Air tanker working West Mims Fire experiences problem releasing retardant

An inadvertent release of retardant occurred along a five-mile long path near Lake City, Florida.

Neptune's air Tanker 41
File photo of Neptune’s Tanker 41 at Boise, July 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
(UPDATED at 4:09 p.m. MDT April 19, 2017)

On Tuesday April 18 one of the three large air tankers working on the West Mims Fire on the Georgia/Florida border reported issues while in flight and could not actuate the gate which allows retardant to be released. While returning to the tanker base, one of the tank’s gates had a malfunction, allowing approximately 40 gallons of retardant to be released intermittently along a five mile path, Dan Synder, President of Neptune Aviation told us.

The aircraft that had the problem was Neptune’s Tanker 41, a BAe-146, according to Mike Terry, the Air Operations Branch Director on the fire. On Tuesday it dropped 5,951 gallons. It’s not clear if that included the inadvertent drop. The BAe-146’s can carry up to 3,000 gallons.

The Incident Management Team is advising anyone who was affected by the retardant to call the West Mims Fire Information Line at 904-452-4627.

The West Mims Fire has burned 21,790 acres in Florida and Georgia since it started April 6, 2017. Most of the fire is in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, John M. Bethea State Forest, and Osceola National Forest.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Willard and Tom.

Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Does anyone know how many large air tankers we need?

Two studies, completed 10 and 21 years ago, said there is a need for 35 or 41 air tankers.

In the interview with Shawna Legarza published on Wildfire Today this morning, the National Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service said in response to a question about how many large air tankers are required:

I would say we need anywhere from 18 to 28, you know that’s what it says in the [2012 Large Airtanker] Modernization Strategy. I think that’s a good range.

We re-read that Strategy, and could not find any independent conclusion reached by the authors about the number of air tankers. But, on page 3 there was this:

Continued work is ongoing to determine the optimum number of aircraft to meet the wildfire response need, but studies have shown that it is likely that between 18 and 28³ aircraft are needed.

The referred to footnote #3 is this:

³The requirements for large airtankers have been derived from the “National Interagency Aviation Council Phase III Report, December 7, 2007”, and the “Interagency National Study of Large Airtankers to Support Initial Attack and Large Fire Suppression, Phase 2, November 1996”.

The first of the two studies recommended increasing the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 19 in 2008 to 32 in 2018. Plus, there would be three water scoopers by 2018, bringing the total up to 35. The table below is from the study.

fire Aviation Strategy
Screen grab from the 2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III, page 21.

The second document, the 21-year old study from 1996, recommended 20 P3-A aircraft, 10 C-130B aircraft, and 11 C-130E aircraft, for a total of 41 large air tankers.

The “18 to 28” air tankers mentioned in passing in the “2012 Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” is not reflected in the referrals indicated in the footnote.

Much has changed in the world of aerial firefighting in the 10 to 21 years since those two studies were written. (They are two of the 16 air tanker studies and reports listed on the Wildfire Today Documents page.)

But what has not changed is that the numbers in these studies, written by smart, well-meaning people, are basically back of envelope stuff. There has not been in the United States a thorough, well designed analysis of the effectiveness of aerial attack, exactly how much retardant is needed in a certain time frame, where aircraft need to be based, and how many and what type of aircraft are required.

Under pressure from Congress and the GAO to justify the aerial firefighting program, in 2012 the U.S. Forest Service began a program to develop metrics and collect data to document and quantify the effectiveness of aircraft in assisting firefighters on the ground. This became the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) program. It will be several more years before they expect to release findings related to the effectiveness and probability of success of aerial resources.

We asked “Bean” Barrett, a frequent contributor on Fire Aviation, for his view on how many air tankers are needed. He started by saying the general theme of the letter written in 2012 by Ken Pimlott, the Director of CAL FIRE, to the Chief of the Forest Service, is still applicable today. Director Pimlott said in part that the then-recent USFS Large Air Tanker Modernization Strategy was insufficient to meet the needs of the combined federal, state and local wildland firefighting missions.

