The news footage above indicates some of the people in the Phoenix area are pleased to have one of the DC-10 air tankers temporarily working out of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Some Snake River Hotshots crewmembers detailed there out of Idaho are also interviewed in the piece.
After flying 10 missions on the Powerhouse Fire in southern California over two days, the air tanker flew two missions Tuesday on the Thompson Ridge fire which is spreading rapidly west of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today they are back on the Thompson Ridge Fire again, reloading out of Roswell, New Mexico.
(Originally published June 4, 2013; revised June 5 to add more details about the staffing of the helicopter and the status of the ownership of the air attack ship.)
The U.S. Forest Service has not had a helicopter with night flying capabilities since around 1980 — until recently. Now there is a night flying ship based on the Angeles National Forest in southern California, designated Helicopter 531.
Three to four night flying helicopters from Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City have been used for the last four nights on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. They were coordinated by personnel in another new addition to the USFS’s fleet, a fixed wing air attack ship orbiting overhead in the darkness. It is a Turbo Commander 690, much like the one in the photo. The air attack ship is not USFS owned as reported by the agency, but it is leased on a call when needed contract. It is equipped with technology to support ground and air firefighting operations at night, including an infrared camera and command and control avionics equipment.
The long term goal of the USFS is to retrofit an old agency-owned piston engine Shrike 500 Commander to take the place of the contractor supplied aircraft.
Helicopter 531 is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia. The company’s web site says they operate 22 helicopters. During the day to fill its tank it will typically draft water from a water source while hovering. But at night, for safety purposes, it will only refill by landing and filling from a hose staffed by firefighters.
Yes, according to information we received from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea and someone else closely associated with the operation, the helicopter will be staffed 24 hours a day, using five personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There are four 5-person shifts of firefighters, A, B, C, and D, in order to have coverage on days off — a total of 20 firefighters for the helicopter operation, plus pilots.
The helicopter will be flown by one pilot during the day, but will add a co-pilot at night. It will respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more travel by ground vehicle.
The helicopter and the air attack ship will work out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California. They can be used on initial attack during the day and night in the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest, and all of the Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland National Forests.
In a news release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was quoted as saying:
The re-introduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency’s commitment to protect lives and property in the region. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities.
Both the Turbo Commander and Helicopter 531 began their contract June 1. While the fixed wing has been in use since then, the helicopter and pilots have been going through training and obtaining certifications and the module is expected to be available at the end of the day on June 5.
After the Station fire several politicians became involved in the controversy and pressured the USFS to restore the capability to use helicopters at night to drop water. The agency later said they would study the concept, again, and three years after the disastrous fire they announced on August 16, 2012 that they would get back into night flying on a very limited basis with a single helicopter in 2013.
Those who say the DC-10 can’t be used in the mountains should take a look at this.
It was uploaded to YouTube by Kevin Osborne. From the description there:
In this video, tanker 910 is dropping on the west flank of the Goff Fire (part of the Fort Complex) in late summer of 2012. The video was taken from Tim’s Peak, north of Hwy 96 on the Happy Camp/Oak Knoll District of the Klamath National Forest.
Also, check out these very impressive photos taken by Michael Meadows of the DC-10 dropping on the Powerhouse fire north of Los Angeles June 2, 2013.
The Santa Maria Times ran an article with photos that featured one of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers when the aircraft was working out of the Santa Maria Air Attack Base while the White Fire was burning north of Santa Barbara, California. The interesting thing about the article is that it includes a photo of the interior of the BAe-146. It is the first photo I have seen of the interior.
In a video report Thursday about Tanker 41, “the latest weapon in the firefighting arsenal”, Neptune’s BAe-146 air tanker is described by the news reader and text on the screen (above) as having a “31,000 gallon tank”. That figure is off by a factor of 10 — they missed it by over 28,000 gallons. T41 can carry just under 3,000 gallons, maximum, and usually carries less due to density altitude limitations. If the 31,000 number was meant to be pounds instead of gallons, at 9 pounds per gallon for retardant it would still overstate the capacity by at least 400 gallons.
The air tankers that come closest to carrying 31,000 gallons are the 747 with 20,000 gallons, and the DC-10 at 11,600 gallons. All of the others flying today have a capacity of 3,000 gallons or less. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000. Coulson’s C-130Q that was awarded a contract this week will always carry 3,500 gallons when it begins dropping on fires in a few months.
