Tanker 160 photographed at the retardant grid test

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Tanker 160 retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Jeff Zimmerman took this photo of Aero Flite’s Tanker 160, an Avro RJ85 which was converted into an air tanker by Conair. It was shot during the grid test at Fox Field in southern California December 13, 2013. More photos and a video of Tanker 160 at the grid test can be found HERE. The test involves dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds of cups, intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground.

Last year Aero-Flite received a contract for two Avro RJ85 air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service as part of the agency’s next-generation air tanker program.

You can see more of Jeff’s photography at his site. Thanks Jeff.

Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101, an MD-87, went through the same tests last week.

Tanker 160 goes through retardant drop grid tests

T160 dropping

On December 11 Aero Flite’s Tanker 160 began a series of retardant drop tests for their Avro RJ85 at Fox Field in southern California. The aircraft, converted into an air tanker by Conair, was expected to perform 20 to 25 drops over a two or three day period. The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of thousands of cups, intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires. Both paid and inmate fire crews were on hand at Fox Field to assist with the set-up of the grid and the collection of the cups after each drop.

Randy Johnson uploaded this video:

T160 dropping

The grid. Thousands of cups.
The grid. Thousands of cups. Click to enlarge.

Tanker 160, an RJ85 which is similar to a BAe-146, is being converted by Conair for Aero Flite, which received a contract June 7 for two RJ85s. The aircraft were not ready and missed the contractual start date a couple of months later. The U.S. Forest Service then issued “cure notices” to Aero Flite and two other companies that received the next generation contracts for five air tankers, none of which met the required start date. Aero Flite responded saying the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014. Later in a justification for awarding a sole source contract to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers, the USFS wrote they were “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014″.

Thanks go out to the Los Angeles County Fire Department which took these photos.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to John

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.

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.

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