Bean’s further input is below.


“18-28 Large Air Tankers as the Federal inventory objective? Could we be a little more precise? What if the federal requirement was defined by referring to something like required retardant gallons delivered/ hour/ mile from base/ dollar. At least then, some basic economic analysis could be used to justify inventory when it comes around to contracts and budget time. What about required number of LAT sorties/ year / GACC?

Do the NICC UTF numbers actually identify requirements shortfalls? How many IMT’s don’t bother to request air support when they don’t think any air is available? UTF data would be very useful to demonstrate inventory shortfall if UTF’s represented all the unfilled need. In 2015 UTF’s represented a 10% shortfall in LAT sortie generation requirements. In 2016 UTF’s represented a 15% shortfall. Based on what I would say are very conservative UTF numbers, there has been at least a 10-15% shortfall in available LAT inventory over the last two years.

Really hard to comment on inventory objectives when it isn’t clear what the Large Air Tanker mission is. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, if you don’t know what you want to do with them, any number will be enough.

Is the mission IA or extended attack? Is it ground support or independent tasking? What effects are trying to be achieved and how well are they achieved? Should an attack within 24 hours really be considered IA for an aircraft? CALFIRE wants aircraft on scene in 20 minutes. The Australians want <30 minutes.

Just for openers, this is a very good ops analysis piece using real data from real fires:

Our results confirm earlier research results related to LAT use and challenge a long-held assumption that LATs are applied primarily to assist in the building of line to contain fires during IA.

Perhaps most importantly, we highlight system-wide deficiencies in data collection related to objectives, conditions of use and outcomes for LAT use.

Our current inability to capture drop objectives and link specific actions to subsequent outcomes precludes our ability to draw any conclusion about the effectiveness of the federal LAT programme.

A finding in the study … Mean time of day for drops was 15:39 and only about half of the drops were IA. This makes it really difficult to say that LAT’s are there to support the ground crews.

Why not tie LAT requirements directly to the number and type of IMT’s mobilized? Perhaps some ops analysis would find a ratio of number and type of tankers to type of IMT’s mobilized? Or perhaps a ratio of days IMT’s mobilized to LAT sorties required for support? Start thinking like an integrated air-ground team and define air requirements in terms of IMT’s or crews mobilized and supported. When the definition of Head Quarters units [ IMT’s] composition or types of ground crews includes the number and type of aircraft included in support, the inventory objective for tankers will fix itself. I expect everyone has a much better handle on the amount and type of ground support required today compared to the very vague understanding of tanker requirements. Tie air requirements to the better understood ground requirements.

Once the real data gets collected and analyzed, it may be found that the best air IA assets for type 3 IMT’s aren’t fixed wing tankers. (Provided IA is redefined to something like arrival within 20-30 minutes of dispatch.)”

California National Guard helicopter training, 2017

The creation of the “Baseline Skunk Works” and the interaction with private industry led to many advances in helicopter water buckets.

By John Yount

(All photos are from the 2017 helicopter water bucket training, shot by Bob Martinez, a Volunteer in Prevention Photographer with CAL FIRE)

California’s annual Army National Guard helicopter water bucket training took place this year near Sutter Creek, California. National Guard and Air Force helicopters from Mather (Blackhawks), Stockton (Chinooks), and Moffet (Pavehawks) participated in the training over the three-day period. Classroom sessions, water drops, and the inevitable exchange of information among personnel will help facilitate a smooth activation when the aviation assets are needed.

California national guard fire helicopter trainingThere is much more to this story than just an annual training. The interaction of the Military and State of California has spanned over half a century.  This cooperative spirit has been the success of the program. Although the Guard and Air Force Reserve have their own mission agendas it is the history of the Guard and CAL FIRE working together during the wet months that has contributed to a significant enhancement in fire bucket reliability, versatility, and performance.

