Coulson to convert 737’s into air tankers

Coulson 737 air tanker

Coulson Aviation is adding not only additional air tankers to their fleet, but is branching out into a different model of aircraft. The company has purchased six 737-300’s and intends to convert them into 4,000-gallon “Fireliner” air tankers. Britt Coulson said they saw an opportunity when Southwest Airlines made a decision to replace their 737-300’s with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two of the 737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they have a relatively low number of hours in the sky.

The first conversion has started, with a freshly painted 737 scheduled to roll out of the paint shop in Spokane on May 22, 2017. The next step is to add the gravity-based tanks which will have the same technology used on their C-130’s.

The air tanker is being designed as a multi-use aircraft with the ability to haul passengers. Mr. Coulson said, “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

The company likes the three C-130’s that they have already converted to air tankers, but finding additional C-130’s for the civilian market is very difficult.

A 737 will be able to use some air tanker bases that larger aircraft, like the C-130, can’t, with a wingspan that is about 38 feet shorter.

Mr. Coulson said they expect to begin installing the retardant system in June with a completion date of December of this year. When that is complete they will start on another. The first conversion will be done by Coulson Aircrane Canada.

More photos of the aircraft.

31 thoughts on “Coulson to convert 737’s into air tankers”

  1. I flew in Boeing 737’s commercially for years. Never a bad experience and my grand son is on a latest US Navy version for spook stuff. Says it is a dream to work in.

    1. Wow, wasn’t it only a month or so back that the question of modifying 737’s for the air tanker role came up? This, to me, seems a good way to get a lot of the life left in these birds put to good use. Best of luck to Coulson.

  2. WOW!! this is an awesome news!!

    I am around these old birds (-200 and -300) since 6 years for a company that operates them in the far Northern part of Canada and they proves themself everyday as an efficient work horse.

    Being a long time fan of fire fighting aircraft, this news is an exciting one since i know a bit of the way we can operate this airplane.

    Looking forward to see more in the couple months and maybe, one day, work around this second life 37’s

  3. Here is another good example of why the Forest Service should stay out of the ownership and operation of their own fleet. (again) The private sector air tanker operators are on a roll. Tell us what you want and we will build it. Unfortunately the Forest Service doesn’t know its needs. Once again the private sector continues to build an air tanker fleet knowing what is needed to attack new fires quickly and contain them. Just helping out.

  4. Yes! Coulson is now showing many just how innovative and successful they are I too hope this fares well and my guess is it will.

  5. There are going to run into some problems trying to “multi-use” the aircraft.
    I doubt they will be able to get an STC for regular category with big holes in the bottom for the gates.
    With that being said, the Feds are very reluctant to operate any aircraft as a public use aircraft so maintaining a regular category would be required unless they just want to ferry the mechanics.
    I do believe somewhere in FS doctrine they like the idea of multi use aircraft that can be used to move crews cross country, but I doubt it will come to fruition.

    The idea of 737 tankers is a good one. I’m surprised that it had taken this long for someone to do it. I believe from what I have seen from the company so far that this will be a well put together aircraft when done.

    1. It might not work here in the US but I believe that they could it multi use in canada since there regs are a lot different than the FAA

    2. You’re probably correct about the STC concerns. When you use an airplane for such varied multiple uses, it rarely does either well. The Q400 is a notable exception.

      This is not the first time somebody has considered converting a 737 into an airtanker. Trials using a Canadian Pacific 737-200 were undertaken in central British Columbia in 1992. The project was deemed infeasible (cost basis only) at the time due to a combination of escalating fuel prices, the untimely death of the project coordinator and the price of suitable -200 airframes suddenly increasing as commercial entrants such as Westjet sought airplanes. A few years later, the L-188 made its debut and offers to this day an attractive blend of price and performance.

      The 737-300 is a thirsty airplane and the newest airframe is approaching a quarter century in age, likely with high cycles on Southwest’s network. It’s a risky venture, but kudos for embarking on it. The USFS and states of Victoria and NSW are happy to pay the dollars required to support jet airtankers.

    3. Just so you are aware, the MD and the BAE/RJ’s are operated with a “Standard Airworthiness Certificate” just like the airlines, they are not public use. This is a requirement by the Forest Service, this was to make sure the operators have FAA oversight on their operations. All of the tank installs require an STC hence the reason some airframes take so long to get into service, the days of cutting holes and slapping tanks on and putting “restricted” on the side of the airplane are going away. Now I was involved in the MD program so I cannot 100 percent confirm Neptune’s BAE program or Aeroflite’s RJ program.

