MAFFS drops on the Mountain Fire

California Air National Guard MAFFS drops
A C-130 MAFFS from the California Air National Guard drops retardant near the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on the Mountain Fire.  Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicholas Carzis.

There probably will not be a great need for air tanker drops on the southern California Mountain Fire for at least another day or two. It rained much of the day on Sunday and two weather stations near the fire measured between 1 inch and 2.3 inches in the 24-hour period, triggering a flash flood watch.

Seven things to know about fire aviation

There is a lot going on in wildfire aviation, but it seems like that is always the case. Here are updates on seven topics that are currently on our minds:

1.  MAFFS activated again

Four Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers have been activated. A couple of days ago the two at Channel Islands in California were activated by the state to be used on fires currently burning, primarily to assist with the 24,000-acre Mountain Fire in southern California between Idyllwild and Palm Springs. That fire seems to be trying to take out most of the San Jacinto Mountains. Two more MAFFS, one each from Wyoming and North Carolina, are also being activated with orders to report to Boise by July 21. Earlier this month four MAFFS, two each from Wyoming and North Carolina, had been deployed but they ended their assignment on July 12.

2. Nose gear problem on CV-580

One of the two CV-580 air tankers on loan from Saskatchewan had a malfunction with a nose gear and is out of service until it can be replaced or repaired.

3. Availability of next-generation air tankers

Six of the seven aircraft that received next generation air tanker contracts are still being built and have yet to begin grid tests of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. The mandatory availability period was to begin in August. We recently talked with someone who is familiar with the progress of the four companies that are working on the six air tankers.

  • Minden’s BAe-146 and Erickson Aero Tanker’s (aka Aero Air) two MD87s may be certified around the first part of September.
  • At least one of Aero Flite/Conair’s two RJ85s may be ready to go by the end of August.
  • Coulson’s C-130Q could be ready by the first or second week of August. They will begin static testing next week.

10 Tanker’s DC-10 that received an exclusive use next-gen contract was already fully certified and began work almost immediately upon receipt of the contract.

4. Neptune to test new design

Neptune has made some changes to their tanks that are being installed on their third and fourth BAe-146s, hoping to correct the inconsistent flow rates which results in the last 500 to 600 gallons trailing off, exiting the aircraft at a slower rate than the first 2,400 gallons. They will begin grid testing the new design next week in Missoula.

5. C-27Js

The U.S. Forest Service expects to hear formally very soon, or by the end of this fiscal year at the latest, that the Air Force will transfer to them at least seven C-27Js. When we saw him July 2 at the dedication of the memorial for the four crew members of MAFFS 7 that were killed in the crash on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota a year earlier, the USFS Assistant Director of Aviation, Art Hingman told us that instead of a slip-in MAFFS-type pressurized tank system, the C-27s would likely have a conventional gravity-powered tank that would require cutting a hole in the bottom of the aircraft. The tank would be removable so that the aircraft could be used for hauling cargo.

He said that while some would be used as air tankers, he seemed even more enthusiastic that others could be assigned to smokejumpers. He was not sure how many gallons of retardant they would hold because it is unknown exactly how much weight can be removed from the aircraft during the conversion process. He estimated that they could hold as little as 1,800 gallons. Another source told us that it could take two to three years to convert the aircraft into air tankers, which would be operated as Government Owned/Contractor Operated, much like the CAL Fire air tankers.

6. Lead planes

A lead plane preceding a big, lumbering air tanker flying low and slow through turbulent air, is not required for the air tanker pilots that are qualified for Initial Attack (IA), but many of them will tell you that they prefer it, since it adds another level of safety. There is discussion going on about the future of lead planes, much of it motivated by saving money. Today there are only 14 lead planes and 14 qualified pilots, but more “are in the pipeline”, according to Art Hingman.

Not all of those 14 qualified pilots are always available because the federal agencies sometimes reassign them to other functions, including Forest Health, management studies, and smokejumper operations.

This shortage has created real problems in using Very Large Air Tankers and MAFFS, since those pilots are not IA qualified and require lead planes. At times dispatchers would like to split up the VLATs and send them to different fires in different geographic areas, but occasionally that has not been possible due to the lead plane shortage. And when the six additional next-gen air tankers begin flying, the shortage will be even worse.

7. 747 Very Large Air Tanker

Fire Aviation told you on June 14 that Evergreen received a 3-year call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service for their 20,000-gallon 747 “Supertanker”. Since it last had a contract with them two years ago, it has been sitting in the desert at Marana, Arizona. Bob Soelberg, Evergreen’s Vice President of Supertanker Service and Program Management, told us today that to protect the engines while in storage, all four of them were removed and replaced with two “slugs”, which are basically weights hanging on the wings to provide stability for the aircraft. He said the 747 is scheduled to begin maintenance and a C-check In Marana August 2 which will take at least 45 days, depending on what the check finds. So possibly by mid- to late September, when the western fire season begins winding down, it could be available to drop retardant on fires. Evergreen also recently signed a 3-year CWN contract with CAL FIRE.

