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.


Tanker 48 lands on collapsed nose gear at Fresno

Tanker 48 at Fresno

Tanker 48 lands on collapsed nose gear at Fresno.

Minden’s Tanker 48 experienced a hydraulic problem while working the Shirley Fire in California and diverted to Fresno, California where upon landing, the nose gear collapsed. Thankfully there were no injuries. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, described it as “a minor mishap”.

More details are at Wildfire Today, along with a history of similar air tanker accidents.


Colorado to purchase 2 multi-mission aircraft

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) is soliciting bids to purchase two multi-mission fixed wing aircraft which will primarily be used to gather intelligence about ongoing wildfires. From the specifications we have seen, they might also serve as a platform for an Air Tactical Group Supervisor.

The solicitation indicates that the government will own the aircraft but they will be operated and maintained by a contractor, fitting the Government-Owned/Contractor-Operated (GO/CO) model. The contractor will be “required to operate and provide maintenance services, facilities, supplies and personnel for the aircraft”.

The DFPC wants the aircraft to be outfitted with an extensive array of capabilities, including:

  • Thermal imagery;
  • color imagery;
  • geo-posiiton of captured imagery;
  • orthorectified imagery;
  • real-time location tracking of the aircraft;
  • near real-time moving imagery to ground stations;
  • recording and mapping the location of aerially applied water or fire retardant;
  • recording and mapping a fire’s progression over time;
  • sensor operator shall be capable of communicating with wildfire management personnel using a textual chat tool;
  • provide incident reports directly to the state’s information management system to include fire location perimeter, fire intensity map, and fire behavior description.

The aircraft will be a single or dual engine turboprop capable of carrying one pilot and three passengers, and shall cruise at more than 250 KTAS.

The requirements of these aircraft remind us of a Request for Information the U.S. Forest Service issued last August in which they intended to contract for 7 and later up to 15 aircraft outfitted with high-tech sensors to serve as platforms for aerial supervision on wildfires.

The time frames of Colorado’s solicitation are very tight:

At least one of these Aircraft shall be delivered to DFPC ready to perform missions by July 15, 2014. The second Aircraft shall be delivered to DFPC ready to perform missions by October 15, 2014.

It would take the USFS many months or years to do this. And it may or may not be possible for Colorado to get one of these aircraft delivered by July 15 fully outfitted with all of the equipment they have specified, and with pilots, technicians, and a maintenance contract all squared away. The solicitation was issued on June 10, with a response due date of June 24, giving the successful bidder 21 days to deliver the first aircraft. (And we thought the USFS giving the next-generation air tanker bidders 90 days to deliver their aircraft was tight.)

Today, June 13, is the due date for Colorado’s solicitation for two or three firefighting helicopters which will be required to begin work on July 1, 2014. And next year they expect to contract for up to four large air tankers.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Bean.


Tanker 101′s first drop on a fire

T-101 first drop, 6-7-2014

T-101 first ever drop on a fire, June 7,2014 on the Two Bulls Fire near Bend, Oregon. Photo by Jim Hansen from an air attack ship. (Click to enlarge.)

Tanker 101, an MD-87 operated by Erickson Aero Tanker, showed up for its first day of work at Redmond, Oregon June 4 and made its first ever drop on a fire three days later on June 7 when the Two Bulls Fire started west of Bend, Oregon. Jim Hansen grabbed the photo above as it made its inaugural drop.

Its sister ship, Tanker 105, began work on June 8 at Redmond, and the two of them were busy working the fire that day.

Kevin McCullough, the President of Erickson Aero Tanker, told us the air tanker delivered 12 loads of retardant in 3.9 hours of flight time. It was reloading at the Redmond air tanker base, 17 miles northwest of the fire. I don’t know if that’s a record for an air tanker that is not a 747 or DC-10, but there can’t have been many that dropped 48,000 gallons of retardant in less than four hours. Mr. McCullough said it carried 4,000 gallons on each sortie. The Martin Mars which holds 7,000 gallons of water may have hit that number or maybe even a lot more if a scoopable lake was close.

Earlier today we posted a video showing the two MD-87s and other air tankers taking off at Redmond to work the Two Bulls Fire.

We asked Mr. McCullough if there were any problems with ingesting retardant into the engines and he said there were not.


Two of Erickson Aero Tanker’s DC-7 air tankers will begin their contract with the Oregon Department of Forestry in the first part of July. They are waiting for the final paperwork but it appears that their third DC-7 will start a 120-day contract with CAL FIRE at about the same time.

Erickson purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick in December of 2012. The deal included three DC-7s.


MD-87 at Redmond needs a wash

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014

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

Jeff Ingelse took this photo of an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 parked at Redmond, Oregon Monday morning. He said both of the MD-87s at the airport had similar stains on the fuselage approximately the color of fire retardant. The air tankers made multiple sorties to the Two Bulls Fire over the weekend, dropping retardant.

Earlier on Fire Aviation the question was raised about the possibility of retardant being ingested into the engines. From the photo above, we of course can’t tell if that is an issue or not. Maybe Erickson Aero Tanker has it all figured out and it is not a problem.

Below are photos we ran on January 6, 2014 and January 17, 2014 of the MD-87 dropping water and retardant.

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87

Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop in early 2013. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

Tanker 101, an MD-87

Tanker 101, an MD-87, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

A video of the MD-87 being tested. It was uploaded to YouTube April 15, 2013.