Report released on MAFFS air tanker crash

MAFFS 7
MAFFS 7, Department of Defense photo

Today the US Air Force released the full report on the crash of MAFFS #7, the C-130 air tanker operated by the North Carolina National Guard. The accident occurred July 1, 2012 as the aircraft was attempting to drop retardant on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota. There were four fatalities. The two crewmen in the rear of the aircraft were seriously injured but survived. Those two were operating the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) in the cargo hold which enables the C-130 to function as an air tanker, capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The Air Force provided some photos of the crash site earlier.

The investigation was led by Brigadier General Randall C. Guthrie, USAFR. Also participating were the following board members: Legal Advisor, Medical Member, Pilot Member, Maintenance Member, Flight Engineer Member, Weather Member, Loadmaster Member, Recorder and two Court Reporters.

The report does not list who the investigation board may have interviewed. Most likely they talked with the crews of the lead plane and air attack and probably other personnel assigned to the fire in various positions, but it would seem to be important to have someone on the board who lives and breathes aerial firefighting. Maybe the “Pilot Member” was MAFFS qualified at least.

We will be writing more about this report in the coming days, but for now, here is the “Opinion Summary” from the report:

=========================================================

I find by clear and convincing evidence the cause of the mishap was Mishap Pilot 1 (MP1), Mishap Pilot 2 (MP2), Mishap Navigator (MN) and Mishap Flight Engineer’s (ME) inadequate assessment of operational conditions, resulting in the MA impacting the ground after flying into a microburst. Additionally, I find by the preponderance of evidence, the failure of the White Draw Fire Lead Plane aircrew and Air Attack aircrew to communicate critical operational information; and conflicting operational guidance concerning thunderstorm avoidance, substantially contributed to the mishap.

On 1 July 2012, at approximately 1738 Local time (L), a C-130H3, T/N 93-1458, assigned to the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard, Charlotte Douglas International Airport (KCLT), Charlotte, North Carolina, crashed on public land controlled by the United States Forest Service (USFS), while conducting wildland firefighting operations near Edgemont, South Dakota.

At the time of the mishap all members of the Mishap Crew (MC) were assigned or attached to the 156th Airlift Squadron, based at KCLT. The MC consisted of MP1, MP2, MN, ME, Mishap Loadmaster 1 (ML1) and Mishap Loadmaster 2 (ML2). For the mishap sortie, MP1 was the aircraft commander and pilot flying in the left seat. MP2 was in the right seat as the instructor pilot. MN occupied the navigator station on the right side of the flight deck behind MP2. ME was seated in the flight engineer seat located between MP1 and MP2, immediately aft of the center flight console. ML1 and ML2 were seated on the MAFFS unit, near the right paratroop door. ML1 occupied the aft Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) control station seat and ML2 occupied the forward MAFFS observer station seat.

After three uneventful sorties, the Mishap Aircraft (MA) entered the White Draw Fire Traffic Area (FTA) in South Dakota. The lead plane for the MA was Lead B-5. Lead planes are responsible for the safe, effective and efficient use of air tanker operations within an FTA. A lead plane is also responsible for leading air tankers to a low-level, where fire retardant can be safely dispensed. Air Tactical Pilot (ATP) piloted Lead B-5 from the left seat and Air Tactical Supervisor (ATS) occupied the right seat. ATS initially acted as the airspace manager for the White Draw FTA. However, prior to conducting the retardant drops a third aircraft, Air Attack, entered the White Draw FTA and took over airspace management duties. Air Attack 3 (AA3) piloted Air Attack from the left seat and Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) was in the right seat.

Upon entering the FTA, the MC noticed a thunderstorm and witnessed lightning between 10 and 20 nautical miles away. ATP determined two retardant drops were needed. Lead B-5 and the MA performed the first drop precisely on target, but the MA’s airspeed was 10 knots slower than planned. As the MA positioned for the second drop, ME and MN noticed an increase in fire activity and surface winds changing in both velocity and direction. Lead B-5 then experienced a rapid “sinker” and ATP stated, “I got to go around.” ATP struggled to keep Lead B-5 under control. In response, MP2 commanded a go-around “out of this” and MP1 pushed the throttles up. Twelve seconds later, ATP advised the MC to dump their load and the MC complied. Despite MA engines at maximum power, airspeed and altitude continued to deteriorate, ultimately resulting in the mishap. The MA impacted lightly-wooded, rolling terrain and slid through a tree-lined ravine which was approximately eight feet deep, before stopping roughly 410 feet (ft) from the initial point of ground impact. MP1, MP2, MN and ME died in the mishap. ML1 and ML2 survived, but suffered significant injuries.