Evergreen did not renew their last CWN contract because the aircraft was not used enough to cover the maintenance of the air tanker and the salaries of the crews. The C-check and maintenance next month will cost several million dollars.

Mr. Soelberg was interviewed by Lars Larson on 101KXL Radio recently. The audio recording is below.

USFS may contract for scooper air tankers

CL-415 in Los Angeles County

The U.S. Forest Service may contract for one or more amphibious water-scooping air tankers. Tuesday the agency issued a Request for Information which can be a first step before a solicitation for proposals. From the specifications below, it appears that they are looking for CL-415s which have a maximum capacity of about 1,600 gallons.

  • One (1) aircraft with a tank capacity of 1,600 U.S. gallons.
  • Cruise airspeed of at least 180 knots true airspeed at 10,000 feet pressure altitude and ISA, empty tank.
  • Endurance of four (4) hours at maximum cruise power, optimum altitude, standard temperature with a 45-minute reserve.
  • Sufficient flight crews to provide seven day coverage while in use.
  • Capable of landing and takeoff on a 5,000 ft gravel runway.
  • Multiple Turbine Engines.

The RFI has a response due date of July 23, and it says the aircraft would be used 2013 through 2017. Knowing how long it takes the USFS to award a contract for air tankers, many scoopable lakes will be iced over by the time any contracts are signed. [I wish I had a Photoshopped image of a CL-415 trying to scoop on an iced-over lake.]

It will be interesting to see if anyone puts up a fight or lodges a protest to try to get a contract for the Russian-built BE-200, a jet-powered water scooper that carries about 3,000 gallons. That aircraft has several obstacles to overcome, including certification from the FAA. Contract protests have worked out well recently for the companies that used the process. But we are still waiting to see what Neptune is going to receive for dropping the one they lodged during the last next-gen air tanker contract process. Do they have some scoopers hidden in their hangar in Missoula? Maybe we’ll start a rumor: they are installing floats on one of their BAe-146s.   😉  [Another Photoshop opportunity.]

The Department of the Interior contracts for at least a couple of water scoopers, but the USFS has not had any in their air tanker fleet in recent years. The conventional wisdom is that the USFS has a bias against scoopers.

The USFS aviation program is not known for taking large, bold steps, decisive steps, so it would be surprising if they contracted for more than two or three scoopers. If they want more than that, and a vendor was hoping to purchase a new one from Bombardier, they better move quickly because the company has only one outstanding order for a CL-415 after which they are expected to shut down production.

10 Tanker cancels plans to move to Wyoming

Tanker 910 at Rapid City
Tanker 910 at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Mead Gruver of the Associated Press reports that 10 Tanker Air Carrier has decided not to move their air tanker headquraters from Victorville, California to Casper, Wyoming, after announcing May 14 they would relocate to the Casper/Natrona County International Airport.

CEO Rick Hatton said in May, “This fantastic operational environment and its central location will allow improved response times to fires in the mountain west region.”

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Gruver’s article:

…On Friday, 10 Tanker President Rick Hatton said Wyoming has been welcoming to his company but the desert Southwest offers a better climate to store planes.

Also, a reassessment of Wyoming’s tax advantages showed little benefit to relocating to the state.

“We started to rethink our decision and we started to conclude that the receptivity in Wyoming, which was lovely, didn’t outweigh the other factors,” Hatton said.

He hasn’t settled yet on a headquarters location yet, he said, but it won’t be Victorville [California]. He suggested that it could be New Mexico or Arizona.

10 Tanker air carrier has one DC-10 under a five-year exclusive use contract and another has a call when needed contract. They carry 11,600 gallons of retardant and were both busy in June, dropping about 698,000 gallons during the month.


Thanks go out to Dick

Coulson’s support truck

Coulson Truck
Artist’s conception of what the Coulson C-130 support truck will look like after the wrap is applied. (click to enlarge)

Coulson is outfitting a 53-foot trailer to support the C-130 air tanker they are retrofitting. The trailer had previously been used by a race car team. According to Britt Coulson who provided these photos, it has a lounge in the front for the maintenance folks, it’s all air conditioned, has outside work lights, a massive awning, and a full rear hydraulic tail gate for putting cars on the top deck or for working on the engines.

