Update on next-gen air tankers

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 160 at the retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Five companies received contracts on May 6, 2013 for seven “next-generation” air tankers. Of those seven, only two have met all of the specifications in the contracts and received the required certifications from the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) for a supplemental type certificate, a static drop test on the ground, and an airborne test of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups. The two that have passed and have flown on fires are 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s 11,600-gallon DC-10, and Coulson Group’s 3,500-gallon C-130Q.

Here is what we learned this week while talking with aviation professionals at Cheyenne.

Minden Air Corp, who received a contract for one BAe-146, has passed the static test. They have not attempted a formal monitored grid test. The retardant system they are building has some impressive capabilities, including a high flow rate and a great amount of flexibility in the flow rate. It has the ability to select two different flow rates on one drop, for example, going from coverage level 5 to coverage level 8. (The numbers refer to the number of gallons of retardant that lands on 100 square feet of flat terrain.) That feature could be used when there is a change in vegetation or topography, moving, for example from grass to timber, or flat terrain to a steep slope. In each case it would be helpful to increase the coverage level.

Erickson Aero Tanker, received contracts for two MD-87s. One of the aircraft participated in a grid test in January, and the Interagency Air Tanker Board is still reviewing the results. Even though they added a fairing to modify how the air flow affected the performance of the aircraft and the retardant flow near the fuselage, the aircraft experienced some problems in qualifying at the higher coverage levels. The engineers may need to enlarge the retardant door openings to increase the flow rates.

Aero-Flite has two RJ-85s, an aircraft similar to the BAe-146. It has passed the grid test and the company is working on obtaining dual “citizenship”, supplemental type certificates for the retardant system from Transport Canada and the United States FAA . It is likely that the aircraft will be certified very soon by the IATB for an 18-month interim approval, which will be the new standard operating procedure for air tankers that receive an initial blessing from the IATB. The interim approval provides an opportunity for field trials, to determine if anything surfaces that was not apparent during the static, STC, and grid tests.

Bonus coverage:

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” was not part of the next-gen contract, but the company did have a couple of call when needed contracts (CWN), with the last one being issued June 14, 2013. After receiving the contract Evergreen scheduled a needed C check which would have started August 2, and depending on what was found during the process would have been ready to fly in mid- to late September — about the time the western wildfire season begins to wind down. The cost of the C check is over a million dollars. But a few weeks after receiving the contract, Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Evergreen Supertanker Services, told Fire Aviation they reconsidered and decided to postpone the C check since there was “insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades.”

A matter of weeks after Mr. Soelberg gave us that update the company filed for bankruptcy. The change in ownership made the CWN contract void. As of now, the 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker is not covered by an air tanker contract.

Neptune has one BAe-146 working on the “legacy” air tanker contract, even though it now meets the criteria for a next-gen, including the required air speed and a 3,000-gallon retardant capacity. Before they modified the tanking system for the third time last fall, the tank held about 2,900 gallons and there was a problem in coverage level of the last 400 gallons exiting the tank, so the Forest Service restricted it to only carrying 2,500 gallons. The modifications increased the tank size to 3,000 gallons and made other changes in the system. At another grid test last fall it showed improved consistency for all 3,000 gallons, and in the flow rate at all coverage levels. As a result the Forest Service has now certified the tank system to carry 3,000 gallon of retardant. Their new design is innovative in that it uses GPS to measure the aircraft speed and then can automatically modulate the retardant flow rate to maintain the desired coverage level. They also have a sensor on the drop tubes which measures the actual flow rate. They system can then direct the valves or doors to change the size of the opening in order to maintain the coverage level as other factors change, such as the head pressure in the tank or if the aircraft encounters turbulence. Neptune expects to have a total of five BAe-146 air tankers available by later this summer.

Evergreen postpones availability of their 747 Supertanker

747 dropping
747 dropping in Haifa Israel December 5, 2010

After initially thinking their 747 Supertanker would be available in mid- to late September, Evergreen has reconsidered and expects to have it ready for the 2014 wildfire season.

The U.S. Forest Service awarded the company a Call When Needed contract on June 14, but the aircraft was sitting in Marana, Arizona with the engines removed and safely in storage. After receiving the contract Evergreen scheduled a needed C check which would have started August 2 and depending on what was found during the process would have been ready to fly in mid- to late September — about the time the western wildfire season begins to wind down. The cost of the C check is over a million dollars.

Today Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Supertanker Services, said they have reconsidered, and…

…concluded there was insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades.  The availability of a facility certified to complete the inspection and the unknown return on investment implied in a CALL WHEN NEEDED contract only complicated the decision.