The mishap aircraft (MA) and a USFS-owned MAFFS unit were destroyed. The monetary loss is valued at $43,453,295, which includes an estimated $150,000 in post aircraft removal and site environmental cleanup costs. There were no additional fatalities, injuries or damage to other government or civilian property.

=============================================================

 

Thanks go out to Jim

Neptune to retire two P2V air tankers

Neptune Aviation Services will retire the first two of its seven operational P2V Neptunes by the start of the 2013 wildfire season, as the aerial firefighter phases in its growing fleet of former commercial jets, modified as air tankers.

The Missoula-based company, which has been operating the specially configured BAe 146 jets since 2011, currently has three, with two more slated to enter the fleet during the first half of 2013. The four-engine jets, all relatively low-cycle, were procured from airlines and leasing companies to replace Neptune Aviation’s former US Navy Neptune patrol aircraft. The twin-piston engine powered P2Vs, dating from the early Cold War Era, had been retrofitted with tanks for fire retardant chemical dropping following their retirement from military service.

“The BAe 146, which we selected as our next-generation air tanker, has at least 20 years of service ahead of it as an aerial firefighter,” said Neptune Aviation President Dan Snyder. “As we take delivery of additional aircraft, we will continue to retire our remaining P2Vs at the rate of about two per year, depending upon the needs of the US Forest Service.”

Snyder added that Neptune Aviation Services is currently in discussions with TronosJet Maintenance for the acquisition of a sixth BAe 146. The Prince Edward Island company has partnered with Neptune on the BAe 146 modifications, which includes the installation of an internal tank with a capacity of 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. Long term, the operator plans to fly as many as 11 modified BAe 146s. In a related development, Neptune Aviation Services, according to Snyder, has taken the lead on the BAe 146 Air Tanker Modification Project from Tronosjet.

“Most of the modification and engineering work has shifted to Neptune Aviation Services, which includes all of the revisions made to the initial modification work,” he explained. “The revisions were based on our operational experience with the aircraft and will improve the performance of the tank system.” Going forward, Snyder added, TronosJet Maintenance will be responsible for procuring the aircraft, as well as technical support.

Currently, eight of the company’s P2V pilots have been trained on the BAe 146 airtanker, while another four are going through the ground school at Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula. The ground school is being directed by a former Air Wisconsin instructor pilot.

“The simulator portion of training is conducted at Oxford Training Academy in the UK,” Snyder explained. “The pilots get a BAe 146 type rating, following a successful check ride in the airplane with a Neptune examiner pilot.”

Helicopter Association meets in Boise

The Aerial Firefighting and Natural Resources Committee of the Helicopter Association International (HAI) held a meeting Monday through Wednesday of this week in Boise, Idaho. According to the HAI, 75 members attended, with much of the group’s time devoted to helicopter operations under contract to the federal government for wildland firefighting support.

Presentations were made by Dennis Pratte, manager of the FAA’s General Aviation/Commercial Division, on public operations conducted by commercial operators on contract to a government agency; and by Frank Gladics, former senior staff member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on legislative issues relative to aerial firefighting.

Other agenda items included unmanned aviation vehicles (UAV), governmental economic crises, and wildfire aircraft operations.

The next meeting of the committee will be on March 5, at HELI-EXPO 2013 in Las Vegas.

 

How the fiscal cliff might affect firefighting aircraft

An organization that represents some of the companies that provide firefighting helicopters and air tankers to the government has issued a press release explaining how the looming “fiscal cliff”, which Wildfire Today wrote about in October, might affect the availability of aerial resources in the suppression of wildfires:

=============================================================

Washington, DC (PRWEB) November 27, 2012

The aerial firefighting industry is citing the risk of significant cutbacks in its ability to respond to wildland fires, if automatic Federal spending cuts become effective at year end.

“Should Congress and the Administration fail to reach a deficit reduction agreement, our fear is that funding for forest protection will be severely reduced, making it that much more difficult for some of our members to maintain the assets and manpower needed for wildland firefighting,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “The possibility of going over the fiscal cliff is a major concern of our members.”

