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.

10 Tanker cancels plans to move to Wyoming

Tanker 910 at Rapid City
Tanker 910 at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Mead Gruver of the Associated Press reports that 10 Tanker Air Carrier has decided not to move their air tanker headquraters from Victorville, California to Casper, Wyoming, after announcing May 14 they would relocate to the Casper/Natrona County International Airport.

CEO Rick Hatton said in May, “This fantastic operational environment and its central location will allow improved response times to fires in the mountain west region.”

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Gruver’s article:

…On Friday, 10 Tanker President Rick Hatton said Wyoming has been welcoming to his company but the desert Southwest offers a better climate to store planes.

Also, a reassessment of Wyoming’s tax advantages showed little benefit to relocating to the state.

“We started to rethink our decision and we started to conclude that the receptivity in Wyoming, which was lovely, didn’t outweigh the other factors,” Hatton said.

He hasn’t settled yet on a headquarters location yet, he said, but it won’t be Victorville [California]. He suggested that it could be New Mexico or Arizona.

10 Tanker air carrier has one DC-10 under a five-year exclusive use contract and another has a call when needed contract. They carry 11,600 gallons of retardant and were both busy in June, dropping about 698,000 gallons during the month.

 

Thanks go out to Dick

Both DC-10s at Pueblo

Here is a rare photo of the two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers on a fire assignment at the same place at the same time — Pueblo, Colorado. They were not as busy Wednesday as they have been recently, which could be a result of the milder, more humid weather which led to less intense fire behavior for the last day or two.

Both DC-10s at Pueblo
Both DC-10s at Pueblo June 26, 2013. Pike & San Isabel NF Photo.

DC-10 takes off every six seconds

You may not have heard of Vine. It’s a new social media/networking site that allows you to upload six-second videos, which then keep repeating, forever I guess. That’s about all I know about it. But check out this video of one of the DC-10 air tankers taking off at Mesa Gateway en route to the Doce Fire, which grew from zero to 5,000 acres Tuesday afternoon. When you go to the site you may have to click on the image to start the video.

That video and this one showing Tanker 910 taxiing at Mesa Gateway were shot by Jason Volentine, of KTVK 3TV News in Phoenix, AZ.

Both DC-10s were working the Doce Fire today out of Mesa Gateway. That must have kept the workers at the tanker base busy.

AZCentral has some videos HERE and HERE of air tankers and a helicopter dropping on the fire. The 12News TV station’s Facebook page has some photos of the fire.

Two DC-10 air tankers at Mesa Gateway
Two DC-10 air tankers at Mesa Gateway airport in Phoenix, fighting the Doce Fire, 6-18-2013. Photo by Jason Volentine KTVK

More information about the the Doce Fire is at Wildfire Today.

Second DC-10 activated

DC-10, Tanker 911, dropping on Black Forest Fire
DC-10, Tanker 911, dropping on Black Forest Fire, June 12, 2013, Photo by Army National Guard 2nd Lt Skye A Robinson

A second DC-10 air tanker has been activated. 10 Tanker Air Carrier received a call Thursday night asking the company to have Tanker 910 in Albuquerque by noon on Friday. It is scheduled to depart Southern California Logistics Airport (KVCV) at 10:00AM MDT and should arrive at Albuquerque at about 11:10 MDT.

The company’s other DC-10, Tanker 911, began working on a five-year exclusive use contract two weeks ago and in recent days has been dropping on fires in California, New Mexico, and Colorado. Wednesday and Thursday it assisted firefighters on the Royal Gorge and Black Forest Fires and was reloading at Pueblo, Colorado. Tanker 910 is working on a Call When Needed contract.

During one period last year both of the DC-10s were active at the same time, working for a while out of McClellan airport near Sacramento, California, and Boise, Idaho.

Tanker 910 visited Rapid City and other locations in April. Photos of the Rapid City visit are at Wildfire Today.

Both DC-10s, classified as Very Large Air Tankers, always carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant, while most large Large Air Tankers carry between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons.

Should very large air tankers be used on 7-acre fires?

Landing gear of Air Tanker 910
Landing gear of Air Tanker 910, a DC-10, at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A video we embedded in an article on June 7 shows one of the DC-10 very large air tankers making a precision drop using what appeared to be a small fraction of it’s 11,600 gallon capacity, on what was described as a 7-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It generated a fair amount of discussion in the comments, mostly positive, except for one from “Don” who called it “overkill”. “DiggerT” provided a thoughtful response to Don, and I also added my two cents in a comment.

We don’t know why the DC-10 was selected to drop on the fire near Pinal Peak. Maybe it had been dropping on another fire in the area, or perhaps it was the only air tanker available. At any rate, in the video the radio traffic from the lead or air attack plane indicated that he was extremely pleased with the results of the drop.

I am pasting below what I wrote in the comment because it includes a few details about the pricing structure for the seven next generation air tankers that we have not previously covered:

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“Don, are you aware that the hourly flight rate for the DC-10 on this new exclusive use contract is by far lower than the other six aircraft that were selected for contracts? The nearest competitor is $2,054 per hour more expensive than the DC-10, and the DC-10 is a little more than half the hourly rate for Minden’s BAe-146.

But keep in mind the contract is complex, and the DC-10’s pricing structure, in order to compare apples to apples, is based on delivering 3,000 gallons, approximately the same as the other six aircraft — according to information I received from someone who is very familiar with the contracting process for next generation air tankers. There are additional specifics to cover the DC-10 dropping more than 3,000 gallons.

But as you can see in the bid details, the Total Cost Estimate for the first year, which apparently takes this into account, has the DC-10’s total cost approximately in the same ball park as the others, which are, in millions, $36.4, $36.4, $38.9, $39.5, and $41.3. The DC-10’s was $43.2. But keep in mind that the DC-10 delivers about three to four times more retardant than the maximum capacity of the other next gen air tankers , and six times more than Tanker 40, a BAe-146, if T40 is reloading at Silver City Airtanker Base on a 90 degree day.

And, I have to agree with DiggerT. If there is any potential for a wildland fire to become large it should be attacked with overwhelming force, rather than attempting to fire fire on the cheap. This can save money, property, and lives.

A year ago I wrote my “Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires“:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”

Very large air tanker drops on 7-acre fire

Most of us have seen videos of the DC-10 air tankers dropping massive loads of retardant stretched out over thousands of feet of fireline, as seen in this excellent video by Tim Walton, or this one on the Lost Fire, but the video below is very different. It shows Tanker 911 dropping a very small fraction of its 11,600-gallon load on a seven-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It was uploaded to YouTube April 22, 2013 by ir7kbpf.

 

Thanks go out to Johnny

DC-10 air tanker at Phoenix


The news footage above indicates some of the people in the Phoenix area are pleased to have one of the DC-10 air tankers temporarily working out of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Some Snake River Hotshots crewmembers detailed there out of Idaho are also interviewed in the piece.

After flying 10 missions on the Powerhouse Fire in southern California over two days, the air tanker flew two missions Tuesday on the Thompson Ridge fire which is spreading rapidly west of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today they are back on the Thompson Ridge Fire again, reloading out of Roswell, New Mexico.