Evergreen is going to defer the required airline level maintenance until later this year or early in 2014. Mr. Soelberg said they expect to have the 747 Supertanker in a position to be fully operational with all checks, inspections and carding complete before the 2014 season begins.

Our view

In a perfect world the U.S. Forest Service would get their shit together and issue all aerial firefighting contracts no later than December, to begin in the following spring or summer, instead of procrastinating as they have been doing issuing them in mid-summer. Giving a vendor zero time to get a multi-million dollar aircraft up and running is not realistic. The companies that received the next generation air tanker contracts and those that will be competing in the next few weeks for a scooper contract would no doubt agree.

Air tanker status update, August 20, 2013

As we move into national Preparedness Level 5 today for the first time since 2008, and we have more than 48 uncontained large fires, it’s a good time to see what air tankers are available. These numbers are provided by Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.

Today, not counting 2 air tankers that are on their days off and five that are down for maintenance, there are 13 in service.

Overall, if none were on days off or down for maintenance, we would have:

  • 7 P2Vs on Exclusive Use Contract
  • 2 BAe-146s on Exclusive Use Contract
  • 2 DC-10s on Exclusive Use Contract
  • 4 CV-580s borrowed from Canada and Alaska
  • 5 MAFFS borrowed from the military

This amounts to 11 that are on federal contract and 9 that are borrowed, for a total of 20.

Six of the seven air tankers that received “next generation” contracts, and the 747 that will be under a CWN contract, are weeks or months away from being physically ready and fully certified. However, these are counted when the USFS distributes misleading stats claiming, “Overall, we could have up to 26 airtankers available for wildfire suppression.”

VLAT vs. P2V: comparison of cost and effectiveness

DC-10
DC-10 dropping on the Falls Fire at Lake Elsinore, CA, August 5, 2013

An Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) has completed a detailed comparison of the use of a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) and P2V Large Air Tankers to complete the same task of creating 4.6 miles of retardant line on the Colockum Tarps Fire, which is what Tanker 911, a DC-10, accomplished during 3.12 flight hours on July 30, 2013.

The DC-10 made eleven drops from five-11,600 gallon loads of retardant. The writer figured it would take 41 drops from P2Vs to construct the same amount of retardant line. Two P2Vs could do it in two days, or four P2Vs could do it one day. Depending on which scenario was used, a DC-10 would result in a cost savings of $122,078 or $136,578.

Other advantages pointed out were that the VLAT could accomplish the objective much more quickly with a wider and more consistent retardant line, and “the eleven individual drops with the VLAT significantly reduced the number of ‘pilot drop exposures’ as compared to the number of drops/passes that would have been required with heavy airtankers”.

The DC-10 was tied up for just over three hours, but it would have taken four aircraft-days if P2Vs were used. The VLAT freed up air tankers, ASM/Bravos, and lead planes for other fires. If we had 44 air tankers like we did in 2002, that would not be as critical as the present situation, where we only have about 10 large air tankers plus one VLAT on exclusive use contracts, and one VLAT on a call when needed contract.

The 747 VLAT may become available by the end of September on a call when needed contract and we may have one or two “next generation” large air tankers in the fleet within the next few weeks.

 

Seven things to know about fire aviation

There is a lot going on in wildfire aviation, but it seems like that is always the case. Here are updates on seven topics that are currently on our minds:

1.  MAFFS activated again

Four Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers have been activated. A couple of days ago the two at Channel Islands in California were activated by the state to be used on fires currently burning, primarily to assist with the 24,000-acre Mountain Fire in southern California between Idyllwild and Palm Springs. That fire seems to be trying to take out most of the San Jacinto Mountains. Two more MAFFS, one each from Wyoming and North Carolina, are also being activated with orders to report to Boise by July 21. Earlier this month four MAFFS, two each from Wyoming and North Carolina, had been deployed but they ended their assignment on July 12.

2. Nose gear problem on CV-580

One of the two CV-580 air tankers on loan from Saskatchewan had a malfunction with a nose gear and is out of service until it can be replaced or repaired.

3. Availability of next-generation air tankers

Six of the seven aircraft that received next generation air tanker contracts are still being built and have yet to begin grid tests of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. The mandatory availability period was to begin in August. We recently talked with someone who is familiar with the progress of the four companies that are working on the six air tankers.

  • Minden’s BAe-146 and Erickson Aero Tanker’s (aka Aero Air) two MD87s may be certified around the first part of September.
  • At least one of Aero Flite/Conair’s two RJ85s may be ready to go by the end of August.
  • Coulson’s C-130Q could be ready by the first or second week of August. They will begin static testing next week.

