MD-87 air tankers recalled

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014. Photo by Jeff Ingelse. (Click to enlarge.)

All three of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87s have been “recalled” — pulled out of service “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”. John Kent Hamilton, the Aviation Safety Manager for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, said the company believes they have a fix for the problem.

Erickson has developed and flight tested a new spade profile that has proved to eliminate this problem by keeping the fluid column much more vertical. They are in the final engineering approval stages and should be able to install with full approval early next week.

Since we ran a photo on January 6 of an MD-87 dropping water in an early test of the retardant system, there have questions raised on our site about retardant being ingested into the engines. That possibility gained further traction on June 9 with a photo of a parked MD-87 with what appeared to be retardant residue above the wing in front of an engine.

When we asked Kevin McCullough, the President of Erickson Aero Tanker, on June 9 if there were any problems with the MD-87s ingesting retardant into the engines, he said there were none.

The first two MD-87s, Tankers 101 and 105, began working June 4 and June 8, respectively. Soon thereafter, a third one, Tanker 103, reported for duty.

A few days after the MD-87s began dropping retardant on fires, a retardant leak inside the aircraft required that they be returned to their home base for repairs.

The last time we can remember an air tanker model being recalled was February 8, 2012 when the Federal Aviation Administration issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive that required inspections of P2V aircraft after a 24-inch crack was found in a wing spar and skin on one of Neptune Aviation’s P2V-7 air tankers. This grounded the entire fleet of federal air tankers until all 11 of them were cleared the next day. Today we have a mix of five aircraft models, all with different retardant systems, reducing the chance that all of them will be shut down at the same time due to a defect.


CNN reports on LA County’s Firehawks

CNN put together the above video about Los Angeles County’s Blackhawk helicopters, which they call Firehawks. The footage is impressive, and looks like an advertisement for Sikorsky and the maker of the “souped up” engines, General Electric. Some of the scenes actually did come from a commercial for GE that we had on our site in February.


Air Spray acquires two SEATs

Air Spray has received a new Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) and will be getting a second one in a few weeks. The Air Tractor 802 holds 800 gallons of fire retardant and can get into narrow canyons that are more of a challenge for the larger 3,000 to 4,000 gallon “next generation” air tankers.

Air Spray has a contract for one of them with the State of Oregon and will be seeking employment for the other one.

Air Spray mobile retardant base

Air Spray mobile retardant base. Photo by Air Spray.

They have a mobile retardant base installed on a large trailer which will be heading to Oregon with the AT 802.

Air Spray mobile retardant trailer

Air Spray mobile retardant base. Photo by Air Spray.

Their effort to convert two BAe-146 jet-powered airliners into air tankers is going slower than they expected. When we visited their project at the Chico, California airport in March and talked with Ravi Saip (Director of Maintenance/General Manager) and Paul Lane (Vice President and Chief Financial Officer) they said they hoped to have most of the work done by the end of the summer, then they would begin the testing, tweaking, improving, and certification phases. In an article in the Chico ER, Mr. Saip was quoted as saying they now expect one of the BAe-146s to be ready for the 2015 fire season, and “They took longer to modify than we expected”. Other air tanker companies converting BAe-146s have found that much of the aircraft’s infrastructure in the belly has to be worked around and/or relocated in order to install an internal tank and door system as they are doing.

Air Spray executives

Ravi Saip and Paul Lane of Air Spray, March 21, 2014, in front of one of their Lockheed Electras at Chico, California, which is under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE. It will be in Chico again beginning in August, 2014.


USFS and DOI warn about drones on fires

Today the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert about the hazards of unmanned aerial vehicles operating near wildfires.

To enlarge the document below so that it fills your entire window, click on the icon in the bottom-right corner, just below the document. Then, to go back to regular viewing, click your browser’s go back button.

UAS Hazard


Unmanned aircraft to be banned in U.S. National Parks

The U.S. National Park Service is banning unmanned aircraft from being used in National Parks. Director Jonathan B. Jarvis today signed a policy memorandum that directs superintendents nationwide to prohibit launching, landing, or operating the aircraft sometimes called drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or Unmanned Aerial Systems.

This is considered a temporary solution, asking each park to develop there own prohibition order, until a Servicewide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft can be implemented. That process can take considerable time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and includes public notice of the proposed regulation and opportunity for public comment.