Todd Petersen, Vice President Marketing, for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, warned that if Congress and the administration are unable to resolve their differences over cutting the deficit, it could lead to cutbacks in the number–and duration of– exclusive use agreements with the US Forest Service (USFS), as well as call when needed contracts. Exclusive use contracts, Peterson explained, are a bread and butter item, usually running anywhere from 90 to 180 days per year–per aircraft. Normally, they are in effect over four years, based on three, one-year renewable options after the first year.

“If the contracts are cut, it could mean that we would have to take some of the helicopters that we have used for firefighting and redeploy them to other kinds of jobs,” Petersen noted. “Those helicopters and crews would no longer be available for firefighting, if they were needed.”

Stuart Taft, Chief Pilot for Lewiston, Idaho-based Hillcrest Aircraft Company, echoed this concern. “For us, the big question is whether the USFS would be forced to cut some of its exclusive use contracts, and rely more on call when needed aircraft in the event of a major wildfire,” he said. “We will have the opportunity to discuss this with the USFS at a meeting with the agency in Boise, Idaho, at the end of this month, and hopefully, we’ll get a clearer picture of what they might do.” A major issue, said Taft, is whether there will be immediate, across the board cuts by the Forest Service, or whether they would defer cuts to certain programs to a later date. “It’s very difficult to predict what might happen,” he remarked.

Taft pointed out that since the USFS is a major Hillcrest Aircraft Company customer, any contract funding reductions directly impacting the operator will mandate scaling back on staffing levels, as well as purchases from vendors. “If we fly less, we will not buy as much fuel; and we won’t have to purchase as many repair parts. It could have a very big impact on a lot of operators and vendors.”

At Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, Chief Pilot Pete Gookin, stated that budget cutbacks could cause the government to consider greater use of military assets for wildland fire protection.

“It’s only my opinion, but in an effort to appear that it’s saving money, the government could try to replace at least some of the private contractors with the military,” Gookin said. “While that might look good to the taxpayers, military crews are (generally) not trained to fight fires, and their aircraft were not designed to be used for firefighting as their primary mission. Aerial firefighting was designed by civilian operators working with the US Forest Service, over the past 40 years. It’s a civilian operation and it should stay that way.”

Columbia Helicopters, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, and Intermountain Helicopter are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.

Thanks go out to Dick

Air tanker drops, as seen from a lead plane

747 dropping
A still image showing Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” dropping on a fire (from the video below).

The video below which shows dozens of air tanker drops is very interesting. Most of the video was shot from a lead plane, with views rarely seen by most of us. The technical quality of the video is not great — low resolution and a little shaky — but it’s very worth viewing. Occasionally you can see the smoke generated by a BLM lead plane which marks the target for the air tanker.

Some of the aircraft include: P-3, P2V, S2T, DC-10, C-130 MAFFS, and an air tanker that is very rarely seen, Evergreen’s 747.

Petition drive organized to hire the DC-10 air tankers

DC-10 departing McClellan
DC-10, Tanker 911, departing McClellan. Photo by Nate Allen

The managers of the Facebook page for the DC-10 air tankers have organized a petition drive designed to convince the US Forest Service to award a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that owns the aircraft.

We checked, and the way the petition works is that you complete a form at the site, submitting your name, address, and email address. You can edit the text if you want, part of which includes this:

…For the health of our forests and the safety of our citizens, I urge you to offer a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier….

Then it is converted to an email that is sent to Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS at his publicly listed email address. Your name and address will appear in the signature of the message.

10 Tanker Air Carrier will retain your name and email address and may use it, according to the company, to “send an e-blast no more than once/month with news, updates etc. Supporters can unsubscribe at any time. Contact information is kept strictly confidential and will NOT under any circumstances be shared or sold to any other party.”

The most recent request for proposal (RFP) for exclusive use contracts for next-generation air tankers had a response due date of November 1, 2012 and awards based on the submissions could be announced within the next few months. So while the USFS is pouring over the submissions from the air tanker companies, 10 Tanker Air Carrier hopes to influence the decisions that are being made by the federal government either on that RFP or those that may be issued in the future.

It does not appear that the USFS will award any contracts for very large air tankers (VLAT) like the DC-10 on this most recent RFP and will most likely limit the awards to smaller “next-generation” air tankers that have a capacity of 2,400 to 5,000 gallons. However the agency has issued a “request for comments” on a draft VLAT RFP for call when needed aircraft only. The two DC-10s operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier carry 11,600 gallons.

The US Forest Service has not been interested in offering long-term exclusive use contracts for very large air tankers like the DC-10 or 747, and have only made call when needed contracts available.