(Originally published at 4:01 p.m. MDT, April 15, 2014)
The CBS This Morning television show will broadcast a report on air tankers Tuesday morning, April 15. In most, but not all areas, the program airs from 7 until 9 a.m. A producer told us that the segment will be seen approximately 90 minutes after the show begins. They have been working on the piece off and on for several months and it is expected that it will highlight the atrophy of the air tanker fleet over the last 12 years.
(UPDATED at 10:15 a.m. MDT, April 15, 2014)
The four-minute segment, titled Air tanker burnout: aging planes being used to battle wildfires, aired this morning at 91 minutes into the program. The emphasis, as the title implies, was that a shrunken fleet of aircraft, most over 50 years old, is being used to fight wildfires. The video is below.
One of the memorable sound bites was when a gentleman who flies air attack said:
We’re kind of looking like a third world country in our capability with large air tankers.
He went on to say:
We have a serious threat here in this country with wildland fire every year, we know that, and it’s a homeland security problem if there ever was one. And we don’t have the resources to begin to take care of it.
It will be interesting to see if he suffers any consequences after voicing his opinion, as others have who work in fire aviation for the U.S. Forest Service.
This is an air tanker that we were not familiar with until today. The Antonov AN-32P Firekiller air tanker received its type certificate in 1995. It is a variant of the AN-32 which was first produced in 1976. According to Antonov, a state-owned company in Ukraine, it can carry 8 tons which translates to about 2,000 gallons.
Below is an excerpt from the Antonov website:
“This aircraft was developed on the basis of the AN-32 commercially produced transport and it is capable to perform the following missions for the forests conservation and protection: extinguishing the forest fires with the special fire liquid; airdropping the smoke jumpers, their equipment, special aids, equipment and cargoes to the area of forest fire.
The design performance of the aircraft have been confirmed during more than 10 years of operation. After discharging 8 tons of fire extinguishing liquid from two groups of tanks of the aircraft, from the altitude of 40-50 m at a speed of 240 to 260 km/h, a water spot of 120-160 m long and 10-35 m wide with concentration of the liquid exceeding 1 liter per sq. m is formed on the ground. Discharging the fire agent may be done simultaneously (in a single discharge) or serially from two tanks of one board, than of the other board, with an automatic delay or with manual control.
Two airplanes were used to extinguish the high-elevated forest fire in the vicinity of Yalta (Ukraine). The experience of their application (about 100 flights over mountain terrains) showed a high efficiency of these aircraft.
Three aircraft AN-32P were sent to Portugal for the experimental operation. A high intensive work (each airplane used to perform up to 10 or even 12 flights daily) resulted in a total of 545 fire fighting flights. The performance and fire fighting effectiveness of the aircraft were highly appreciated by the specialists who participated in the test operation.
In absence of fires, the aircraft can be converted (within the airfield conditions) into a standard cargo variant for airlift.”
This “B roll” footage is from the April 5th, 2014 California National Guard and Cal Fire Joint training exercise at the Cal Fire Training Academy in Ione, California. It includes shots of helicopter takeoff and landings, air crew members, aircraft refueling, helicopter controls, and California National Guard personnel working with civilian firefighting personnel from CAL FIRE.
Air tanker availability during this wildfire season
Today two newspapers published lengthy and detailed articles about the shortage of large air tankers. The Missoulian’s has an emphasis on their home-town company, Neptune Aviation, while the Arizona Republic’s has several references to last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. You will recognize the names of one or two of the people quoted in the articles.
Below are the introductory paragraphs:
Wildfire season officially begins April 28, and the U.S. Forest Service is heading into it with only three modern firefighting air tankers.
Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has one of those planes on contract. It argues to have two more, but competitors won a protest over Neptune’s no-competition award worth almost half a billion dollars over 10 years. By August, Neptune will have two more jets looking for work.
“We’re still cranking out air tankers,” Neptune CEO Ron Hooper said Friday. “But that’s the state of limbo we’re in. We’re waiting to see what the Forest Service will do.”
Meanwhile, one of Neptune’s six Korean War-vintage P2-V bombers saw seven hours of flying time on a wildfire in New Mexico last week. Of the five companies that received Forest Service “next-generation” contracts to provide seven new fire bombers last year, three have failed to deliver their planes.
National wildfire officials are urgently trying to reinforce an undersized and aged fleet of retardant-dropping air tankers in the aftermath of June’s deadly Yarnell Hill Fire, but as they gird themselves for a potentially treacherous 2014 season, significant improvements may be more than a year away.
Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said drought conditions have dried up the West since last summer, when monsoon rains spawned a bumper crop of fire fuels.
“You bet we’re concerned and worried about what’s going to happen,” Harbour told The Arizona Republic. “This puts us in a precarious position as we head into this new season.”
Harbour noted that numerous unusual winter wildfires already have erupted and been doused in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest and in drought-ravaged Southern California. State officials said on April 2 that 179 wildland fires already had been reported this year in Arizona alone.
The significance: “We could be off to a very early start,” said Harbour.
The Arizona Republic and USA Today are both credited with this video report, uploaded Saturday to YouTube, about air tanker shortages:
Air tankers available in 2014
The following Type 1 & 2 air tankers, commonly called “large” air tankers, will be available on exclusive use contracts this year:
8 — on the “legacy” contract, (1 Minden P2V, 6 Neptune P2Vs, and one Neptune BAe-146)
2 — on the “next-gen” contract (1 Coulson C-130H and a 10 Tanker DC-10)
Possible: 5 other next-gen aircraft that received contracts on May 6, 2013 that may or may not become certified. The companies that still have not supplied the aircraft are Minden, Aero Air, and Aero-Flite.
Total: between 10 and 15. This does not include the two Neptune air tankers that were issued the sole source contract. That contract was protested, and the protest was upheld by the Government Accountability Office. The U.S. Forest Service can also call upon up to eight MAFFS military C-130 aircraft and can borrow some old CV-580s from Canada and Alaska if they are available. One additional DC-10 is on a call when needed contract and may be available if needed by the U.S. firefighting agencies.
Requests for air tankers that were unable to be filled
We have read several references recently about the number of requests for air tankers by wildfire incident commanders that were unable to be filled (UTF). We have been reporting on this issue for several years and updating it annually, but just to be sure the latest data is out there, below, again, is a graphic we put together from National Interagency Fire Center reports. The UTF numbers do not include the requests that were canceled, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere.
We are honored to present a photographic essay of air tankers by professional photographer Joe Cupido. He tells us below about his career in photography.
I grew up in a military family and acquired the love of aviation early on. When I was in high school I started photographing aircraft. Then later while in the military I became a Combat Photographer / Photojournalist and continued photographing aircraft professionally. I specialized in Air to Air photography working with the military and for some of the major aircraft companies. I was lucky enough to finish my career with about 5,500 hours in over 100 different airframes, 7 books and over 2,000 magazines articles on aviation subjects.
I’ve always enjoyed chasing fire-fighting aircraft whenever I had the time. The images below were captured over time and with a lot of cooperation from a lot of good people in the Air Tanker business. Without their help I could not have captured the images that I did and I thank all of you. Hope you enjoy!
The General Accountability Office has released their 23-page decision documenting why the agency sustained the protest filed by three companies over the sole source air tanker contract that the U.S. Forest Service awarded to Neptune Aviation December 12, 2013. The non-competitive contract, worth $141 million to $496 million, specified that Neptune would supply two or more next-generation air tankers, BAe-146s, for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014.