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:

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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.

Air Force releases information about the cause of the C-130 MAFFS crash

MAFFS C-130 crash, US Air Force photo
MAFFS C-130 crash, July 1, 2012 in South Dakota. US Air Force photo.

The US Air Force has released information about the cause of the July 1 crash of the C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tanker in South Dakota. More details are at Fire Aviation, but basically it was caused by strong microburst winds out of a thunderstorm.