With the introduction of the CAL FIRE (then CDF) Military Helicopter Manager (MLHM) program in California in the late 1990’s it was deemed  important that a CDF aviation person be assigned to each helicopter during an activation. Flying with the Guard, CAL FIRE personnel work as part of a team providing tactical input, complete logistical support, and coordination with the Guard and CAL FIRE command centers.

California national guard fire helicopter training

Development of new helicopter water bucket technology

At the beginning of the MLHM program it was quickly identified that the rigid 2000 gallon Big Dipper buckets and the special production for the Guard  of a 1140 gallon Bambi Bucket needed to be addressed. The lead CDF person approached CDF management with a plan to initiate an updated program with respect to working with the Guard. One of the four components of the plan was to work on the buckets. A phone call to SEI (Bambi) saw an immediately response. Two SEI representatives, the general manager, and chief engineer came to California to work with CDF and the Stockton Guard to make a change.

The following fire season a new generation 2,000 gallon Bambi Bucket was presented to the CDF and Guard for testing during that fire season that became very active. The 2,000 gallon Bambi bucket was put to the test. From the lava beds of the Modoc National Forest to Southern California in a three week period the redesigned Bambi delivered 1.6 gallons of foam enhanced water flawlessly.  The interaction between the Guard, CDF and Bambi wasn’t just a business model but evolved into a “can do” chemistry that saw the development of many new Bambi products.  The hub for new products was the CDF’s Baseline Helibase/Heliport and Fire Camp near Jamestown, California, unofficially known as the Baseline Skunk Works. The next five years saw the development of numerous fire suppression products for helicopters.

California national guard fire helicopter training

One of the concerns of using the larger 2,000 gallon Bambi Bucket was the inability to pick up a full bucket of water in a source less than five feet deep. A skilled inmate work team of four directed by CDF personnel at Baseline started a Bambi modification of a 324 gallon Bambi with SEI providing a submergible pump.  Intermountain Helicopters of Columbia, California provided the copter that would test this 324 gallon “power fill” Bambi while pumping from a 1,000 gallon pumpkin tank. With SEI on site during testing this was the beginning of the power fill bucket era.

A second Baseline Skunk Tank project was to develop a multi-variable drop valve for the buckets. Two prototypes were made. One was divided into two separate chambers, with each having a small rubber valve allowing the load to be split. It was the Stockton Guard that came to Baseline (about 10 minutes from Stockton) and flew a helicopter with the modified bucket.

The second prototype used compressed air to open and close a carburetor butterfly valve. Again the Stockton Guard provided the Chinook, which is an external/internal cargo hauler. Instead of flying a four ton concrete slab around for external flight training the external load training hours were used to practice and develop new ideas in aerial fire fighting.  With SEI working with the Guard and CDF a clearer picture of understanding the needs of the aerial fire fighting community evolved.  Products like the SEI Torrentula Valve with power fill became part of SEI’s product line. Today ninety percent of the California Guard  Chinook helicopter buckets have been equipped with these valves and pumps.

The concept of a portable water tank of over 10,000 gallons was imagined at the Baseline Skunk Works.  SEI was contacted and liked the idea. Within two months the first Heliwell arrived at Baseline. Although the Guard wasn’t used to dipping from the Heliwell, the “test to destruction” was accomplished by dropping 2,000 gallons of water into the well’s opening from fifty feet. The tank performed as designed, a tribute to SEI engineering and manufacturing.

The next project for the Guard and CDF was how to fill from a small or shallow water source, as many of the water dip sites for helicopters in arid California are less than four feet in depth. A manufacturing company, TMR Fabrications in Merced, California was contacted. The idea was to build an external rectangular tank that could be transported inside a Chinook. The tank needed to be capable of being loaded and unloaded in less than ten minutes The TMR Water Rat Tank was built with input from the CDF Baseline Skunk Works and the Stockton Guard. What evolved was a self-contained 1,800 gallon water tank powered by a twelve horsepower engine driving a snorkel pump at the end of a twelve foot 5 inch hose.  The Water Rat filled to capacity in less than a minute. The “Rats” dump valve could release a partial load or all the water in less than 8 seconds. Once again the Guard flew the tank under a Chinook and was able to use it at no charge.

