The back story: How the deployment of U.S. air tankers to Chile happened

Above: The 747 Supertanker being reloaded at Santiago, Chile, January 28, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In January and February two large air tankers traveled from the United States to South America to assist firefighters in Chile that were dealing with an unprecedented number of wildfires. Global SuperTanker’s 747 left Colorado Springs on January 24 and returned on February 13. A BAe-146 operated by Neptune Aviation was down there from about February 4 to March 5.

As far as I know this is the first time that any large air tankers from North America have assisted with wildfires in South America. One limiting factor is that up until recently most of the U.S. air tankers were former military aircraft which were not allowed to be used outside the country. With the industry converting to used civilian airliners and cargo aircraft that restriction does not apply to the newer privately owned aircraft.

In January, 2017 I had been following the increased wildfire activity in Chile and had written about it several times on Wildfire Today. Here is an excerpt from an article published on January 3, 2017:

Wildfire burns 100 homes in Chile

On Monday a wildfire burned approximately 100 homes in Valparaiso, Chile. There are reports that 19 people were injured and hundreds were forced to evacuate. The fire was fought by firefighters on the ground assisted by [single engine] air tankers and helicopters dropping water.

Pushed by strong winds it burned about 120 acres of vegetation 75 miles northwest of Santiago.

An air tanker pilot was killed December 28 while working on a fire in the Bío Bío region.

And later, three wildland firefighters were killed January 15 while battling a fire in the commune of Vichuquén, Maule Region of Chile.

But the fires in Chile were receiving very little notice in the mainstream media in the U.S.

Eduardo Frugone, who is kind of a mysterious person in Chile with many connections, read the articles on Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation about the fires in his country and the fatal air tanker crash. I had never heard of him, but on January 18 he sent me an email message through the Contact Us page on Fire Aviation that read, in its entirety:

“We need fire figthing [sic] planes to fly to Chile, need to know if your company can establish contacts right away.

Stand by.”

I, of course, do not have any air tankers, but I forwarded his message to air tanker companies that I thought might have some available. Selecting the companies was a pretty quick decision that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on. I figured the chances of the person that contacted me having any influence in deploying North American air tankers to South America was very, very slim. As far as I knew the paradigm of contracting for air tankers was limited to federal, state, or provincial governments, not a random person who only had links to private companies in his automatic email signature. So I didn’t want to waste the time of every air tanker company in the world.

I did not contact any company that I knew had 100 percent of their tankers committed to Australia. And I limited the short list to companies that had deployed air tankers on fires in 2016, or that I knew had recently received certification from the Interagency Air Tanker Board, and that I knew how to reliably contact. Not all air tanker companies will return my phone calls or respond consistently to my emails.

I forwarded the email to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Neptune Aviation, and Global Supertanker. I wrote to them, “I don’t know if this is legit or not, but it might be an opportunity to use your aircraft in Chile.” Two of those companies, Global Supertanker and Neptune, followed up.

So, Eduardo got the ball rolling, through Wildfire Today.

What followed, in the case of Global Supertanker, were eight days of phone calls, email messages, and negotiations.

During the week of January 22 an heir to the Walmart fortune in Denver, Ben Walton with his wife Lucy Ana, got involved. She grew up in Chile and still maintains very strong ties to the people and the country. They have used their foundation in recent years to help the residents in her homeland. In 2016 the foundation helped arrange for $1.5 million worth of medical supplies to be sent to hospitals and rural clinics in Chile. And they also rebuilt a school after it was destroyed by the earthquake and resulting Tsunami in Chile a few years ago.

747 Supertanker
Lucy Ana Walton and Ben Walton, (left) receive a briefing on the 747 Supertanker, January 23, 2017. Jim Wheeler is on the right. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The Waltons had been following the escalating fire situation in Chile and were familiar with my web sites, Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation, after I had written about wildfires in Colorado. They knew the 747 Supertanker was based in Colorado Springs just an hour south of their Denver home.

In discussions with Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global Supertanker, they offered to have their foundation, Foundación Viento Sur, provide the funds for the 747 to ferry to Chile and back, and for five days of firefighting in Chile. They hoped that after they saw the effectiveness of the aircraft, the government would retain the services of the air tanker for as long as it was needed .

Working out the details with the foundation, the Chilean government, and Global Supertanker was a complex procedure that took a while. Ben and Lucy Ana visited Global SuperTanker’s Colorado Springs facilities on June 23 and received a briefing on the use and capabilities of the aircraft. Ben has some pilot training and both of them, but especially Lucy Ana, were very enthusiastic about its 19,200-gallon capacity and its potential to assist the residents of Chile.

