Video from cockpit of air tanker while attacking the Burro Mountain Fire

Above: the view from Air Tanker 850 on the Burro Mountain Fire, June 8, 2018. Screenshot from the video.

Air tanker pilot Jim Watson shot this video of of Tanker 850 dropping on the Burro Mountain Fire 22 miles northwest of Durango, Colorado a few hours after it started on June 8, 2018. The lead plane was LEAD 51 Trainee.

Thanks Jim!

Aircraft assist firefighters at the Aliso Fire

The Aliso Fire that burned about 175 acres near Laguna Beach in Orange County, California was contained Monday.

The Instagram post below has two videos. Be sure and check out the S2 drop in the second one.

Mann Gulch DC-3 to fly to Europe for 75th anniversary of D-Day

Much work has to be done on the aircraft before the event in 2019

Above: Removal of victims at the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire. USFS photo.

The aircraft that dropped the smokejumpers who attacked the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 is scheduled to cross the Atlantic next year to take part in the 75th commemoration of D-Day. The fire in Montana on which 12 jumpers and one fire guard died in 1949 is infamous among wildland firefighters as its memory lives on when more generations read about the tragedy in Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire.

The Missoulian has the story about how numerous volunteers are mobilizing to work on the 74-year old aircraft’s airworthiness and regulatory compliance — it has not been in the air since 2001.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

It seems preposterous.

Take an historic, over-the-hills smokejumper plane that was last airborne in 2001, fix it up to federal standards, and fly it to Europe next year for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Maybe even drop jumpers into France, pulling ripcords of old-fashioned round parachutes and wearing suits their grandfathers used during the Normandy invasion in France on June 6, 1944.

And while you’re there, hit Germany to take part in the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Berlin Airlift (1948-49).

Hard data on air tanker effectiveness still not available

Results have not been released from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study that began in 2012

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McClure.

The federal government spends around $100 million each year on large air tankers. A reasonable person would hope that the results of a very careful analysis determine the performance specifications and effectiveness of aircraft that are needed to assist firefighters on the ground to the greatest extent possible while still being a careful steward of taxpayers’ money. If the effectiveness of air tankers can’t be quantified, how to spend that $100 million is left up to the gut feelings of decision makers.

In stories like this, we often include the disclaimer that air tankers do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions aircraft can slow a fire enough to allow ground based firefighters an opportunity to contain sections of the fire’s edge by constructing a fireline.

Government officials often mention the 2012 Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy as a blueprint. However, that document does not make any independent conclusion about the number or types of air tankers. If you wade through the footnotes it actually refers to a 2009 study that recommended increasing the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 19 in 2008 to 32 in 2018. In addition there would be three water scooping air tankers by 2018, bringing the total up to 35.

report released by the Government Accountability Office in 2013 about air tankers pointed out some of the same issues that were in a 2009 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Both reports emphasized that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior need to collect data about the effectiveness of air tankers and put together a coherent plan on the management of the fleet, and a plan for the acquisition and justification of additional aircraft.

Due to these reports and repeated questions over the years by Senators and Congressmen, in 2012 the Forest Service began an effort to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet. The study was named the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study.

On a Forest Service web page the agency describes when data would be released:

AFUE study
Screenshot from www.fs.fed.us

Now that it is June, 2018 we should have seen the data from at least 2015, 2016, and 2017. But, it is not available.

When we asked Vicki Christiansen, the Interim Chief of the Forest Service, when the study’s results would be released, she responded by email, “AFUE personnel have been making excellent progress and continue to engage agency leadership on performance metrics, data collection, analysis and tech transfer processes to support a transition to an operational performance reporting system. Currently the program is funded until 2022.”

After we asked for more information, she wrote, “Summaries of the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study where planned for release in 2017. However, the summaries are not currently available. Unforeseen delays with staffing changes, retrieving aviation use data, and completing final reviews has delayed their overall schedule. The AFUE work group is continuing their work to complete the summaries and they will be provided as soon as they become available.”

Some would think that developing actual data to determine how to spend $100 million, year after year, should be a very high priority and would lead to finding solutions to staffing changes, retrieving aircraft use data, and completing reviews.

To our knowledge the Forest Service never did release the findings of an air tanker study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2012 even after we filed a formal Freedom of Information Act Request. The report was finally released by Rand two years after it was completed. When awarding the $840,092 contract the Forest Service told the company to not consider Very Large Air Tankers at all in making their recommendations for how the air tanker fleet should be configured. The study found that “the most cost-effective fleet of initial attack aircraft is dominated by scoopers, but airtankers play a niche role, particularly in fires that are not close to appropriate water sources.” In one variant, Rand said, “the optimal fleet is composed of eight 3,000-gallon airtankers and 48 1,600-gallon scoopers”.

We heard from sources that the Forest Service was not pleased with Rand’s recommendations. It remains to be seen if the agency will release all of the data and conclusions from the AFUE study that is now in its seventh year.

Gary (Bean) Barrett, a frequent contributor to the discussions on Fire Aviation, spent a career in U.S. Naval  Aviation as a fighter pilot and served on the Navy Staff as a program sponsor, responsible for planning, programming, and budgeting. Here are some of his thoughts about determining the composition of a fleet of aircraft:


“It’s been my observation that if you don’t know how to derive your asset inventory objectives then you can’t explain or defend why you have chosen today’s particular inventory objectives.

