United Aeronautical buys Aero Union P-3 air tankers

(Last Updated On: October 16, 2013)
Aero Union P-3
Aero Union P-3 taking off from Fox Field in 2007. Photo by Alan Radecki.

Fire Aviation has learned that the eight P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union have been purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. 

The first attempt to sell Aero Union’s assets occurred February 28, 2012, at an auction. While some of the spare parts and other equipment sold, the eight aircraft did not.

It is not clear what UAC is going to do with the P-3s, but being a spare parts and manufacturing facility, it is doubtful they will be operating them as air tankers. UAC owns and operates an active aircraft yard next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon (at 32.147513° -110.855944°), so the aircraft could be parted out or preserved in long term storage like dozens of S2 aircraft at UAC’s facility. CAL FIRE has 23 S2 air tankers in their air tanker fleet. Davis-Monthan is the facility where thousands of military aircraft go to die become mothballed. Or, in the case of the almost new C-27Js that have been flown there recently, they can be stored until they are transferred to another government agency.

UAC bought other inventory formerly owned by Aero Union, including spare parts packages and ground support items. They also acquired at least some of the intellectual property rights for the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS), a self contained aerial firefighting system that can be loaded into the cargo holds of C-130 aircraft. Aero Union built both generations of the MAFFS under contract for the U.S. Forest Service, beginning with the first ones in the early 1970s and the second generation, called MAFFS2, first used on a fire July 15, 2010.

MAFFS unit in Cheyenne
MAFFS2 unit in a C-130 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, showing the two-person loadmaster crew. May 7, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Eight of the MAFFS2s are used by Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units when needed and called up by the USFS in a surge capacity when the small remaining fleet of large air tankers under contract to the agency are overwhelmed by wildfire activity.

P-3s at McClellan AFB
P-3s at McClellan AFB, Oct. 6, 2012. Google Earth.

Aero Union began in Redding, California in 1960 as Western Air Industries, changed the name to Aero Union, and moved to Chico in 1964. They began acquiring military surplus P-3 Orion aircraft in 1990, beginning with two and later increasing the total to eight. In 2005 a group of investors in the Seattle area bought the company and moved it to the former McClellan Air Force Base at Sacramento in 2010.

Under the new management Aero Union began laying off their staff, which degraded the organizational structure necessary for maintaining the aircraft, built between 1962 and 1965. The U.S. Forest Service canceled their air tanker contract with Aero Union in July of 2011, saying safety inspections were not being completed, and shortly after that the company laid off most of their employees. At the time of the cancellation six of the P-3s were still under contract and being used regularly on wildfires. Today, seven of them are at McClellan and an eighth is in Canada where it was undergoing maintenance when the company shut down.

37 thoughts on “United Aeronautical buys Aero Union P-3 air tankers”

  1. Their fleet is just a couple of hangars down from where I work. They are not airworthy at all and I have no doubt that they will be cut up. 🙁

    1. living in Prescott Arizona in the 1990’s ,we felt protected by the “OO” as it took-off and landed at the Fire Cashe loved the sound those huge engines made as they carried there payloads off to a far away fire…….those plains saved alot of forest they will be missed.

  2. Not airworthy at all is an interesting statement. All they would need is catch up maintenance due to sitting for a year and they would be airworthy in every sense of the word. Outside of the BRP/Avenger Engineering requirements set out for them to perform firefighting operations, there is no requirement they would any issue meeting to be considered airworthy. The airframe ‘issues’ that a couple of them are purported to have are only remotely of concern when performing low level firefighting operations.

  3. Ryan has no idea what he is talking about. Check history before posting “they are not airworthy at all” P3’s were by FAR the strongest platform out there. It was the new owner that ruined them financially. Aero Union was the first back in the air after the first shut down due to their impeccable maintenance history.

  4. ummm they haven flown in over 2 years. How in the hell is that airworthy? Look, I pass them EVERY DAY. They HAVE NOT moved at all.

  5. And by the way, i have NEVER seen/heard anyone even running the things. If you want to go take one up for a spin, feel free. They are going to need a lot of work to even get them into a ferryable condition.