California national guard fire helicopter trainingOne of the significant features of the Water Rat was the safety of redundant slings, connecting to the Chinooks fore and aft hooks. This was a great safety feature in case of an accidental hook release. This project led to a military self-contained 2,000 gallon internal Chinook water tank that discharges the entire load in less than 8 seconds.

Other projects that came from the Imagineers at the Skunk Works included the Marine Recovery Device (MRD) and  the first Fire Sock initially built by Intermountain Helicopters fabric shop.  A 10 gallon foam concentrate system for the Chinook designed at the Skunk Works and built by SEI came in two models, gravity and pressure demand.

Although this year’s training near Sutter Creek was just part of the preparation for the upcoming 2017 fire season, the relationship between the CAL FIRE and the Guard over the decades have made a significant contribution to helicopter fire fighting products word wide.

Bradford Beck of United Aeronautical talks about the sale of a MAFFS to the Colombian Air Force

Above: A MAFFS II recently acquired by the Colombian Air Force is installed in one of their C-130H aircraft.

In the video below, Bradford Beck, the President and COO of United Aeronautical, describes the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS II) that his company recently manufactured and sold to the Colombian Air Force. It was recorded in Villavicencio, Colombia.

More information and a photo gallery about the Colombian MAFFS.

Norwegians use a Bambi Bucket to fill a pumpkin

Check out this video, in which teamwork pays off in Norway when you’re using a helicopter and a 766-gallon Bambi Bucket to fill a portable water storage tank, or “pumpkin”.

Via Bambi Bucket.

MAFFS training scheduled for Boise next week

Above: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kelsey Herzfeld, assigned to the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing, prepares to attach the nozzle apparatus to the main body of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems in one of two Wyoming Air National Guard C-130H aircraft April 12 at the WyANG Base in Cheyenne. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class James McGuire, Wyoming National Guard.

All four military bases that operate Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) are scheduled to bring their C-130’s to Boise the week of April 17 for annual recertification training.

A MAFFS can be loaded into a C-130 in just a few hours, converting it into a 3,000-gallon air tanker. They are used as surge resources when the wildfire activity in the U.S. exceeds the capacity of the privately owned air tankers that are on contract with the federal government.

Colombian C-130 MAFFS
The nozzle for the retardant or water on the Colombian Air Force MAFFS. In the photo at the top of the article Staff Sgt. Kelsey Herzfeld is making preparations to attach the nozzle in the modified paratroop door. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The training includes classroom and airborne sessions, dropping water instead of the much more expensive fire retardant. Lead planes usually attend and work with the C-130’s. We’re not sure if any ground-pounding firefighters are ever incorporated into the training, simulating requesting drops and communicating with the lead planes, air attack, or tanker pilots.

MAFFS aircraft C-130 Cheyenne
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joseph Marion, an avionics system journeyman assigned to the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing, adheres the big orange “3” on one of the Wing’s Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems C-130 H aircraft April 12 at the WyANG Base in Cheyenne. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class James McGuire, Wyoming National Guard.

The seven or eight C-130 MAFFS don’t always assemble in one place and in some years conduct it at locations with only one or two bases represented. When MAFFS 7 crashed in South Dakota on the White Draw Fire July 1, 2012 the two previous annual training sessions had not included all eight aircraft from the four bases. The crash report did not specifically state that the lack of joint training for those two years was an issue, but it did say this:

Local training did not include different terrain conditions, density altitudes and congested pit operations, all of which are essential components in order to comprehend what live MAFFS operations entail. Additionally, all four MAFFS units were not integrated in order to provide a more realistic learning environment for new and seasoned MAFFS crewmembers.

