New CL-415 seen at Winnipeg

Aero Flite CL-415 at Winnipeg
Aero Flite CL-415 at Winnipeg, November 5, 2013. Photo by Bokovay.

We have received two reports about a new CL-415 that has been at Winnipeg (CYWG) for the last several days. It is sporting an Aero-Flite logo and a registration number of C-GUZF. This is apparently the aircraft purchased by TENAX Aerospace which will be leased to Aero-Flite, the company that recently received a five-year contract from the U.S. Forest Service for a CL-415 water-scooping air tanker. We think this is designated Tanker 260.

 

Thanks go out to Mike and Barry

USFS awards scooper contract to Aero-Flite

The U.S. Forest Service awarded a contract today to Aero-Flite of Kingman, Arizona for one scooper air tanker.

CL-415. Photo by LA County Fire Department.
File photo of CL-415, courtesy of LA County Fire Department.

The U.S. Forest Service awarded a contract today to Aero-Flite of Kingman, Arizona for one scooper air tanker, an aircraft that can refill its tank by skimming along the surface of a lake. As Fire Aviation reported at the time, the solicitation was posted August 5, 2013 and closed August 19. In spite of the two week federal government shutdown it was awarded about 5 weeks after closing, a remarkably quick turnaround for USFS aircraft contracting. It took over 500 days to award the “next-gen” air tanker contracts.

The solicitation required the following: amphibious and scooping capability, turbine engines, 180-knot cruise speed, 1,600-gallon capacity, and 7 days a week coverage. It also has to have previous approval by the Interagency Airtanker Board. The specs appear to limit the qualifying aircraft to only the CL-415. The Be-200 could possibly meet the operational specs, but it does not have FAA or IAB approvals.

According to FedBizOpps.gov the dollar amount of the contract is $57 million. It is a five year deal with a provision to add a second aircraft if both parties agree.

Aero-Flite’s website says they have five Canadair CL-215 aircraft, and does not list a CL-415 in its inventory. Calls to company President Matthew Ziomek to obtain more details about the contract were not returned.

The CL-415 will be leased from TENAX Aerospace by Aero-Flite. It is a brand new aircraft and will be the only CL-415 in the United States.

In June Aero-Flite also received a contract from the U.S. Forest Service for two Avro RJ85 “next generation” air tankers but Conair has not yet completed the conversions for TENAX who will lease them to Areo-Flite. One of them, Tanker 160, has been seen in Canada undergoing flight tests in recent weeks.

UPDATE May 5, 2014: Aero-Flite’s CL-415 was designated Tanker 260.

Video of Aero Flite’s RJ85 dropping water

Aeroflite T-160
Aero Flite’s Tanker 160 at Abbotsford, B.C.

The RJ85 (similar to a BAe-146) that Conair is converting into an air tanker for Aero Flite made a test drop recently at the Abbotsford airport in British Columbia, and the video showed up on YouTube:

On September 11 we wrote about Tanker 160 and included a couple of photographs.

 

Thanks go out to Walter.

Coulson’s C-130Q reports for duty

air tanker 131 at San Bernardino
T -131 at San Bernardino, August 24, 2013. Photo by Dan Megna

(UPDATED at 1:47 p.m. PDT, September 20, 2012)

Tanker 131 was dispatched to its first fire today, September 20, near Santa Maria, California.

****

(Originally published September 13, 2013)

Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, a converted C-130Q, has been fully certified by the FAA, the Interagency AirTanker Board, and the U.S. Forest Service. The 3,500-gallon aircraft was carded on Tuesday and the pilot check rides occurred Wednesday. Its first assignment was to report to the San Bernardino airport, which ironically is where it spent the last several months while going through the conversion process.

Wayne Coulson, President and CEO of Coulson Aviation USA Inc., said, “This C-130Q has been outfitted with a Coulson RADS-XL Constant Flow tank and a state-of-the-art drop controller system that will enhance the accuracy of retardant drops by using GPS speed and other inputs.”

T-131 becomes the second air tanker to be certified and activated, of the original seven that were awarded “next generation” contracts.