Lucy Ana Walton 747 Supertanker
Lucy Ana Walton in front of one of the 747’s engines at Colorado Springs, January 23, 2017. Photo By Bill Gabbert.

Attorneys in the U.S. and Chile got involved, and finally late Tuesday morning, January 24, the flight crew received the GO order and departed for South America at about 1:40 p.m. MST.

Mr. Wheeler offered me one of the 12 seats on the 747 for the trip south, and I accepted and became embedded with the crew. I returned on my own February 5 and the aircraft flew back to Colorado Springs nine days later.

Eduardo Frugone, who initially came up with the concept for the deployment of North American air tankers to Chile, helped to facilitate the missions before and during the assignment in exchange for a salary.

The Chilean government was very reluctant to bring in aircraft from outside the country, possibly because they had existing contracts with European companies for single engine air tankers. Questions have been raised about irregularities related to the activities of those companies in Europe and an investigation is underway now in Chile about procedures, before this year, about the acquisition of firefighting aircraft.

Chile is also considering the creation, for the first time, of a “Forest Service”-type agency that would assume the role of coordinating wildfire suppression, a task that presently is done by CONAF, a private, non-profit organization funded by the government and responsible for initiating air tanker contracts.

Helicopter mobilized from the showroom floor of convention

Columbia BV-107
File photo of a Columbia BV-107 at Custer, SD July 31, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
While some have said the National Interagency Fire Center responded slowly to the very busy wildfire activity that started March 6 in the central plains where about a million acres burned in a few days, eventually they did take action.

In an effort to mobilize a Type 1 helicopter they contacted Columbia Helicopters who had one on display at a helicopter convention.

 “This is the first time we have received a resource order for firefighting duty, while displaying our helicopter at a convention,” said Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations, for the Portland, Oregon-based company.  Reached by phone at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) convention in Dallas, Saylor explained that transitioning the helicopter, from a static display to a mission-ready firefighting aircraft, involved removing the rotor blades, exiting the convention center, then reinstalling the rotor blades.  This was followed by a flight to a nearby airport for refueling and overnighting.  Called up on March 9, the helicopter was deployed the following day to Ardmore, Oklahoma, under an optional use clause of a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract.  The helicopter was dispatched with two pilots, five mechanics and ground support equipment drivers.

A former US Army-operated CH47D Chinook, the helicopter was modified by Columbia Helicopters with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank for water, jells, foam, or retardant dropping, and had been flown to the convention following firefighting duty on East Coast fires.

Also responding to the fires, Neptune Aviation Services dispatched three of its BAe-146 air tankers to multiple locations, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company.  Three of the tankers were dispatched from Missoula between March 9 and 11, and flown to USFS tanker bases in Ardmore, Oklahoma, Abilene, Texas, and the Rocky Mountain Regional Airport, near Denver, Colorado.  A fourth BAe 146 tanker will continue to fly out of a base at Lake City, Florida, where it has been on duty since February 20.

On March 16 Neptune mobilized T-05, the first of their P2V piston engine tankers to start an assignment this year, which will probably be the model’s last season as the company completes their transition to the jet-powered BAe-146 airframe.

Firefighters are still busy in Chile

Above: Tanker 03, a BAe-146, in Chile. Neptune photo.

(This article first appeared on WildfireToday.com)

The number of active wildfires in Chile has varied from week to week depending on the weather, but the drought-driven situation that has plagued Chile since December is still of great concern to the residents of the country —  especially since more than 1,000 homes burned in Santa Olga on January 25.

The tweet below refers to a fire in the Maule Region.

The 747 Supertanker returned to Colorado Springs on February 13 after being in Chile for three weeks. The Russian IL-76 is still there but is expected to depart on February 25.

Neptune’s Tanker 03, a BAe-146, arrived in the country February 4. It has completed 20 missions dropping on fires, but a spokesperson for the company told us today it has not flown since February 14. It is committed to remain in Chile through the end of this month.

IL-76 747 Supertanker air tanker chile
The Russian IL-76 (in the foreground) taxis past the 747, January 30, ,2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
IL-76 air tanker chile Santiago
The Russian IL-76 at Santiago, Chile January 30 shortly after it arrived in the country. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Elvis may have arrived in Santiago

Above: An Erickson Air-Crane helicopter arrived in Santiago, Chile on Thursday, February 2. Photo by Tom Parsons of Global Supertanker.