10 Tanker’s DC-10 that received an exclusive use next-gen contract was already fully certified and began work almost immediately upon receipt of the contract.

4. Neptune to test new design

Neptune has made some changes to their tanks that are being installed on their third and fourth BAe-146s, hoping to correct the inconsistent flow rates which results in the last 500 to 600 gallons trailing off, exiting the aircraft at a slower rate than the first 2,400 gallons. They will begin grid testing the new design next week in Missoula.

5. C-27Js

The U.S. Forest Service expects to hear formally very soon, or by the end of this fiscal year at the latest, that the Air Force will transfer to them at least seven C-27Js. When we saw him July 2 at the dedication of the memorial for the four crew members of MAFFS 7 that were killed in the crash on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota a year earlier, the USFS Assistant Director of Aviation, Art Hingman told us that instead of a slip-in MAFFS-type pressurized tank system, the C-27s would likely have a conventional gravity-powered tank that would require cutting a hole in the bottom of the aircraft. The tank would be removable so that the aircraft could be used for hauling cargo.

He said that while some would be used as air tankers, he seemed even more enthusiastic that others could be assigned to smokejumpers. He was not sure how many gallons of retardant they would hold because it is unknown exactly how much weight can be removed from the aircraft during the conversion process. He estimated that they could hold as little as 1,800 gallons. Another source told us that it could take two to three years to convert the aircraft into air tankers, which would be operated as Government Owned/Contractor Operated, much like the CAL Fire air tankers.

6. Lead planes

A lead plane preceding a big, lumbering air tanker flying low and slow through turbulent air, is not required for the air tanker pilots that are qualified for Initial Attack (IA), but many of them will tell you that they prefer it, since it adds another level of safety. There is discussion going on about the future of lead planes, much of it motivated by saving money. Today there are only 14 lead planes and 14 qualified pilots, but more “are in the pipeline”, according to Art Hingman.

Not all of those 14 qualified pilots are always available because the federal agencies sometimes reassign them to other functions, including Forest Health, management studies, and smokejumper operations.

This shortage has created real problems in using Very Large Air Tankers and MAFFS, since those pilots are not IA qualified and require lead planes. At times dispatchers would like to split up the VLATs and send them to different fires in different geographic areas, but occasionally that has not been possible due to the lead plane shortage. And when the six additional next-gen air tankers begin flying, the shortage will be even worse.

7. 747 Very Large Air Tanker

Fire Aviation told you on June 14 that Evergreen received a 3-year call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service for their 20,000-gallon 747 “Supertanker”. Since it last had a contract with them two years ago, it has been sitting in the desert at Marana, Arizona. Bob Soelberg, Evergreen’s Vice President of Supertanker Service and Program Management, told us today that to protect the engines while in storage, all four of them were removed and replaced with two “slugs”, which are basically weights hanging on the wings to provide stability for the aircraft. He said the 747 is scheduled to begin maintenance and a C-check In Marana August 2 which will take at least 45 days, depending on what the check finds. So possibly by mid- to late September, when the western fire season begins winding down, it could be available to drop retardant on fires. Evergreen also recently signed a 3-year CWN contract with CAL FIRE.

Evergreen did not renew their last CWN contract because the aircraft was not used enough to cover the maintenance of the air tanker and the salaries of the crews. The C-check and maintenance next month will cost several million dollars.

Mr. Soelberg was interviewed by Lars Larson on 101KXL Radio recently. The audio recording is below.

Video and photos of the 747 dropping

Since the Evergreen 747 Supertanker may be coming back into our lives it might be a good time to refresh our memories of what it can do with 20,000 gallons.

These two photos was taken by a firefighter in Mexico in 2011. (UPDATE: Walt said in a comment June 20 the two photos below are from an  “unpressurized ‘clean out’ (jettison)”. Videos of T979 dropping on fires show appropriate drop altitudes. One of the pilots on the clean-out jettison was a highly regarded 16-year initial attack airtanker pilot that would have mutinied if a drop on a fire was done at that AGL altitude.”)

747 dropping on a fire
747 dropping on a fire in Mexico, April 14, 2011 (click to enlarge)
747 in Mexico, April 14, 2011
747 in Mexico, April 14, 2011 (click to enlarge)

The first video, below, is a KABC-TV News segment from May 31st, 2006 covering the 747 Supertanker demo in San Bernardino, CA. The video also includes some stock footage of the aircraft dropping during the Interagency AirTanker Board tests.

The second video below shows the 747 dropping water at Central Ciudad Real in Spain, July 21, 2009.

