Aero Air to begin grid testing their MD-87

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87
Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop in early 2013. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

Aero Air, also known as Erickson Aero Tanker, has scheduled retardant drop grid tests at Fox Field in southern California for one of their MD-87 aircraft that they are converting into air tankers. Last month Aero Flite’s Tanker 160, an RJ85 which is similar to a BAe-146, went through the same procedure.

Aero Air’s tests of their 4,000-gallon MD-87 are expected to begin January 13, weather permitting, and will last four or five days. The aircraft will start dropping at about 7:30 a.m. each day and will continue until either the wind increases to over 10 knots or until one hour before sunset if there is no wind.

The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds or thousands of cups intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires. For the RJ85 tests, both paid and inmate fire crews were on hand at Fox Field last month to assist with the set-up of the grid and the collection of the cups after each drop. Firefighters have been asked again to assist with the MD-87 tests.

Kevin McCullough, the President of Aero Air, told Wildfire Today in December, 2012 that they had purchased seven MD-87s and intended to convert them into air tankers.

Aero Air received a contract from the U.S. Forest Service on June 7, 2013 for two MD-87 air tankers. The aircraft were not ready and missed the contractual start date a couple of months later. The U.S. Forest Service then issued “cure notices” to Aero Air and two other companies that received the next generation contracts for five air tankers, none of which met the required start date. Aero Air responded saying the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014. Later in a justification for awarding a sole source contract to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers, the USFS wrote they were “not confident that [the] five … contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014″.

Below is a video about Aero Air’s MD-87 air tanker making their first test drop early in 2013.

Report: two Coast Guard C-130s to be transferred to USFS will not need major maintenance

Coast Guard C-130H No 1719
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1719, one of the aircraft to be transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo taken October, 2008 by Rico Leffanta.

A reporter for Gannett newspapers in D.C. interviewed me yesterday for an article he later wrote about the transfer of the seven C-130Hs and up to 15 C-23B Sherpas from the Coast Guard and the military to the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting division. To the regular readers of Fire Aviation there is little new information in the piece. However, he told me that a spokesperson for Senator John McCain, who wrote the amendment that requires the transfer, said two of the seven C-130Hs will not require major maintenance and could be available as air tankers this year after they are converted to air tankers.

The reporter also interviewed Florida State Forester Jim Karels, who led the 54-person team that investigated the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The article looks to be pretty factual, except that he misquoted me saying the C-130H maintenance at the Depot “may be placed ahead of the line”. I told him there was no indication, in spite of the fact that the maintenance is required to be promptly scheduled, that they would be placed at the head of the line. Scheduling the work and performing it are two different things. The reporter also said the Pfeiffer Fire continues to burn, however according to InciWeb 100 percent containment was expected on December 20, 2013.

More information about the transfer of Coast Guard and military aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service.

Link to the legislation authorizing the transfer.

Tanker 160 goes through retardant drop grid tests

T160 dropping

On December 11 Aero Flite’s Tanker 160 began a series of retardant drop tests for their Avro RJ85 at Fox Field in southern California. The aircraft, converted into an air tanker by Conair, was expected to perform 20 to 25 drops over a two or three day period. The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of thousands of cups, intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires. Both paid and inmate fire crews were on hand at Fox Field to assist with the set-up of the grid and the collection of the cups after each drop.

Randy Johnson uploaded this video:

T160 dropping

The grid. Thousands of cups.
The grid. Thousands of cups. Click to enlarge.

Tanker 160, an RJ85 which is similar to a BAe-146, is being converted by Conair for Aero Flite, which received a contract June 7 for two RJ85s. The aircraft were not ready and missed the contractual start date a couple of months later. The U.S. Forest Service then issued “cure notices” to Aero Flite and two other companies that received the next generation contracts for five air tankers, none of which met the required start date. Aero Flite responded saying the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014. Later in a justification for awarding a sole source contract to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers, the USFS wrote they were “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014″.

Thanks go out to the Los Angeles County Fire Department which took these photos.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to John

Coulson demonstrates their C-130 tank system

Coulson Aviation USA has produced a video that demonstrates some of the capabilities of their 3,500-gallon Coulson RADS-XL Tank and the C-130Q which began flying under contract this fall, designated as Tanker 131. They shot the video at and near the San Bernardino air tanker base using cameras in their Sikorsky S76 helicopter, Firewatch 76. It shows the air tanker making down hill drops, which not every modern air tanker can accomplish very well.

The company bought the intellectual property for the RADS tank from Aero Union and in the last few months has been asked for price quotes for the tank system from a number of potential customers.

Britt Coulson told us:

Our plan is to manufacture and assemble the upper hopper and sell lower hopper subassembly kits where either we can complete the airframe install or another Lockheed Service Center can do the work.