As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The contracts were for exclusive use and for five years, with options for the USFS to extend them for an additional five years. Another option allows the addition of more air tankers from the vendors. The activation of the contracts was held up by two rounds of protests in 2012 and 2013 from Neptune Aviation, 10 Tanker, and Coulson, but the awards, after over 500 days of dithering, finally went to:

Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 (later changed to a 90-day exclusive use contract) and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.

The mandatory availability period for the six next generation air tankers was supposed to begin in the first part of August, 2013. Other than the DC-10, none of them made that date. Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite are still working on their conversion projects.

Another BAe air tanker takes flight

Conair RJ85 first flight
The first flight of Conair’s BAe Avro RJ85, which is being built for Aero Flite. Conair photo by Jeff Bough.

Conair Group of Abbotsford, British Columbia has started flight testing their BAe Avro RJ85, identified as Tanker 160, which is being converted from a jet-powered airliner into an air tanker. Conair is building two of them for Aero Flite. The RJ85 is a derivative of the BAe-146, but with improved engines. The 146 first flew in 1981 while the RJ85 was first delivered in 1993. Conair is the largest air tanker operator in the world with a fleet of around 50 fixed-wing special mission aircraft, including Convair 580s, Conair Firecats, Douglas DC-6s, and Lockheed Electra air tankers.

Tanker 160 first flight
Conair’s Tanker 160, a BAe Avro RJ85 after first flight, August 21, 2013. Photo by Coastal Pacific Aviation.

Tanker 160 reminds me of one of the “Guppy” type aircraft heavily modified to carry large cargo items. Aero Union sold the Mini Guppy below to Erickson in 1988 who then used it to haul heavy equipment until 1995, when it was retired to the Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon, where it resides today.

Erickson Air Crane Mini Guppy
Erickson Air Crane’s Mini Guppy

BAE Systems Regional Aircraft is making specialist engineering contributions to Conair and three other aircraft conversion programs underway in North America.

Neptune has acquired two BAe-146s which were converted by Tronos in Canada. Tronos has four more in progress for Neptune.

Minden Air Corp. has been working on their conversion of a BAe-146 for several years and began flight testing it this summer. A second BAe is under development and eventually these aircraft will replace the venerable P2V Neptune currently in service with Minden.

Air Spray Aviation Services of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada which currently has a fleet of Lockheed Electra turboprop air tankers has established a US base at Chico, California and has acquired a BAe 146-200 for conversion.

Progress check on next-generation air tankers

We attempted to contact all four of the vendors that received contracts for next-generation air tankers that are still working to convert their aircraft into air tankers. We wanted to get updates on how close they are to being ready drop retardant over fires. Minden and Coulson returned our phone calls. 10 Tanker had their two DC-10s ready to go and fully certified when the contracts were announced, so their status is obvious.

As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that exclusive use contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The activation of the contracts was held up by a protest from Neptune Aviation, but the awards finally went to.

Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.

The other four companies are finishing the tank installations and still have to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the FAA and have to pass a static test, dropping while parked on the tarmac; then, finally a grid test during which they drop actual retardant from the air into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground which will determine the volume and consistency of the drop pattern. As far as I know none of the four remaining companies have scheduled a grid test yet with the Interagency AirTanker Board, which must certify all air tankers under contract with the federal government.

Minden Air Corporation

We talked with Len Parker, the CEO of Minden, who told us that they are making good progress on their BAe-146, Tanker 46, and that they expect to make the deadline for full certification, which is in the first part of August. Their tank design is very different from Neptune’s design for their BAe-146 which uses cabin air pressure to assist in forcing the retardant out of the tank. Mr. Parker told us their tank totally relies on gravity, having more than 10 feet of vertical head pressure. When asked if the door system was constant flow, he said yes and no, explaining that it is more advanced than a typical constant flow system, and uses advanced technology.

The tank holds about 3,100 gallons, he said, and when empty weighs about 2,000 pounds less than other tanks that may be used on BAe-146s, meaning they would not have to carry reduced loads of retardant as often when density altitude is an issue on hot days at high altitude.

Tanker 46 has passed the static test and meets the required flow rates, Mr. Parker told us. They are still working on the STC, but expect to select a date for the grid test by July 12.

Minden has purchased a second BAe-146 and has already started converting it.

Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.

