Tanker 103 departing Missoula

At least a couple of Erickson Aero Tankers’ MD-87’s have been taking to the skies again after a long hiatus. Terry Cook took this photo yesterday June 16 as Tanker 103 was departing Missoula on the way to a fire.

You can see the external tank, or pod, that was installed below the retardant tank doors, lowering the release point by 46 inches to mitigate the problem of retardant being ingested into the engines.

July 13 we posted a video of T-105, another Erickson MD-87, dropping on the Whittier Fire.

Thanks Terry!

National media covers the lack of federal contract for 747 Supertanker

Above: The 747 Supertanker makes a demonstration drop at Colorado Springs, May 4, 2016.

(Originally published at 2 p.m. MDT July 17, 2017)

While large wildfires have been burning recently in the Southwest, California, and the Northern Rockies, many local news outlets as well as national media organizations like CBS News and the Associated Press have been covering the story about the 747 Supertanker that does not yet have a long-term contract with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

In January, 2016 the aircraft received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). This meant that it qualified to be used on fires, but did not include a contract. A couple of years ago the IAB began giving new air tanker designs interim approval to provide a period for real world use on actual fires so that bugs, if any, could be worked out and the users of the service could evaluate the effectiveness. The duration of the temporary approval has usually been 18 months, but the IAB only gave the 747 about 6 months, and that expired June 15, 2017. During those six months the air tanker was not used on fires in the United States (but was used extensively in Chile), so there was no evaluation in this country.

The USFS currently is soliciting bids from vendors for Call When Needed (CWN) air tankers. The closing date for the solicitation is June 20, 2017. The specifications only allow air tankers that carry between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons to apply. The 747 holds 19,200 gallons, six times more than a “next generation” BAe-146 and about 60 percent more than the 11,600 gallons a DC-10 holds, so it can’t even be considered. There are other requirements that may also eliminate Very Large Air Tankers such as the DC-10 and 747. Currently there are two DC-10’s on Exclusive Use Contracts and a third on a CWN contract.

Global Supertanker, the company that owns and operates the 747, is in talks with the USFS about this not-qualified-to-apply issue.

Last year the current version of the Supertanker was used on fires in Israel, and earlier this year it spent several weeks working on fires in Chile. On February 1, 2017 working out of Santiago it conducted a total of 11 drops on 7 sorties. Six of the sorties were near Navidad and Matanzas 115 miles (185 km) southwest of the Santiago airport where many structures were threatened. The seventh was near Concepcion, 404 miles (650 km) south of Santiago. In total, 138,400 gallons (508,759 l.) were delivered to assist the firefighters on the ground who actually put out the fires.

747 Supertanker first drop 2009
The 747 Supertanker operated by Evergreen drops on the Railbelt Complex of Fires in Alaska July 31, 2009. Photo by Mike McMillan, Fairbanks Area Forestry.

The initial version of the Supertanker built by Evergreen in a 747-100 made its first ever drop on a fire eight years ago at the Railbelt complex in Alaska in 2009. It last received Call When Needed contracts from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service in 2013. When Evergreen went bankrupt Global Supertanker bought the hardware and the rights to the retardant system and installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.


Video report from retardant drafting facility

This video by KEYT was streamed live on YouTube, showing and explaining the activities at a facility set up at the Whittier Fire for mixing retardant for helicopters that could draft to refill their tanks. The 11-minute video did not show any ships with buckets — just Type 1 helicopters with internal or external tanks.

Montana still disappointed that the USFS will not approve their helicopters

The disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Montana over helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation continues.

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

The DNRC operates five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. After the state made several significant modifications to the aircraft they no longer conform to the specifications the USFS requires to be approved, or “carded”, so that they can be used on federal wildfires. With the modifications, Montana now calls them “MT-205” helicopters. The change most often mentioned is the 324-gallon water bucket they use when the maximum allowed for that model under USFS regulations is 300 gallons.