Mr. Coulson said they have not finalized a price yet but it will be somewhere around $3.5 million installed. It would not surprise us if the U.S. Air Force will be calling for a quote, since they will be putting gravity tanks in the seven C-130Hs which will be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service after new wing boxes and fire retardant tanks are installed. The tank’s previous approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board will eliminate one very costly and time-consuming step in the process of converting an aircraft into an air tanker.

Defense bill passes, clearing way for C-130H transfers to the USFS

Late Thursday night the Senate passed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 84-15, which passed the House last week. President Obama has already said he will sign it which clears the way for the aircraft transfers we have written about previously. (UPDATE, December 27, 2013: the President signed the bill December 26, 2013.)

The bill contained provisions for the U.S. Forest Service to receive seven C-130H Coast Guard aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, in lieu of the C-27Js they had been expecting. It requires the Air Force to “promptly schedule” the “center and outer wing-box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system in each such HC–130H aircraft”.

The Air Force will spend a maximum of $130 million of for all of the maintenance and modification work on the seven aircraft. The bill also specifies that no more than $5 million shall be spent on each HC–130H aircraft for the “gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system”. If the modifications exceed these limits, the additional funds will have to be provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service will also receive up to 15 C-23B+ S Sherpa aircraft which are expected to be used as smokejumper platforms. Earlier this week representatives from the USFS were in Oklahoma evaluating the Sherpas they were expecting to receive.

If C-130s are transferred to the USFS, they will have gravity retardant tanks

We were able to find documentation that if the seven Coast Guard C-130H aircraft are transferred to the U.S. Forest Service as required in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (NDAA), they WILL have gravity assisted retardant tanks, rather than a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) pressurized tank like is used on the military MAFFS C-130s.

The NDAA passed in the House on December 12 with a vote of 350 to 69. Its next stop will be the Senate, which is expected to take up the bill this week before they adjourn on December 20.

We found the retardant tank requirement in the 1,106-page NDAA bill along with some other interesting details. There are time elements mentioned, such as allowing 45 days after the act passes to begin the transfer of the C-130Hs. And “at the first available opportunity, promptly schedule” the “center and outer wing- box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system in each such HC–130H aircraft”.

A maximum cost of $130 million of Air Force funds was established for all of the maintenance and modification work on the seven aircraft. The bill also specifies that no more than $5 million shall be spent on each HC–130H aircraft for the “gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system”. If the modifications exceed these limits, the additional funds will have to be provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

Redding smokejumpers' Shorts 330 Sherpa
Redding smokejumpers’ Shorts 330 Sherpa. USFS photo.

The transfer of “not more than” 15 C-23B+ S Sherpa aircraft” is required to begin within 45 days of the passage of the bill. If they receive them, the USFS could use the Sherpas for smokejumping and for hauling cargo. In 1991 the agency acquired six Shorts 330 Sherpas and has used them as smokejumper platforms. The 330s are similar to the C-23B+ Sherpas but have smaller engines and a lower cruising speed. The military C-23B+ S Sherpas also have a rear drop-down cargo door which could be used by smokejumpers. The transfer of the Sherpas would allow the USFS to stop contracting for jumper aircraft such as the Twin Otters and have an all-Sherpa jumper fleet that is Government-Owned/Contractor Operated, bringing some standardization to the jumper fleet. The acquisition of 15 Sherpas might even make the retirement of the DC-3 more palatable.

House passes bill to transfer C-27J aircraft to Coast Guard; USFS would receive C-130Hs

C-27J

On Thursday the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 that contains provisions for the Forest Service to receive seven C-130H aircraft in lieu of the C-27Js they had been expecting. The bill passed with a vote of 350 to 69. Its next stop will be the Senate, which is tied up debating executive nominations, but they are expected to take up the bill next week before they adjourn on December 20.

The last time we reported on the possible transfer of excess C-27J aircraft from the Air Force to the Forest Service, there had been a proposal to instead, give all 14 of the remaining C-27Js to the Coast Guard if the Coast Guard would transfer seven C-130Hs to the Forest Service to be used as air tankers. With an agreement reached on December 9 regarding the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 between Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that proposal remained alive.

The bill passed by the House today:

  • Requires the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the Air Force.
  • Requires the Secretary of the Air Force to spend up to $130 million to upgrade those seven aircraft to make them suitable for Forest Service use a firefighting aircraft.
  • Requires the Forest Service to accept the upgraded HC-130H aircraft in lieu of exercising their right to take seven excess C-27J aircraft.
  • Transfers 14 excess C-27J aircraft from DOD to the Coast Guard.
  • Transfers up to 15 C-23 Sherpa aircraft from DOD to the Forest Service.

Before transferring the C-130Hs to the Forest Service, the Air Force would:

…perform center and outer wingbox replacement modifications, progressive fuselage structural inspections, and configuration modifications necessary to convert each HC-130H aircraft as large air tanker wildfire suppression aircraft.

 

Thanks go out to Ross