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.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
Goose Bay, Labrador
Sault Ste Marie, Ontario
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can’t see the actual retardant drop behind the trees, but in the video there is a decent shot of Tanker 03, a BAe-146, exiting the drop area at the Varsity Fire south of Bristow, Oklahoma on April 7, 2016. It was recorded by Matt Mcspadden.
Some of the aircraft that were at Missoula were relocated to Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport.
Above: A Neptune Aviation BAe-146 landing at Redding August 7, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Neptune Aviation used seven air tankers in New Mexico for the company’s annual training according to a story in the Alamogordo Daily News. Crews used the opportunity to practice dropping on simulated fires and to perform maintenance on the piston engine planes. The company had seven BAe-146 jets and seven radial-engine P2Vs in the warmer climate for about two weeks.
Below is an excerpt from the article:
“…Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer Dan Snyder said the company brings their operations down to Alamogordo for about two weeks in February because of the warm weather is more amenably for their aircraft.
“We do all of our aircraft and ground training for the P2V aircraft down here,” Snyder said. “We also bring all of our flight crew for all of our company flight and ground schools here. Missoula is a lot colder. The weather is not as inclusive.”
He said with the P2V aircraft it needs a lot more preheating or warming up before a flight.
“Here it allows us not to have to do a lot of preheating,” Snyder said. “We can fly more. The airspace here is not as congested like up in Missoula. Down here we do have military air traffic but Holloman has been very accommodating for us. They’ve helped us out a lot.”
He said Neptune trains between Alamogordo and Roswell airport.
“It works out well for us because we have mountainous and flat terrain so we can do all of our drop training here,” Snyder said. “Our training includes using water with our drop training. We use retardant on fires but when we’re training, its water. We fill with water because it’s cheaper. We’re not fighting a fire during training so we use water.”
In Alamogordo Neptune houses the P2V Neptune’s while the BAe-146’s are housed in Missoula. Neptune does all of their heavy duty maintenance at Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport on the P2V aircraft.
“We have about 15 full time personnel that live here in Alamogordo,” Snyder said….”
UPDATE March 24, 2016: The newspaper article said Neptune moved seven BAe-146 air tankers from Missoula to New Mexico for the training. We checked with Dan Snyder of Neptune this week at the Aerial Firefighting conference, and he confirmed that the BAe’s remained in Montana, and did not go to New Mexico.