, which can hold 19,200 gallons of fire retardant, we looked back on some of the history of Very Large Air Tankers, a category that includes the DC-10 and 747.

While CAL FIRE embraced the DC-10 and used it extensively until the state ran out of money, the USFS was very skeptical, to say the least. The agency is extremely slow in making any changes to their aerial firefighting program. They appear to have a bias against Very Large Air Tankers, like the DC-10 and 747, and water-scooping air tankers, even though they have all been used very successfully by other agencies. Finally after it had proven itself over a few years, a DC-10 received a Call When Needed contract, and later an Exclusive Use Contract, and Incident Commanders and Air Operations personnel were often very happy to see it in the air over their fires.

A lot of people, including some who leave comments on this site, have viewpoints about the effectiveness and performance of specific models of air tankers. Some of them are based on indisputable facts, and others are opinions developed from…. something else. So, like reading political news, be careful when consuming information.

On July 24, 2012 we wrote an article on Wildfire Today with quotes from evaluations of a DC-10 that were written by lead plane pilots hours after they had directed it on fires. The DC-10 almost always carries at least 11,600 gallons of retardant, rarely having to reduce the load because of density altitude issues.

Here’s the article:

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Evaluations of Tanker 911, one of the DC-10 very large air tankers

Tanker 911 dropping Poco Fire
Tanker 911 dropping on the Poco Fire in Arizona, 2012. Photo by Ian James.

We have seen the written evaluations of Tanker 911, one of the DC-10 very large air tankers, for some of the retardant drops the aircraft completed on fires in Arizona and Utah in June and July. The forms were signed by individuals identifying themselves as lead plane pilots.

The evaluation form consists of two parts; a narrative section, and assigning a grade for specific aspects of performance: Reload Turn Times, Maneuverability, Steep Terrain Operations, Drop Patterns, and Uniformity of Coverage. All of the grades were “Above Average” or “Exceeded Expectation”.

Here are the details that were hand written in the narrative section on the forms:

Poco Fire, Phoenix, Arizona; Gallons Delivered 11,700 x 6; June 16-19, 2012

  • Six loads
  • All drop patterns were good and uniform. Flat and steep terrain – excellent performance in all profiles.
  • CL [Coverage level] 6 utilized in timber and mixed brush.
  • Quantity and mass of load delivered allowed for higher than standard drop altitudes to minimize exposure in challenging terrain and still achieve good pattern on the ground.
  • Quantity delivered also means 1 pass, 1 exposure instead of 7 from a legacy platform carrying 2,000 gallons!
  • Very uniform and consistent pattern on the ground. Very accurate starts. Performed some split loads as needed.

Fox Fire, Tucson, Arizona; Gallons Delivered 11,700 x 2; 2 loads; 3 drops; June 18, 2012

  • 1 – CL 6 – Split Load – Started and stopped to tie in a road in front of structures. Very accurate start and stop. Last 2,000 gal reinforced first drop.
  • 2 – CL 4 – One drop. Excellent coverage! It would have taken 6 or 7 loads from a legacy platform to get same length of line.
  • Quick effective line production.

Six Shooter Fire, Globe, Arizona; Gallons Delivered 11,700; 1 load; 8 drops; June 17, 2012

  • This was an initial attack fire. The location of this 5-acre fire, 1,500 to 2,000 ft below a ridge line, necessitated a substantial decent profile to get over the target on speed and altitude. The DC-10 was very capable and provided excellent coverage on and around the entire fire. The fire was successfully stopped at the same perimeter when the tanker dropped!
  • Excellent drops and performance.

Shingle Fire, Cedar City, Utah; Gallons Delivered 11,700 x 4; 4 loads; July 2-3, 2012

  • CL 6
  • Good coverage and line production. Excellent pattern on the ground and saved lots of time vs utilizing smaller aircraft. We would not have been able to get the line needed done without this tool.
  • Long turn arounds loading at [illegible; looked like “IVA”, “IWA”, or “IUA”]. 2 hour flights but dollars/gal still comperable considering speed and gallons!

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And here is an excerpt from another article we wrote in 2012 about the DC-10:

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DC-10 air tanker delivers 373,600 gallons of retardant

One of DC-10 gallons retardant deliveredthe DC-10 air tankers has dropped about 373,600 gallons of retardant during 33 sorties on seven wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico over the last 10 days. The fires were: Little Bear fire, 257 fire, Grand fire, Poco fire, Six Shooter fire, Fox fire, and 177 fire.  They were all in Arizona except the Little Bear which was in New Mexico.

Eight of the nine air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service are 50+ year old P2Vs designed for maritime patrol. Their average retardant load is 1,948 gallons according to a 2007-2009 air tanker study. If all of those 373,600 gallons the DC-10 dropped in those 10 days had been delivered by a P2V it would have taken about 192 round trips to the fires.