A large strange-looking helicopter arrived at Santiago Chile on Thursday — an Erickson Air-Crane, sometimes called a Sky Crane. It is an aircraft with a very specific purpose, to lift heavy loads. When used on wildfires, which is what is will be doing in Chile, it can be fitted with a tank holding up to 2,650 gallons (10,031 liters) of water or retardant. However the helicopter that arrived at Santiago after flying in from Peru has a different attachment in the location where the usual firefighting tank would be found. Perhaps the conventional fire tank will catch up with the aircraft.

Erickson attaches nicknames conspicuously on the nose of their Air-Cranes. We have an unconfirmed report that the one the company sent to Santiago is “Elvis”. That particular ship usually operates in Australia during their summer, but it is not there this year.

"Elvis", an Erickson Air-Crane
File photo of “Elvis”, an Erickson Air-Crane. Credit: Erickson

Another aircraft to be added to the temporary aerial firefighting fleet in Chile is a BAe-146, a 3,000 gallon (11,356 liters) air tanker. Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation, said the four-engine jet should arrive on Friday, February 2. Neptune usually bases their jet air tankers in Missoula during the North American winter.

(UPDATE 11 p.m. February 2, 2017 Chile time: The BAe ran into a problem in Texas and its arrival in Chile will be delayed by a day.)

Bae-146 landing Redding
File photo of a Bae-146 landing at Redding August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Neptune acquires their ninth BAe-146

Above: A BAe-176 recently acquired by Neptune lands at Missoula, November 20, 2016. It will become Tanker 16 sometime next year. Photo by Bill Moss.

Neptune Aviation’s ninth BAe-146 arrived at Missoula, Montana on Sunday, November 20, 2016. The aircraft, to become Tanker 16, was last flown by Daallo Airlines and had been stored at Djibouti-Ambouti International Airport which is near the “horn” of Africa at the south end of the Red Sea. On November 9 Neptune re-registered it as N478NA.

In September the company acquired their eighth BAe-146, Tanker 15.

Ron Hooper, the CEO of Neptune, said they arranged for the aircraft to be flown across Africa and the Atlantic by a company that specializes in ferrying. We asked him why, rather than using their own personnel:

When we ferried Tanker 15 over [in September] the timing was poor, all of our flight crews were out on fires. So we did contact this company, Southern Cross, and negotiated with them to ferry the aircraft home. Based on that experience, Bill, it was more convenient and cost effective for them to bring Tanker 16 over.

n478na T-16 tanker neptune
N478NA, a BAe-176 recently acquired by Neptune, taxis after landing at Missoula, November 20, 2016. Photo by Bill Moss.

Bill Moss, who took these photos, researched the three-day ferry flight. He said international flight tracking is not always accurate, but found that after taking off from Djibouti on November 18, it was scheduled to make stops at:

  1. Cairo, Egypt
  2. Sofia, Bulgaria
  3. Leipzig, Germany
  4. Belfast, Ireland
  5. Keflavik, Iceland
  6. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
  7. Goose Bay, Labrador
  8. Sault Ste Marie, Ontario
  9. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  10. Missoula, Montana (arriving at 4:30 p.m. on November 20, 2016)

A BAe-146 does not have a tremendously long range, so it required more refueling hops than most large jet-powered passenger aircraft. A year ago when an RJ-85, a variant of the BAe-146, ferried from North America to Australia to begin an air tanker contract, it carried additional fuel in a bladder. Air Tractor makes an optional kit that enables their Single Engine Air Tankers to carry extra fuel in the retardant tank on long ferry flights.

Neptune’s plans are to begin conversion of their two recent acquisitions, T-15 and T-16, this winter, expecting to have T-15 completed by late winter after which they will bring T-16 into the hangar to begin the process on that aircraft.

Mr. Hooper said the existing U.S. Forest Service “legacy contract”, under which six Neptune P2Vs are working, expires after the 2017 fire season. When a new contract, “Next-Gen 3.0”, is awarded for the period beginning in 2018, he expects to have retired all of their P2Vs, and their air tanker fleet will consist exclusively of BAe-146s. The USFS hopes to award the contract in the Spring of 2017, Mr. Hooper said.

Neptune currently has two air tankers still working on fires. Tankers 10 and 41, both BAe-146s, are in the South, temporarily based at Tri-Cities Regional Airport in eastern Tennessee about 15 miles north of Johnson City.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill M.