    1. They have been run and maintained until very recently… I personally spoke with someone just a few months ago who said they went from once a week per aircraft to twice a month. As far as getting them back to fighting status that may take a bit now if they have been neglected, but it doesn’t mean they’re not airworthy. Just because you have proximity doesn’t mean you have knowledge.

  6. Well, it depends on who you ask…according to the Forest Service they were not airworthy, but according to the FAA they are. The management at the Forest Service had already declared those P3’s on contract as airworthy for the fire season 2011. And they were and doing a great job. The P3 fleet can fly, but without a customer for aerial firefighting, they cannot be used since they are now only certificated for commercial use under fire fighting operations.
    What Ryan fails to understand is that we flew those planes home after the contract was cancelled and had they not been airworthy, we wold have been in violation of the FAR’s.

    Unfortunately people who are ignorant of the facts are allowed to comment in a public forum and those words can me mistakenly taken as fact.

  7. Depends on the definition of Airworthy. You can aircraft going after
    sitting a lot longer than 2 years in a dryish climate. We don’t realy know what was done to “pickle” them prior to shut down. I’d say something was done by the bank to protect the systems-which are the biggest deal.
    Airframes not so much if there is little corrosion opportunity.
    I wonder what is going on here….?

  8. Wow….more peeped tling other peeps what the do and do not know…for the uninitiated……if the aircraft was properly preserved into non flyable storage……..then it WILL take time to get into airworthy condition

    For those of u who have not handled a wrench, signed a logbook, put an aircraft into flyable or non flyable storage…..

    Both Nate and Ryan are correct..all governed by the FAR’s

  9. Correction. Again….if acft was NOT properly put into non flyable storage….then it WILL take time to get airworthy

  10. The other conundrum is the USFS version of airworthy in contracts language and real world operation versus the Public Use heading of aircraft operation and how the BRO of 2002 like to chirp about the FAA absent or not wanting. to accept responsibilty

    After readng the BRP again last night……..the USFS/ USDOI aren’t that faaar behind in responsibility in contracting operations let alone owning up to the fact they are as equally responsible for where we are today

  11. Forget the A model. Plenty of more recent C’s rotting in the desert. But DOD/Navy won’t let go.. what a shame.

    1. Then they could be returned to airworthy with enough money for required inspections and compliance?

  12. Was the tanks part of the deal? 3410 U.S. gallons constant flow system, can be remove in one day by four technicians. I would think the STC goes with the tanks? Any current airworthy P 3’s, L 188’s, Electra’s looking for a fire fighting job?

  13. 3 or 4 were going strong, working in colorado working right before the usfs cancellation, be a shame if these assets are going away. State of colo was looking into getting their own fleet, …before the floods hit…

  14. Gents:

    If they still have airworthiness tickets on them (and at last check they did), to the FAA they are airworthy. Might need a checkup in order to fly, but they are not grounded by the FAA. Unairworthy is a serious term and should be used very sparingly.

    USFS called them “unsafe” to get out of their contract with Aero Union because AU didn’t have them on the Avenger maintenance program that took into account using them as fire fighters — which the Lockheed Military maintenance program does not do. That was a USFS contractual requirement. That and some other political issues with AU management. That’s it. The aircraft have zero known airworthiness issues from the FAA. AU was in trouble with the FAA only because they said they were going to be on the Avenger program and updated their maintenance program to include it, but then never fully incorporated it. That doesn’t make the airplanes unairworthy, just put their repair station up for a large fine.

    New owner may want to part them out, but it’s unlikely to me they would do that from McClellan so they have to go somewhere don’t they? That includes flying them unless your going to move them ala the last Shuttle and drive them down I-5.

    If these were re-freshed and put on the Avenger Maintenance program fully, the USFS would most likely consider them for service just because they are so limited with resources right now. They are still viable airplanes with life left in them but unfortunately, all that wanted to purchase them from the bank and get them up and going were unable to seal the deal and United Aeronautical looks like a chop-shop. Maybe they’ll sell a couple units to someone who will refurbish, maintain properly and get on contract.