Interior of the Coulson C-130 support trailer
Interior of the Coulson C-130 support trailer

Martin Mars and other aircraft attack fire near Powell River

In this video the Martin Mars, a single engine air tanker, and several helicopters are seen making water drops on a fire near Powell River in British Columbia June 9.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Alberni Valley Times:

A two-hectare slash fire in Powell River is now under control, and it offered a good opportunity for the Hawaii Mars to show off the important role it can play in firefighting – an essential step given that the province has announced it will not use the bomber next fire season.

Alberni Valley resources played a big part in containing the blaze. Both the Martin Mars \water bomber and Thunderbird fire unit headed out to fight the Powell River fire on Tuesday.

“It was excellent for us,” said Wayne Coulson, CEO of the Coulson group, which owns the water bomber. “We did about four loads and whacked it out with a couple of other machines, and it was a quick one.”

According to Coastal Fire Centre fire information officer Marg Drysdale, the fire was three kilometres northeast of Powell River and the resources that took care of it were three initial attack crews, two officers and half a unit crew, which were the Thunderbirds.

“And then they brought in air tankers, including the Martin Mars,” Drysdale said. “And it knocked the fire down really well.” The fire was reported at 1: 55 p.m. and the Mars bomber began its action in Powell River at 5: 05 p.m., before finishing at 6: 16 p.m. after dropping four loads.


Thanks go out to John

Removing Coulson’s C-130 tank

These photos show the removal of the 3,500-gallon retardant tank from Coulson’s C-130 air tanker which is being converted in San Bernardino, California. Just going by the time stamps, it took about eight minutes. The pictures were taken today and sent to us by Britt Coulson.

C-130 retardant tank unload

C-130 retardant tank unload

C-130 retardant tank unloadWe thank Britt Coulson for sharing these photos.


Progress check on next-generation air tankers

We attempted to contact all four of the vendors that received contracts for next-generation air tankers that are still working to convert their aircraft into air tankers. We wanted to get updates on how close they are to being ready drop retardant over fires. Minden and Coulson returned our phone calls. 10 Tanker had their two DC-10s ready to go and fully certified when the contracts were announced, so their status is obvious.

As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that exclusive use contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The activation of the contracts was held up by a protest from Neptune Aviation, but the awards finally went to.

Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.

The other four companies are finishing the tank installations and still have to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the FAA and have to pass a static test, dropping while parked on the tarmac; then, finally a grid test during which they drop actual retardant from the air into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground which will determine the volume and consistency of the drop pattern. As far as I know none of the four remaining companies have scheduled a grid test yet with the Interagency AirTanker Board, which must certify all air tankers under contract with the federal government.

Minden Air Corporation

We talked with Len Parker, the CEO of Minden, who told us that they are making good progress on their BAe-146, Tanker 46, and that they expect to make the deadline for full certification, which is in the first part of August. Their tank design is very different from Neptune’s design for their BAe-146 which uses cabin air pressure to assist in forcing the retardant out of the tank. Mr. Parker told us their tank totally relies on gravity, having more than 10 feet of vertical head pressure. When asked if the door system was constant flow, he said yes and no, explaining that it is more advanced than a typical constant flow system, and uses advanced technology.

The tank holds about 3,100 gallons, he said, and when empty weighs about 2,000 pounds less than other tanks that may be used on BAe-146s, meaning they would not have to carry reduced loads of retardant as often when density altitude is an issue on hot days at high altitude.

Tanker 46 has passed the static test and meets the required flow rates, Mr. Parker told us. They are still working on the STC, but expect to select a date for the grid test by July 12.

Minden has purchased a second BAe-146 and has already started converting it.

Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.

Coulson's T 131

Britt Coulson sent us these photos that were taken June 28, 2013. He told us the aircraft, which holds 3,500 gallons, has been painted and they will apply the wrap, which we ran a photo of earlier, later this month. He said on July 2:

…most of the tank is now installed, gear and all flight controls are checked, tank doors are going on this week, hydraulics are being finished this week as is the floor to complete the tank install.

The tank in Coulson's T 131

As you can see in the photo, there are wheels attached to the tank. Mr. Coulson told us they can remove or reinstall the tank in about 30 minutes.

They still have to obtain the STC and the other certifications.

The other two companies

We called and left messages at Aero Flite and Aero Air, but the calls and emails were not returned.

Aero Flite photos?

We received the two following photos from someone who told us that they show Aero Flite’s RJ85 (Tanker 160) external retardant tank being attached to the belly and sides of an aircraft last week. We can’t independently verify they are genuine, so for now we’ll just call them an artist’s conception of what their RJ85 may look like.

AeroFlite RJ85 side AeroFlite RJ85