The agency cited some examples of how the aircraft have caused problems in parks. Last September, an unmanned aircraft flew above evening visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater. Park rangers concerned for visitors’ safety confiscated the unmanned aircraft.

In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset, which was interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Later in the month, volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.

An article in today’s Washington Post had a lengthy article written after receiving the results of more than two dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation.

Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

In other UAV news, Stillwater County, southwest of Billings, Montana, just spent $19,890 on drone which they intend to use in search and rescue scenarios, wildland fires and floods, and to scout rural residences before serving warrants.

(UPDATE June 23, 2014) The Oregon Department of Forestry is also buying a drone, but it will cost about $15,000 less than the one for Stillwater County, MT.


Preliminary briefing for nose gear failure

Today the U.S. Forest Service released their Preliminary 24-hour briefing for the accident involving Tanker 48 at Fresno Airport on June 15. The report says the NTSB has classified it an “accident”, so it will be interesting to see if it shows up in the Forest Service’s  FY 2014 Aviation Safety Summary. In the past they have used creative methods to ignore multiple accidents in the annual report, even those that had fatalities.

Below is the 24-hour report:


“File Code: 6730                Date: June 17, 2014
Route To:

Subject: Preliminary (24-Hour) Briefing

To: Regional Forester


Location: Fresno-Yosemite Airport
Date of occurrence: June 15, 2014
Time of occurrence: 2045
Team leader: Eric Shambora
Mission: Retardant dropping
Number injured: 0
Number of fatalities: 0
Property damage (such as to vessels, equipment, and structures): Aircraft sustained substantial damage, the amount of damage is still to be determined.
Narrative: At approximately 2045 Pacific Time a P2V air tanker suffered a collapsed nose landing gear on touchdown at Fresno Yosemite Airport in Fresno, California. The air tanker was supporting the Shirley Fire, located on the Sequoia National Forest. The National Transportation Board has classified the event as an accident. The Pacific Southwest Regional Office, in collaboration with the Forest Service Washington Office, has deployed an aircraft accident investigation team.

/s/ Kevin B. Elliott
Forest Supervisor”


NMAC clarifies dispatching policy for air tankers

T 910 on the Shirley Fire

Tanker 910, a DC-10, drops on the Shirley Fire in California, June 14, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group issued a memo on June 16, 2014 that they hope clarifies which air tankers will be dispatched when filling an order. This is apparently in response to issues that developed at the incident level, air tanker bases, dispatch offices, or coordination centers after adding the next generation air tankers into the mix. The short version of the policy is in the second paragraph of the memo:

All [large air tankers] LATs and [very large air tankers] VLATs shall be dispatched in rotation (first in/first out), regardless of the location of the incident…

Following that statement, eight exceptions were listed, such as, is a lead plane or Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) required and on scene, are there special requirements at the fire, and MAFFS are put at the bottom of the rotation at the beginning of each day. Another exception is:

Airtankers are returning to contract availability after day(s) off, in which case these airtankers begin at the end of the rotation line at their assigned base. Airtankers that work a seven day schedule do not rotate out of their position.

Coulson’s C-130Q, for example, does not have days off, and works seven days a week. Most, if not all, of the other large air tankers have scheduled days off. When 10 Tanker Air Carrier submitted their DC-10 bid for the next generation air tanker contract, they also included a proposal to not have days off, but the U.S. Forest Service did not select that option.

The first quote seems to say that no matter the relative location of the fire and the aircraft, the next air tanker in rotation will be dispatched even if it is 2,000 miles away. We checked with a person closely involved with the issue and received clarification about the clarification memo. In almost all cases, we were told, the air tankers to be considered for dispatching will be selected from those at the top of the rotation at the air tanker base nearest the fire.

The entire memo in MS Word format can be downloaded by clicking HERE.

It also provided information about who pays for the daily availability of the air tankers:

Daily availability for all LATs and VLATs on the Exclusive Use contract with the Forest Service is paid by the Forest Service Washington Office and is not charged to the using agency/fire. The using agency/fire is charged only for the cost of retardant and the flight rate. Additionally, as the costs of using the VLATs are similar to LATs, cost alone is not sufficient reason for not using the VLAT in rotation. Reference the flight rate chart for more information.

Below, is a table that was included in the memo:

2014 Air Tanker Flight Rates

The memo also referred to the document issued on May 1 that was in response to the request in the report for the Yarnell Hill Fire about how to use very large air tankers.