Neptune acquires their eighth BAe-146

neptune BAe-146
Neptune’s eighth BAe-146 arrives at Missoula September 29, 2016. Photo by Bill Moss.

One of the major winter projects at Neptune Aviation will be converting their eighth BAe-146 airliner into an air tanker. Aircraft N477NA arrived in Missoula September 29 after flying across the Atlantic via Reykjavik International Airport in Iceland.

Bill Moss, who took these photos, told us that the aircraft’s previous registration identifier was LA-HBZ and it had been flying for Bulgaria Air for the last five years. It has served with 10 different operators since its first commercial flight in 1988 for American Airlines.

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Neptune Aviation, said they are not certain what the aircraft’s tanker number will be, but they are considering Tanker 15. (Update November 22, 2016: it is confirmed to be Tanker 15.)

neptune BAe-146
Neptune’s eighth BAe-146 arrives at Missoula September 29, 2016. Photo by Bill Moss.

As the fire season in the west winds down, Mr. Snyder said two of their air tankers were released yesterday for the year but they still have seven operating for the U.S. Forest Service and one with CAL FIRE. All of their P2V’s will be migrating to their maintenance facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico which has a winter climate much more friendly to radial engines than Missoula.

Another long term project Neptune is working on is performing some of the work on the C-23B Sherpa aircraft the USFS got from the US Army to convert them to civilian SD3-60 certificates. They are usually working on one or two of the planes at a time, Mr. Snyder said, and will continue that project at least through 2017.

“That really is going to depend on the contract situation”, Mr. Snyder said when we asked if they plan to acquire any more BAe-146’s. “The Next-Gen 3.0 contract is supposedly going to be released sometime in the latter portion of this year or the first of next year. And that will greatly dictate what we do as a company, depending on how many line items they decide to release and what that situation looks like from a contracting standpoint.”

Update on USFS HC-130H’s and other air tankers

four CL-415 cody wy
Four CL-415 water-scooping air tankers at Cody, Wyoming during the week of August 1, 2016. Some of them had been working the nearby Whit Fire and scooping out of Buffalo Bill Reservoir six miles from the fire. Photo by Becky Lester Hawkins.

Ten additional air tankers brought on temporarily

In the last few weeks the U.S. Forest Service has brought on ten additional air tankers on a temporary basis. This includes CL-415 water-scoopers, CV-580’s, and Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130’s. Two of the aircraft were acquired through Call When Needed (CWN) agreements; four via agreements with Alaska and Canada; two MAFFS through an agreement with the Department of Defense; and two water scoopers through other contracts.

HC-130H’s

The U.S. Forest Service expects to have two HC-130H aircraft at McClellan Air Field in September. These are part of the seven aircraft fleet of HC-130H’s that the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015.

Last year one of the HC-130H’s worked out of McClellan using a MAFFS, a slip-in 3,000-gallon pressurized retardant system that pumps the liquid out the left side troop door. That was aircraft #1721 designated as Tanker 118, still painted in military colors. T-118 is now undergoing scheduled depot-level maintenance and should be replaced in September of this year by #1708 designated as Tanker 116. It will also use a slip-in MAFFS unit, one of the eight owned by the USFS, but should be sporting a new USFS air tanker paint job. After T-118 left, another former Coast Guard aircraft took its place, #1706. It is being used for training the contracted pilots and will not serve as an air tanker.

Early in 2015 the plan was to have two HC-130H’s at McClellan. One would be used as an air tanker, and the second would be used as a training platform. Below is a portion of that early 2015 plan which we covered February 9, 2015.

Forest Service C-130H schedule
The USFS plans in early 2015 for incorporating the seven HC-130H aircraft into a Government-Owned/Contractor-Operated fleet of air tankers. Click to enlarge.

Eventually the USFS hopes to have all seven converted to air tankers with removable retardant tanks. A contract for the installation of the retardant delivery systems was awarded to the Coulson Group in May. There is also much other work that has to be completed on the aircraft including programmed depot maintenance, painting, and wing box replacement on most of them. The work is being done or coordinated by the U.S. Air Force. They were directed by Congressional legislation to use their own funds, up to $130 million, so it is no surprise that the schedule keeps slipping as delays continue to occur in awarding contracts and scheduling the maintenance.

In 2014 Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS, said all seven aircraft would be completely converted by 2018. In early 2015 the USFS changed that to 2019. Now, a year and a half later, it’s anybody’s guess when or if this project that started in December of 2013 will be finished.