Coulson's T 131

Britt Coulson sent us these photos that were taken June 28, 2013. He told us the aircraft, which holds 3,500 gallons, has been painted and they will apply the wrap, which we ran a photo of earlier, later this month. He said on July 2:

…most of the tank is now installed, gear and all flight controls are checked, tank doors are going on this week, hydraulics are being finished this week as is the floor to complete the tank install.

The tank in Coulson's T 131

As you can see in the photo, there are wheels attached to the tank. Mr. Coulson told us they can remove or reinstall the tank in about 30 minutes.

They still have to obtain the STC and the other certifications.

The other two companies

We called and left messages at Aero Flite and Aero Air, but the calls and emails were not returned.

Aero Flite photos?

We received the two following photos from someone who told us that they show Aero Flite’s RJ85 (Tanker 160) external retardant tank being attached to the belly and sides of an aircraft last week. We can’t independently verify they are genuine, so for now we’ll just call them an artist’s conception of what their RJ85 may look like.

AeroFlite RJ85 side AeroFlite RJ85

USFS to issue contracts for 3 next-gen air tankers

Tanker 910, a DC-10
Tanker 910, a DC-10, landing at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(Originally published at 11:15 a.m. MT, May 31, 2013; updated at 8:30 p.m., May 31, 2013)

The attorneys and U.S. Forest Service officials dealing with the contract protest that Neptune Aviation lodged when they were passed over for a next-generation air tanker contract have have decided that three of the seven line items on the solicitation are exempt from Neptune’s protest because the company did not bid on those line items. As a result, three companies were notified Thursday that they definitely will be issued five-year exclusive use contracts:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.

The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.

The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.

The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.

The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.

It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.

Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.

USFS announces contracts for next-generation air tankers

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

The U.S. Forest Service announced today they intend to award contracts to five companies for what the agency is calling “next-generation” air tankers, used for dropping water or fire retardant on wildfires.

The U.S. Forest Service expects to award exclusive use contracts to:

Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. (See below for more information on the “legacy” aircraft contract).

The new next-gen contracts are for a base period of five years with five one-year options (a total of 10 years if all contract options are exercised).

In a press release the USFS said the contracts allow the companies to provide additional next generation air tankers in future years, contingent on funding and other circumstances…

…to reach the total of 18 to 28 recommended in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy that the Forest Service submitted to Congress in February 2012.

These new contracts for next-gen air tankers require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least  3,000 gallons.

The USFS said the five were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.

We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.

The USFS said they plan to bring the seven next-gen air tankers into service over the next year. Most of these aircraft, except for the DC-10, are not ready to drop retardant on fires. Some are still being converted from airliners into air tankers, have not passed the drop tests required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, or they do not have an FAA Type Certificate. Even if the progress on some of these air tankers goes as the companies optimistically hope, it could be months before they are seen dropping retardant over a fire.

The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers 523 days ago on November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012.

These next-generation air tankers can fly faster, should be more reliable, and can carry more retardant than the “legacy” P2V air tankers that were designed in the 1940s for maritime patrol. The Korean War vintage P2Vs have two 18-cylinder radial piston engines with many moving parts, requiring more maintenance than the turbine or turbofan engines of these newer aircraft. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000 gallons of retardant and can cruise at 225 mph.

On March 28, 2013 the USFS announced that contracts were awarded to Neptune Aviation and Minden Air, for what the agency called “legacy” air tankers. Exclusive use contracts were awarded to Minden for one P2V and to Neptune for six P2Vs and one BAe-146. These contracts are for six to eight aircraft over the next five years, when optional years for various line items are considered.

The USFS expects legacy air tankers to continue to be part of the fleet until there are adequate numbers of next generation large air tankers.

With the 7 contracts for next-gen air tankers announced today, plus the 8 legacy contracts, this will make 15 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts if and when the 7 next-gen aircraft are converted and obtain approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and the FAA. In addition, the government can call up 8 military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers.

The USFS still has not announced new contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10 or 747, which expired December 31, 2012. However, and surprisingly, one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s received a contract on this new next-gen solicitation. The agency had extended the call-when-needed contract for the DC-10 while they struggled with issuing new contracts. There have been no contracts for the 747 “Supertanker” operated by Evergreen in recent years.

Below are the specifications for air tankers that we compiled, including some aircraft being considered for conversion into air tankers. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Air Tanker Specifications