In the latest development in the disagreement, MTN News reported that on Wednesday Montana’s Environmental Quality Council voted to send letters to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, asking that an exception be made that would allow the modified MT-205’s to be used on federal lands.

In an excerpt from an article by Jonathon Ambarian of MTN News, DNRC Director John Tubbs explains why they do not wish to use the USFS approved water bucket.

Tubbs said the MT-205 helicopters would have to be outfitted with a bucket smaller than 300 gallons in order to meet the federal standard. He said DNRC isn’t willing to make that change, because they want to maintain as much firefighting capacity as possible.

After we wrote about this controversy in 2015, representatives from three privately owned helicopter companies sent us a letter laying out a number of reasons why the MT-205’s should not be granted an exception to the federal standards. In addition to the issue of government competing with private enterprise, they said:

The Forest Service has not approved their aircraft for use, and has not for several years, because engineering and data for certain modifications performed on their aircraft is suspect or missing.  Furthermore, critical required engineering data that has been provided to the DNRC is not adhered to.

And their letter continued:

[The helicopters acquired through the FEPP] are to be maintained in accordance with the original military standards or a combination of military or commercial (FAA) standards, whichever are more stringent. The DNRC has done neither.

MD-87 back in action

Above: One of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87’s, Tanker 105, makes a drop on the Whittier Fire northwest of Goleta, California. Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo.

Originally published at 11 p.m. MDT July 13, 2017

We have not seen the MD-87 air tankers over fires for a while, but the photo above and the video below were posted on Twitter July 13, 2017 by Mike Eliason of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

As we reported in March, we talked with Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Tanker, who told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on exclusive use contracts and they hope to have the others on call when needed contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.

Check out the video below of a drop on the Whittier Fire northwest of Goleta, California.

In September of 2015 an Erickson MD-87 experienced an engine failure after departing from Fresno Airport. Pieces of the engine fell into a neighborhood, with at least one fragment shattering the rear window in a car. The aircraft returned to the airport.

Aerial firefighting footage, including an air tanker’s first fire drop

This video footage that streamed live on KTVU July 11 starts with a fire at an industrial facility near Doolittle and Eden in San Leandro, California. Then the helicopter flies over to a vegetation fire in the San Jose foothills that was threatening homes at Claitor Way and Lariat Lane. It appears the fire started near structures and continued to spread through the rolling hills. The video captures many helicopter water drops, and also the first retardant drop on a real fire by Coulson’s newest air tanker, Tanker 133, an L-382G, which is a civilian variant of the C-130. (Articles tagged T-133 on Fire Aviation are here.)

Air tanker 133 fire
Air tanker 133’s first drop on a real fire.

You probably don’t have the patience to sit through an hour and a half of video, so here’s a tip. T-133 first appears at about 1:07:30. It makes two passes then drops the third time.  After that there’s many water drops from CAL FIRE and other helicopters. There are also several S-2T drops; I was able to see one number, T-83. I skipped around quite a bit looking for interesting activity.

Many of the helicopter drops after the 1:09 mark were an attempt to stop a portion of the fire that was burning in a steep canyon that had heavy fuels. Dozers were following behind the water and retardant drops, putting in fireline.

All of these images are screengrabs from the KTVU video.

helicopter water drop
A CAL FIRE helicopter makes a precision water drop, July 11, 2017.
Air tanker 133 fire
Air tanker 133’s first drop on a real fire.

I want to congratulate the KTVU camera operator. Like many of his or her brethren in California who have probably covered many, many wildfires, they zoomed in on the air tankers as they were maneuvering, but as they dropped retardant the camera operator zoomed out so you could see the entire drop and where the retardant landed. Sometimes in this video they would linger on that spot for a while so you could see the effect on the fire. I have noticed that video shot from helicopters in other parts of the country often maintain the close shot of the aircraft as it drops and flies out of the area, and you often can’t see where the retardant landed. An example is in this article; check out the video at 2:44:00 (yes, that’s 2 hours and 44 minutes).