“If you can’t determine the effectiveness of each type of asset, you cannot explain why today’s particular inventory mix was chosen or why certain trade-offs were made due to budget cuts.

“If you don’t know whether your primary mission requirement is Initial Attack or Extended Attack you cannot determine the mix of Exclusive Use contracts that can support IA, and Call When Needed contracts that take longer to get an asset on scene and would best support EA.

“Not much will change until:

1. The mission is clearly defined.
2. The effectiveness of each type of asset utilized for mission execution is known.

“At that point, budget impacts can be defined and dealt with objectively, contracts can be written that will provide the most mission effectiveness for the least cost, and the USFS will have definitive answers to questions about asset inventory, asset mix, and EU vs CWN contract mix.

“I still believe AFUE is the key to getting all of this off of bureaucratic dead center. Until you understand tanker effectiveness you cannot determine and justify inventory objectives.”

Air tankers at Durango

Above: Air tankers 101 and 103 at Durango, CO May 28, 2018. Photo by Dave Herdman.

Dave Herdman took these photos of the air tankers that were working out of Durango, Colorado May 28 during the Horse Park Fire. Thanks Dave!

And speaking of the Horse Park Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have released more details about the near miss that occurred on the fire May 27 in a remote area of Southwest Colorado. The report disclosed that in addition to the two firefighters that had to abandon a stuck truck, a lookout in another location also fled on foot and ignited an escape fire at a potential fire shelter deployment site as the fire approached. According to the information released there were no injuries.

air tanker durango
Air tankers 161 at Durango, CO May 28, 2018. Photo by Dave Herdman.
air tanker durango
Air tankers 101 at Durango, CO May 28, 2018. Photo by Dave Herdman.
air tanker durango
Air tankers 162 and 103 at Durango, CO May 28, 2018. Photo by Dave Herdman.

The four aircraft working on this fire represented 30 percent of the large air tankers that are on USFS exclusive use contracts this year.

Video from Air Tanker 850 over the Horse Park Fire

Above:  Screenshot from video shot by Jim Watson, Pilot of T-850 GB Aerial Applications, over the Horse Park Fire.

Jim Watson, pilot of the GB Aerial Applications single engine air tanker T-850, shot this video while flying over and dropping retardant on the Horse Park Fire in southwest Colorado May 28, 2018. He was working with Lead 28.

Thanks Jim!

On May 27, the day before this drop by T-850, the fire was exhibiting extreme fire behavior and forced firefighters to withdraw to a safety zone. On that same day during initial attack a command vehicle was abandoned and is thought to be a total loss, according to information in a 24-Hour Preliminary Report. The driver was turning around when the vehicle got stuck. Due to the advancing fire, the driver and passenger had to flee on foot. There were no reports of injuries.

We asked Forest Service Chief why air tankers were cut by 35%

Above: Tanker 07, a P2V, drops retardant on the Red Canyon Fire nine miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

The U.S. Forest Service has cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year by 35 percent, from 20 to 13. We asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, why, and she responded in writing Tuesday:

The reduction in Exclusive Use contracts is due to the “Legacy” Exclusive Use Airtanker contract expiring in 2017.

The Forest Service has known for years that 2017 would be the last season for the Korean War vintage P2V’s with the 18-cylinder radial engines. In 2013 the agency began a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” turbine-powered aircraft with the ultimate goal of eliminating the P2V’s. The last four that were on contract in 2017 are now retired and most will find final resting places in museums.

Victoria Christiansen
Victoria Christiansen

In addition to losing the four P2V’s, the Forest Service cut three Next Gen BAe-146’s this year.

In February U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues were affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner.

Chief Christiansen told us this week they will have “up to 16” large air tankers available through Call When Needed (CWN) contracts. This is an increase over the 11 the FS told us about in February.

If CWN air tankers are available the cost can be up to 54 percent higher than those on EU contracts.

There are two costs for air tankers — daily plus hourly. If the aircraft just sits at an air tanker base available with a flight crew it only earns the daily availability rate. When it flies, an hourly rate is added.

We averaged the daily and hourly EU and CWN rates for three models of air tankers provided by three different companies, BAe-146 by Neptune, RJ85 by Aero Flite, and C-130 (382G) by Coulson. The numbers below are the combined averages of the three aircraft:

EU Daily: $30,150
EU Hourly: $7,601
CWN Daily: $46,341 (+54%)
CWN Hourly: $8,970 (+18%)

These costs only account for the additional costs of contracting for the air tankers, and do not include any increased costs of new, small wildfires escaping initial attack due to a lack of available air tankers or Type 1 helicopters (which have also been cut, from 34 to 28). And it does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost.

Art Prints

In addition to the 13 air tankers on EU and the 11 (or 16) that may or may not be available on CWN, the Forest Service will use one Coast Guard HC-130H. They will also have access to up to seven military C-130’s which can be outfitted temporally with 3,000-gallon MAFFS retardant systems. And, they have occasionally borrowed air tankers from Canada and the state of Alaska if they were available.