And next we have the 747 dropping on the Crown Fire at Anaverde, which I believe is near Palmdale, California, July 31, 2010.

And finally, below, a water dropping demo at McClellan in California, June 11, 2009.

Evergreen to get CWN contract for 747

We will classify this as Breaking News. Evergreen has not had a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for their 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker for a while, but they will get a new three-year CWN contract beginning July 1, 2013.

When the company had a CWN contract before, the aircraft was very rarely used, making it difficult for the company to justify maintaining the ship and the flight crew in a ready to go state. It will be interesting to see if it sits, or actually drops retardant on fires.

Maybe the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that awarded the contract, is looking for a stop-gap, to fill the void until the all seven “next generation” air tankers that recently received exclusive use contracts become fully certified. Only one of the seven is, the DC-10.

The CWN contract for 10 Tanker’s second DC-10, Tanker 910, will also be renewed for three years on July 1. It was activated Friday morning and flew to Albuquerque.

The other DC-10, Tanker 911, recently got a five-year exclusive use contract. It has been busy for the last two weeks dropping on fires in California, New Mexico, and Colorado

(UPDATE June 15, 2013)

Thanks to John, we have the numbers in the contracts:

  • Evergreen 747 – Daily Rate $75,000 + Flight Rate $12,000
  • 10 Tanker DC-10 – Daily Rate $51,522 + Flight Rate $7,668

More details about the prices in the contract awards.

(UPDATE at 2:25 p.m. MT, June 17, 2013)

I was wondering why the contract for the 747 does not start until July 1. Today I found on an aircraft forum what might be the answer — in February, 2012, the Supertanker was photographed in the desert missing two engines.

(UPDATED info HERE, August 22, 2013)

 

Erickson to buy Evergreen Helicopters, Inc.

Evergreen helicopter at Custer 2008
An Evergreen helicopter, a Eurocopter AS 350 B3,  at Custer, SD July 9, 2008. Photo by Bill Gabbert

As we reported on Wildfire Today earlier this afternoon, Erickson Air-Crane, Inc. has signed an agreement to purchase Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., a company with approximately 400 employees. This will be the second major acquisition Erickson has made in the last three months. In November they reached an agreement to buy Air Amazonia, a subsidiary of HRT Participacoes in Brazil, along with their 14 helicopters. Both acquisitions are expected to close in the second quarter of this year.

For the $250 million price tag, Erickson will get 52 helicopters and 12 fixed wing aircraft from Evergreen Helicopters. The 64 aircraft are a mix of leased and owned. Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker”, which can carry up to 20,000 gallons of fire retardant, is not part of the deal and will remain with Evergreen. The 747 is still configured as an air tanker but has not fought fire recently. The company has not been interested in accepting the U.S. Forest Service’s only offer of a call when needed contract.

From Air Amazonia Erickson will receive 14 passenger transport and medium-lift helicopters, (7) S-61, (5) Bell 212, and (2) A350 that have been used in the oil and gas industry. At this time Erickson has no plans to use the Amazonia helicopters for aerial fire suppression.

Erickson Air-Crane, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, for decades has built, operated, and sold Erickson S-64 heavy-lift helicopters, using a license acquired from Sikorsky. Up through 2007 the company concentrated on firefighting (53% of their business) and timber harvesting (38%). With the planned diversification the company expects to add contracts for Department of Defense work amounting to approximately 43% of their revenue, as well as increasing the oil and gas component. They think that about 30% of their work will be in Afghanistan. After the acquisitions, firefighting will provide about 19% of Evergreen’s revenue.

Since the company went public in April 2012 their stock price has risen from $8.00 to $15.11 today. According to Zacks.com:

In 2012, the company generated revenues of $180.8 million, up 18.4% year over year. The increase in revenue was driven by new firefighting contracts, an active fire season and the company’s expansion of infrastructure construction, especially in support of the oil-and-gas market in South America.

Maybe we’re entering a period of merger-mania. As we reported December 12, 2012, Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick. Aero Air acquired Butler’s three DC-7 air tankers, support equipment, and spare parts in Madras, Oregon. Kevin McCullough, now the President of Aero Air, and Jack Erickson, founder and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, became co-owners of Aero Air in 1998. Aero Air is currently converting some MD-87s into air tankers and hopes to snag a contract for “next-generation” air tankers, when and if the U.S. Forest Service ever issues the contracts. It has been 476 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.

Below are examples of the aircraft Erickson will be acquiring.

–From Evergreen Helicopters:

Evergreen helicopters Evergreen fixed wing

–From Air Amazonia:

Amazonia helicopters

Thanks go out to Kelly