The video shows T41 dropping on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. The second time they show the drop near the end of the video, the news reader did not mention how the volume of the retardant trailed off at the end. The two BAe-146s have been criticized for having a consistent drop pattern for only the first 2,400 to 2,500 gallons, while the remaining 500 to 600 gallons dribbles out. Neptune has said they are outfitting their third and fourth BAe-146s this summer with an improved tank design which will fix some of the bugs with the tanking system. Then next winter they will modify the tanks in the first two BAe-146s, T40 and T41.
I watched some of the aerial firefighting Thursday while it was being streamed live, and saw an air tanker drop unlike any I have seen before. The same air tanker, T41, made two separate drops on the same pass. The ridgetop target was not straight. It had two straight sections but had an oxbow in the middle. The ridge was too crooked for the aircraft to make two sharp turns and treat the entire ridge in one long drop, so it flew a straight line and dropped maybe 1,000 gallons on the first straight section, stopped dropping while it passed by the crooked section of ridgetop, then when it was over the second straight section, opened the doors again and dropped another 1,000 gallons or so. Either T41 or another air tanker probably came back later and treated the oxbow section skipped before.
The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.
The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.
The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.
The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.
The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.
It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.
Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.
In addition to talking about the C-27J in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell discussed at length the air tanker program, especially the contracting process for the next-generation air tankers.
During the hearing, which was primarily about the USFS budget, Senators Jack Reed (Rhode Island) and Jon Tester (Montana) asked many questions about the air tanker program. The entire hearing lasted almost two hours; you can watch a video of it HERE. You will see that there were three people in the audience, and only about five or six senators were present, out of the 30 that are members of the committee.
Chief Tidwell said he has the authority to override the protest filed by Neptune for being passed over for the next-gen air tanker contracts. If he does, it would be within the next couple of weeks and would be based on an “emergency” — a shortage of air tankers. On May 17 Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake.
In reading between the lines of Senator Testor’s statements and questions, he appeared to be chiding Chief Tidwell for not awarding any next-generation air tanker contracts to a particular business in his state, Neptune Aviation. Neptune has two BAe-146s with at least interim approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board, and two more that the company expects to have ready to go later this summer. Neptune did, however, receive contracts on the “legacy” air tanker solicitation for some of their P2Vs and one BAe-146. [UPDATE May 23, 3013; Neptune was recently able to add a second BAe-146 to the contract as “additional equipment”.]
I transcribed some sections of the dialog:
At 43:28, Tidwell: “We will have an adequate air tanker fleet this year. We are anticipating between 24 and 26 planes to be available. We currently have nine aircraft under what we call a legacy aircraft which is seven P2s plus two BAe-146As that are currently on contract. We are in the process of awarding contracts for seven more aircraft which we call our next generation which are the faster planes we are trying to move forward to, that carry larger payloads. In addition to that we continue to work with the Air Force and Air Force Reserve to make sure the MAFFS units, the C-130Js and Hs are available again this year as a backup. We’ve also taken steps to be able to work with Alaska and Canada to bring down their [Convair] 580 planes if we need those aircraft.
So based on everything we’re moving forward with this year I feel confident that we will have a set of aircraft that we can respond.
In addition to that we are anxious to see what the Air Force, the decision that they make, if the C-27s are surplus and they become available, and we would definitely like to have seven more of those aircraft to be part of our overall fleet. They would be government owned but contractor operated. We are moving forward to actually look at what it would take to take our MAFFS units and modify those to fit into the C-27s so if those planes become available that we will be able to move as quick as we can to build those MAFFS units for those C-27s. ”
(Senator Reed asked a question about next gen contracts. Are you confident that you will have those next-gen aircraft under contract and useful this fire season?)
Tidwell: “Mr. Chairman, we are working through the process of the contract for the next generation and we have received a protest, that we will work through that protest. I do have the authority to override that protest and as we go through the process I’ll make that determination to ensure that we have the aircraft we need to be able to respond to fires this year.
We estimate that with the C-27s it would cost about $3 million per aircraft to build the MAFFS units and then to make some changes on the aircraft to make them usable for our mission and take some of the military equipment and armor off those aircraft that is no longer needed for our mission.”