    I’m not sure anyone on this forum knows what United Aero is definitely doing so anyone’s conjecture is as accurate as anyone else’s I guess.

    Sorry to hear it if they are chopped up. They have life left in them and perform VERY well compared to other options out there.

    1. From the little research I did on the airworthy subject, it sounds like P3 was not in compliance with the FAA Type Certificate. I went and read the TCDSs, both the USFS and AeroUnion ones, specifically note 4 indicated the aircraft had to be maintained in accordance with the Avenger program. Now if AU was maintaining the aircraft in accordance with the TC is for some that worked at AU to end to tell us, I have no idea. Still sad to see the old girls striped down to nothing but hulks and eventually scrapped.

      http://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgMakeModel.nsf/0/78f7a98a533ab6898625787700634734/$FILE/T00006LA%20Rev%203.pdf

      http://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgMakeModel.nsf/0/af60597adec1de6f8625788800510c0f/$FILE/A32NM%20Rev%202.pdf

  15. I was the Chief Pilot at AU when the contract was pulled. The most accurate comment I see is the one from David. Thanks for getting it right.

  16. Thanks to Norm and David for their comments. This “story” sounds like an aviation mystery novel. Did Forest Service and Aero Union management butt-heads and everyone lost, especially the fire fighters and the public? United Aeronautical purchased the entire package, P 3, spares, tanks, and all other components at a price that would allow a profit if the aircraft went to the smelters? Will the P 3’s disappear some cold winter day on a one-way special ferry permit to an undisclosed location? Will a new company be formed (Western Air Industries), P 3’s sporting a new livery will again be flying fires? One thing is for sure, no question marks here, with the reduction of P2V’s and what is on the new generation horizon, the fixed wing air tanker availability for 2016 isn’t looking any better than this fire season, eight to twelve tankers on per day throughout the West. SAD.

  17. All this discussion about airworthy is pointless. UAC is a parts supplier that I seriously doubt is interested in operating these aircraft any more than one flight to Arizona to be disassembled. They supplied many overhauled parts to the state of California for their S-2’s and I’m sure they see that the P-3’s are worth a lot in parts.

  18. Pointless or not , Ron….

    These turns of events with the whole LAT situation since the debacle in the 1990’s with the Airtanker idiocy of the program when Fuchs et al made a true mockery of the program that needed to be run as professionally as. CALFire and DynaCorp shows that the ENTIRE LMA “aviation program” needs an overhaul.

    Keep the FEPP program but allow it to be run by strict DoD rules meted out by serious regulations to prevent the silliness of the past by folks who proclaimed to understand the rules and actually play by them and IF DoD aircraft such as the C27J or the C130 J ,ever do become available, they still be housed under the DoD rulings OR DoD bypasses the entire LMA route and sends the entire program to CALFire and DynaCorp, because somehow the have understood the entire program BETTER with a true understanding of BOTH DoD and FAA regulations and seem to have a better hold on the aviation program to the extent of the Canadians.

    It is a sad chapter if and when the P3’s get parted out, because, that does seem to be the eventuality. Yes thanks to some of the management of AU……but also thank the LMA’s and there piecemeal operations.

    The daze of LMA operations, hopefully are numbered by the past few weeks and Gov shutdown. But I personally have the feeling NO one has learned from their paid vacation and the silliness of the Contract Season are no too far behind with, like Congress, have kicked the entire aviation program down the road.

    Let the promises begin with both “we got this handled” and the “Next Gen ” contract process will show the silliness and promise of 2013…………..

  19. Just a thought from a retired guy that dearly loved to see the P-3’s covering my butt on a hot day. Thanks to all the employees and pilots of Aero Union who did an outstanding job supporting the fire fighters. I for one, will miss seeing those planes over head. Politics and poor business practices aside, they were top flight in my book! I was always pulling for you to come back.