At the time of the crash the U.S. Forest Service had nine of the MAFFS units — two each for the four military bases, and one spare. The one on MAFFS 7 was heavily damaged and has not been replaced. We were told that some parts could be salvaged off the unit.

Now one of the remaining eight systems is being used by the USFS in an HC-130H aircraft the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard, leaving seven available for the military aircraft. The MAFFS personnel at Reno have just one this year, while Colorado Springs, Cheyenne, and Channel Islands (in southern California) each have two.

Colombian C-130 MAFFS
A Colombian Air Force MAFFS. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Colombian C-130 MAFFS
The Colombian MAFFS begins a demonstration water drop March 29, 2017 at Villavicencio, Colombia. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
MAFFS 8 and 9 at annual training in Cheyenne in 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Air Spray and Coulson to roll out additional air tankers

Both companies expect to introduce new air tankers in the next few months.

Coulson's "new" Tanker 133
Coulson’s “new” Tanker 133 just after the decorative wrap was applied. Coulson photo.


Britt Coulson told us today that their most recently converted air tanker, Tanker 133 will be complete by the end of this week (see above photo). It will be the third in the C-130 series that the company has converted and is their second L-382G, which is a civilian version of the C-130. Their first L-382G, Tanker 132, was first grid tested in 2015 and in recent months was on contract in Australia. T-133 should be complete before the company begins pilot training at the end of this month.

Coulson is also working on a fourth air tanker. The “new” Tanker 134 is the second C-130Q that they have acquired and should be ready to go about four years after their first C-130Q, Tanker 131 reported for duty. The aircraft needs heavy maintenance, and to get it done they will remove the tail and wings and truck it down the highway from Tucson to another facility in Mesa. Britt Coulson said they expect to have it complete by the end of this summer.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s L-130Q which will become Tanker 134 later this year. Coulson photo.

The C-130Q’s began as strategic communications links for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces. They are similar to the C-130H, but the 12 “Q” models that were made were outfitted with complex electronics systems, including a six-mile long trailing wire antenna, for communicating with submarines and bombers. Tanker 131 still has the remains of a vent for cooling the winch that was used to reel in the long antenna.

Privately owned C-130’s are extremely hard to find, and it is likely that very few more, if any, will be converted to air tankers in the near future.

Air Spray

Meanwhile Air Spray expects to roll their first converted BAe-146 out of the hangar in a week or so to begin static tests of the retardant system while the aircraft is parked on the ground. After that is complete they will start flight tests and work towards the grid test, dropping retardant into a matrix of cups on the ground at Fox Field. Ravi Saip, the company’s Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told us today that he expects the tanker will be ready to fight fire sometime this summer.  They are also working on a second BAe-146, which, so far, has the interior stripped out. Air Spray has been working on the first one since at least 2013, when the estimated completion date was fire season 2014.

Air Spray's BAe-146
Air Spray’s BAe-146s as seen in a 2013 Air Spray photo. Ravi Saip said when they roll the nearly completed aircraft out of the hangar he will send us a better picture.

Mr. Saip told us that the recent contracts for federal air tankers require that instead of being certified in the “restricted” category, they must comply with the requirements of a “standard” aircraft. The Forest Service, and especially the FAA, have been pushing for this change for jet-powered air tankers for a while.While it complicates the conversion and approval process, it also opens the  possibility of air tankers being allowed to carry passengers if the Forest Service wanted to plug that into the contracts.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) — three on wheels, and five on floats. They are on contract with Alaska, Oregon, the Forest Service, and one is on Call When Needed.

Mr. Saip said the one with the Forest Service at John Day, Oregon is the only SEAT the agency has on contract and is instrumented with strain gauges like the large air tankers.

The Bureau of Land Management usually does all of the contracting for the federal SEATs. Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the BLM, told us in March that the number of SEATs on exclusive use contracts was expected to be the same as in 2016 — 33 aircraft.