(At 1:03 Senator Tester asked about the status of the aircraft on the next-generation contracts:)
Tidwell: “Once we work through the protest and actually award the contracts it is our expectation that those contractors that have the new contract awards will have their planes ready to go withn 60 days for testing.”
(Senator Tester asked, after the tests, when will they “be ready to fly?”)
Tidwell: “It’s our expectation that when they complete the tests they will be ready to fly. The aircraft that are being considered they are all FAA certified already so there isn’t that problem, they don’t have to deal with that. So they have to get their tanking systems to be able to use our performance tests.”
Senator Tester asked if they took into consideration when evaluating the potential contractors if they would be ready to fly this summer. Tidwell said, yes, they were expected to be able to be ready in 60 days. The contingency plan, he said, is to bring down the [Convair] 580s from Canada and to use the MAFFS.)
Tidwell: “We’ve been asking for the C-27s so that we at least have part of our fleet that is government owned so there is a guarantee that we will have some aircraft. So this has been an ongoing problem with these contracted aircraft.”
Tester: “My problem is not with the contracted aircraft per se, and I’m not for privatizing government, but my problem is that there were better options on the table that could be taken up by the Forest Service from my perspective and they didn’t do it. And you know exactly what I’m saying and all that.”
Tidwell: “We have a set of procedures that we follow when we award contracts. I can guarantee that there has been a high level of oversight provided and the process of being able to protest and have another level of review, that’s the process that we have to follow. And because of that our folks go to great lengths to be able to make sure that we are making right decisions based on what the contractors provided us and we have to make our best decisions.”
Tester: “The bottom line is we need to get the biggest bang for the buck and I’m not sure that because of the fact that we don’t know if these planes are going to be operational or not, whether we got the best bang for the buck.”
Tidwell said that “within the next week or so” he will make a decision about overriding the protest or not.)
At 1:39, Tester questioned again whether the seven next gen aircraft have FAA certification. Tidwell said it is his understanding that six do, and one made some air frame modifications, so it may not have the FAA certification. Tester asked Tidwell to confirm and get back to him.
Tester asked about the status of the C-27 transfer. Tidwell said it is his understanding that the Air Force is doing a study to determine if they want to do the transfer or not. The study could be done by September.
Tidwell anticipates the payload of the C-27 to be 1,800 gallons. Maintenance would be contracted. He said it would cost between $21 and $26 million to convert seven C-27s into air tankers.
In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell said the agency hopes to obtain the C-27J aircraft that the Air Force may decide to declare surplus, and the USFS would outfit them with scaled down versions of the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank systems that are used in military C-130s. When asked, he said the C-27Js would hold 1,800 gallons of retardant in the MAFFS unit. When used in C-130s, the systems can carry up to 3,000 gallons, during favorable density altitude and fuel load conditions.
Some would say that choosing a MAFFS design rather than a conventional gravity powered tanking system is misguided. The retardant in a MAFFS is pumped out by a complex compressed air system and the delivery has been criticized as not being able to penetrate tree canopy as well as a gravity system. A MAFFS would have a much lower retardant capacity since it requires an air compressor, tanks for compressed air, and a complex system of additional valves and piping. All of that extra equipment means less capacity for carrying retardant. It also requires two loadmasters, in addition to the two or three person air crew, to operate the MAFFS, doubling the personnel cost.
I just don’t see the advantage of installing a MAFFS unit in a government-owned air tanker rather than a conventional gravity system. It holds less retardant and does a less than desirable job of retarding the spread of a timber fire.
Sure, you would be able to remove the MAFFS and use the plane for hauling cargo in about a day, but how often during the winter does the USFS need seven cargo planes? It could be used during fire season to haul firefighters, smokejumpers, and fire equipment, but then that makes it unavailable as an air tanker. So you’re either going to use it for hauling stuff, or as an air tanker, but not both.
It should be relatively simple to scale down an Aero Union gravity tank, which has been tested, approved, and used for decades in C-130s, to fit into a C-27J.
Coulson is using an Aero Union designed tank, slightly modified, for the C-130Q they are building right now in San Bernardino. The tank has wheels, and Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that they can install or remove the tank in about 30 minutes, making it available to haul cargo.