  20. I’m currently a CFI, and have wanted to do nothing other than fly air attack / air tankers and fight fires since I was a kid. I have the drive and am earning the experience…but my chances of getting into the business shrinks with every stroke of the pen. Norm, if you or any other guys have any advice on how to get in (especially into an OV-10 or S-2T) please let me know! My email is sukhoi35bm@yahoo.com

  21. THE INSIDE OF THE TANKS WERE SHOWING SOME SERIOUS CORROSION ISSUES THE LAST TIME I LOOKED. THIS PROBLEM SHOULD BE LOOKED INTO IF THEY PLAN TO USE THEM AS A RETARDANT DELIVERY PLATFORM.

  22. I do find some of the comment and/or conclusions about the airworthiness of the Aero Union P-3 aircraft to be rather comical. The term airworthy is an FAA term per the FAR’s. As those 7 sit in Sacramento, they are not airworthy. Could they become airworthy and flown. Absolutely. But let’s be realistic here. Most likely, if they are flown out, they will get a one time ferry permit. No matter how much we might romanticize the past of Aero Union, it is over. We spent thousand’s of man hours of maintenance in Chico to fly each one 400-600 hours a year. The wings are full of numerous patches, top and bottom. Why, because the wings are cracking at an alarming rate. We spent numerous hours working with DER’s because the scope of the repair manual’s did not cover the damage that was found. The trailing edge panels of the upper wings are full of corrosion. A well known fact. We were told repeatedly that “next” year they would be getting replaced, so just shoot them full of LPS-3 and sign it off. The boost pack actuators, worn beyond limits. But just put another set of seals in them. At the very least, they would need to have have new wings from Lockheed. Just like the majority of the P-3C airplanes are getting right now in Greenville, SC. As far as the retardant tanks go, most had moderate to severe corrosion on the inside and would need to be replaced soon.

    I only worked at AUC for 3 years, in the hangar and as an on board. It was one of the best aircraft jobs I ever had. I worked with some very talented mechanics and pilots. Terry Unsworth’s death was the death knell for the company. I do not think Brit ever had ANY real intention of the company to continue. The likelihood of the Aero Union P-3’s ever flying again to drop retardant, slim to none. And who is going to pay the bill to fix T-20? The one still in pieces up in Canada.

    It was a great company to work for. A lot of colorful people. A LOT of dedicated and very talented mechanics. And some of the best low level pilots I ever met or worked with.

  23. I don’t think anyone is going to argue with you, ex AUC mech….

    Many a viewpoint here……

    I knew AUC was going the route after H&P…..I think we in the aviation world knew about management running businesses into the ground.

    NOW Evergreen is Chaptering up under Chapter 7……..whaddya suppose that is all about? Management and not understanding cash flows and overextending oneself and having creditors up the ying yang…..

    Yeah we knew about AUC and some of us knew without contracts, the Supertanker would depart.

    Funny thing is without contracts……the freight industry like the Airtanker industry, without guarantees of 5-10 yr contracts and aviation operations lawyering up and pinning the USFS on contract issues and folks up to their own ears in investments for the “Next Gen” moniker series of turbofan aircraft……this scenario could veeeeery well play itself out again…..leaving the LMA’s with no future of consistency or continuity of aircraft operations due to funding.

    Owning ones own fleet of C130’s is going to prove this to the USFS in the coming years…..especially for an organization that has depended on two operators of former military aircraft.

    All I have to say to all operators especially the operators of C130 aircraft…..look at who has depended on the C130 and P3 fleet and now who is currently flying the the H-J models and the Q models and now guess who wants to own a fleet of C130 through the NDAA 2014 and depending on the military for wing box replacements????

    Folks like this are going to have to take a long hard look in the mirror when the inspections of those H models begin……

    With H&P, AUC, and now Evergreen Chaptering up………we will see how those promises of 5 – 10 year contracts get to maintain a continuity of a LAT fleet the next 10 to 20 years….

    We get it, ex AUC mech, being a former mech, I GET it. This industry is not for the faint of heart nor is it a place for amateurs who have proven themselves in both industry and the Federal government for its gamesmanship of a 7P contracting system that has proven, like aviation management with no aviation background……a 7P prime example of a goat rope….

    Thanks for your service ex AUC mech…….there are realists out here that knew and know that the P3 were not going to get off the ground without SC wing box replacements like the 3C’s and a LAAAAAARGE infusion of cash……

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