      1. Well your right. I just looked up their type certificate in the registration and it is a standard category aircraft.

      2. Scott, I meant obtaining an STC to carry passengers in an airtanker-configured airliner might be difficult. None of the planes you mentioned are authorized to do so.

  6. Might be a bad idea. 737s have had a history of corrosion issues. Also, the CFM engines have trouble with very quick turns, especially with density altitude. The -200 would have probably been a better choice but they are long it the tooth now. I still think one of the best converted airliners would be the 757.

    1. When I worked the ramp for Southwest airlines in Las Vegas we did 15 turns all day long, that is about the average loading time for a 4000 gallon tanker. So I think it’s feasible.

  7. It’s about time! The 737 should make a great tanker, though the multi-use option does and doesn’t make sense. A truly dedicated tanker would seem to be the better option, but getting the most out of a high dollar investment also makes sense. I would question the multi-use over having a 5,000 gallon tanker, which would put more product on the fire at one time and you get more flexibility on the loads in the higher temp conditions. It’s easy to seat here and arm chair what would work and what wouldn’t. You got to give Coulson credit, as well as some of the other operators for making something positive happen. The USFS C130 program should be put to rest, it’s not worth the effort, time or money! They should either sell Tanker 116, or park it next to their P2V.

    1. Funny, park it next to 1 H, F.S. P2V. In all fairness to the F.S. this entire project was probably a political “knee-jerk” from not knowing people what it takes to build, maintain and staff an air tanker. First thing the F.S. should start with is helping their fire fighters with air tankers for initial attack. What happened to all this talk about safety. California has been very fire active this past week. If there is any Federal tanker on contract in R 5 I haven’t seen it on a resource orders. (could be on a day off) Two days ago Cal fire sent an S2T from Porterville to fire near the Mexican border. This would be the Cleveland N.F. interface area. Another fire season another what should we do approach by the Feds. Trivia: for decade the only 3000 gallon tanker in R 5 was stationed at Fresno, DC 7. It came on duty prior to the Memorial Holiday depending on the potential fire hazard in California. Today Fresno is a refill station or a R.O.N. place.

  8. Well said Johnny. Sometimes I see the USFS getting the horse before the cart. Their management of their own Air Tankers is going to be interesting to observe this summer.

  9. my dad worked for Boeing as a design and aeronautical engineer he had a hand in designing most of the early 700 series aircraft he always liked designing airplanes but loved flying them more.

  10. Been advised that there are four Federal air tankers on contract and one aerosol tanker (116) in R 5.

  11. So I’m on a flight from Spokane to Seattle and the pilot comes on and announces we’ll be doing a low level retardant dump near Chelan? Cool!!

  12. On the performance side the 737-500 would have been a better tanker then the 300 series. Tough both could be configured to carry 5,000 gallons. Over the years I have designed 2 different tank systems for the 737 which is a totally different concept then what is being used, but not that complicated to adapt to. Old concept, new mission. I also believe that the 757, would make an incredible tanker with 3 tanks @ 9,000+ gallons, airframe cost is the killer on this jewel.

    Also – Johnny – I laughed at your comment about the aerosol tanker, but thought that your were talking about the 146’s – pressurized concept, much like the Air Force system in the 130. Good call.

  13. Why is the government competing with private enterprise. The private company’s have spent huge domes of money to get where they are, now the government steps in and have no experience in operating and maintaining aircraft. They have no business in the air tanker business.

    1. Actually Tom, many government wildfire agencies have decades of experience owning, operating and maintaining their own fleet of aircraft, and count highly skilled pilots, AMEs and examiners on staff. Some agencies manage their fleets extremely well. Some of them have a less illustrious history. In many cases, private industry can supply aerial resources at better value to the taxpayer than can government. But in some justifications, the opposite is true.
      Many private operators have almost a half century of experience building up their expertise through hard work, risk and investment. But there are players who have benefitted from sole-source contracts, government surplus equipment ‘sold for a dollar’, or have leveraged other assets into lucrative contracts that may not fully meet the contract terms.
      It’s easy to paint private industry as resourceful & innovative, and the government as wasteful & inept outside its core mandate. In many cases, that’s a backwards grasp on reality.

  14. Do yoou remember the famous Ronald Reagan statement he made when elected president? “The most fearsome words on can here is when answering your door and having the person on the stoop say hello I’m from your government and I’m here to help!” Well right now we are witnessing a startup of another program that will be negatively effected by our government.

    1. Bill. I have been hearing tjat 2 states are considering establishing their own system of approving Air Tankers and may no longer subscribe to the standards now in place used by the federal agencies.

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