CL-415’s

The USFS has two water-scooping CL-415 air tankers on exclusive use contract. As noted above they recently temporarily brought on two more on a call when needed basis. All four are operated by AeroFlite and as seen in the photo above were together at Cody last week.

Air Spray

There was some discussion in the comment section of another article on Fire Aviation about the status of the BAe-146 aircraft being converted to air tankers by Air Spray. The company has five of the 146’s; two are out of the country and the other three are at the company’s Chico, California facility. Ravi Saip, their Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told Fire Aviation that they expect to begin flight testing one of them in air tanker mode around the first of the year. After they receive a supplemental type certificate from the FAA, work on the second one would shift into high gear. Then conversion of the other three would begin.

T-241
Air Spray’s T-241 finishing its amphibious conversion at the Wipaire facility in Minnesota. Air Spray photo.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 single engine air tankers that they have purchased since 2014. Five of them have received the amphibious conversion by adding floats, and the other three are stock, restricted to wheels.

Air Spray’s Tanker 498, an L-188 Electra, is currently in Sacramento being inspected and carded by CAL FIRE so that it can be used in a Call When Needed capacity.

747 SuperTanker

Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, told us that the FAA has awarded a supplemental type certificate for their reborn 747 SuperTanker — a major and sometimes very difficult barrier to overcome. Within the next two weeks they expect to receive the airworthiness certificate.

air tanker 747 T-944 colorado springs
T-944 at Colorado Springs May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Beginning next week representatives from the USFS will observe some additional static tests and then there will be an airborne descent test, a new test added in 2013, releasing retardant in a downhill drop. That test was not required when Version 1.0 of the 747 was certified. It may have been added after it was discovered that the first BAe-146’s that were converted and issued contracts still retained hundreds of gallons of retardant after downhill runs.

These steps should take less than two weeks, Mr. Wheeler said, after which they will submit the results to the Interagency AirTanker Board.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told Fire Aviation that the company was offered an opportunity to submit a proposal for a call when needed contract solicitation in 2015, along with numerous other companies, but declined to do so. Their next opportunity to obtain a contract will be when another general solicitation is issued in 2017, or perhaps sooner, Ms. Jones said. The agency issued a Request for Information a few weeks ago, which is usually followed some months later with an actual solicitation.

Judging from the list of CWN air tankers with contracts, apparently it is possible to submit a proposal and receive a USFS CWN contract even if the aircraft exists mostly on paper and could be years away from being FAA and Interagency AirTanker Board certified.

In the meantime Mr. Wheeler realizes that the USFS is not the only organization that hires air tankers and has been talking with a number of other agencies in various states and countries as well as companies involved in marine firefighting.

Global SuperTanker is in the process of finishing repairs on the 747 in Arizona after some of the composite flight control surfaces (flaps, spoilers, elevators) and engine cowlings were damaged by golf ball sized hail at Colorado Springs several weeks ago. There was no windscreen or fuselage damage.

Mr. Wheeler said that was the first severe hailstorm within the last seven years at the Colorado Springs airport. But, after the aircraft left to be repaired in Arizona a second hailstorm struck the airport that some have said was a 100-year event and did much more damage than the first one.

Permanent base for the HC-130H air tankers

On September 2, 2015 the USFS formally requested information from facilities that could support the seven-aircraft HC-130H fleet (Solicitation Number SN-2015-16), with responses due September 16. The agency was only asking for information from interested parties, and will not award a contract based on the Request for Information. A few politicians fell all over themselves arguing that the aircraft should be based in their state.

Since then no decisions have been made. Ms. Jones told Fire Aviation:

The U.S. Forest Service continues to cooperate with the Department of Defense to identify potential federal facilities, which must be considered first.

It is unlikely that more than one or two of the seven HC-130H’s would be at the new base at at any one time, except during the winter when they would not have to be dispersed around the country to be available for firefighting. While the base might not be a huge expansion of the aerial firefighting capabilities in an area, the stationing of the flight crews, maintenance, and administrative personnel would be a boost to the economy of a small or medium-sized city.

DC-10 and a BAe-146 drop on the Sobranes Fire

Above, Neptune’s Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Soberanes Fire near Big Sur, California. Credit for the video: Eric Tebbets, Captain, CALFIRE, Cuesta Camp Fire Crews.

Next, one of 10 Tanker’s DC-10’s drops on the fire.

Click on the arrows at the bottom-right to see it in full-screen.