MD-87 air tankers recalled

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014. Photo by Jeff Ingelse. (Click to enlarge.)

All three of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87s have been “recalled” — pulled out of service “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”. John Kent Hamilton, the Aviation Safety Manager for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, said the company believes they have a fix for the problem.

Erickson has developed and flight tested a new spade profile that has proved to eliminate this problem by keeping the fluid column much more vertical. They are in the final engineering approval stages and should be able to install with full approval early next week.

Since we ran a photo on January 6 of an MD-87 dropping water in an early test of the retardant system, there have questions raised on our site about retardant being ingested into the engines. That possibility gained further traction on June 9 with a photo of a parked MD-87 with what appeared to be retardant residue above the wing in front of an engine.

When we asked Kevin McCullough, the President of Erickson Aero Tanker, on June 9 if there were any problems with the MD-87s ingesting retardant into the engines, he said there were none.

The first two MD-87s, Tankers 101 and 105, began working June 4 and June 8, respectively. Soon thereafter, a third one, Tanker 103, reported for duty.

A few days after the MD-87s began dropping retardant on fires, a retardant leak inside the aircraft required that they be returned to their home base for repairs.

The last time we can remember an air tanker model being recalled was February 8, 2012 when the Federal Aviation Administration issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive that required inspections of P2V aircraft after a 24-inch crack was found in a wing spar and skin on one of Neptune Aviation’s P2V-7 air tankers. This grounded the entire fleet of federal air tankers until all 11 of them were cleared the next day. Today we have a mix of five aircraft models, all with different retardant systems, reducing the chance that all of them will be shut down at the same time due to a defect.

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Tanker 101′s first drop on a fire

T-101 first drop, 6-7-2014

T-101 first ever drop on a fire, June 7,2014 on the Two Bulls Fire near Bend, Oregon. Photo by Jim Hansen from an air attack ship. (Click to enlarge.)

Tanker 101, an MD-87 operated by Erickson Aero Tanker, showed up for its first day of work at Redmond, Oregon June 4 and made its first ever drop on a fire three days later on June 7 when the Two Bulls Fire started west of Bend, Oregon. Jim Hansen grabbed the photo above as it made its inaugural drop.

Its sister ship, Tanker 105, began work on June 8 at Redmond, and the two of them were busy working the fire that day.

Kevin McCullough, the President of Erickson Aero Tanker, told us the air tanker delivered 12 loads of retardant in 3.9 hours of flight time. It was reloading at the Redmond air tanker base, 17 miles northwest of the fire. I don’t know if that’s a record for an air tanker that is not a 747 or DC-10, but there can’t have been many that dropped 48,000 gallons of retardant in less than four hours. Mr. McCullough said it carried 4,000 gallons on each sortie. The Martin Mars which holds 7,000 gallons of water may have hit that number or maybe even a lot more if a scoopable lake was close.

Earlier today we posted a video showing the two MD-87s and other air tankers taking off at Redmond to work the Two Bulls Fire.

We asked Mr. McCullough if there were any problems with ingesting retardant into the engines and he said there were not.

DC-7s

Two of Erickson Aero Tanker’s DC-7 air tankers will begin their contract with the Oregon Department of Forestry in the first part of July. They are waiting for the final paperwork but it appears that their third DC-7 will start a 120-day contract with CAL FIRE at about the same time.

Erickson purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick in December of 2012. The deal included three DC-7s.

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MD-87 at Redmond needs a wash

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014. Photo by Jeff Ingelse. (Click to enlarge.)

Jeff Ingelse took this photo of an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 parked at Redmond, Oregon Monday morning. He said both of the MD-87s at the airport had similar stains on the fuselage approximately the color of fire retardant. The air tankers made multiple sorties to the Two Bulls Fire over the weekend, dropping retardant.

Earlier on Fire Aviation the question was raised about the possibility of retardant being ingested into the engines. From the photo above, we of course can’t tell if that is an issue or not. Maybe Erickson Aero Tanker has it all figured out and it is not a problem.

Below are photos we ran on January 6, 2014 and January 17, 2014 of the MD-87 dropping water and retardant.

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87

Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop in early 2013. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

Tanker 101, an MD-87

Tanker 101, an MD-87, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

A video of the MD-87 being tested. It was uploaded to YouTube April 15, 2013.

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Tanker 101′s first day on the job

Tanker 101

Tanker 101, operated by Erickson Aero Tanker, at Redmond, Oregon, June 4, 2014.

Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101 photographed June 4 at Redmond, Oregon, its first day on the job. Its sister, T-105, is scheduled to begin work Sunday, June 8.

Congratulations to all the folks at Erickson Aero Tanker. It is a long, complicated, expensive, arduous, bureaucracy-laden process to bring an air tanker from a concept, to sitting on the ramp at an air tanker base waiting for its first fire.

Shouldn’t there be a ceremony on an air tanker’s first day on the job? Like, taxiing under fire hose streams, breaking a bottle of champagne over some hard point on the aircraft, or cutting off the shirt tails of the crew?

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Erickson Aero Tanker to receive approval for their MD-87s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87

An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Erickson Aero Tanker expects to begin flying two of their MD-87 air tankers on contract next month. Kevin McCullough, President of the company, told Fire Aviation on Wednesday that they have received a supplemental type certificate for the aircraft from the FAA, they have passed the grid test of dropping retardant into hundreds of cups on the ground, and the Interagency AirTanker (IATB) board will soon issue an interim 18-month approval. The new policy of the IATB is to award 18-month interim approvals, basically two fire seasons, for new air tanker designs.

The mandatory availability periods for the two MD-87s that received next-generation air tanker contracts will begin June 5 and June 10. Mr. McCullough said the aircraft are in Arizona now and will fly up to their facility in Oregon next week. The following week they will go through the carding procedure.

The MD-87s have a retardant capacity of 4,000 gallons and will very rarely have to carry less than that due to density altitude, Mr. McCullough said.

The company bought seven MD-87s and so far three of them have been completely retrofitted as air tankers. Their next-gen contract allows for the U.S. Forest Service to add as “additional equipment” eight more MD-87s, for a total of ten. The decision to add more air tankers is totally up to the USFS, assuming of course that the vendor has the aircraft available. The USFS would, 1) determine that there is a need, and then, 2) come up with the money. Mr. McCullough told us they hope to have ten MD-87s in service somewhere down the road.

The air tanker numbers on the three completed MD-87s are 101, 103, and 105.

Erickson Aero Tanker was one of five companies that received contracts in May of 2013 for a total of seven next-gen air tankers:

Coulson and 10 Tanker had their aircraft flying soon after the awards became final last summer, following the resolution of the protest that was filed over the contract by Neptune Aviation. It is our understanding, after talking with USFS officials, that Aero Flite will very soon receive final IATB approval for their two RJ85s. That leaves Minden’s BAe-146, which has not yet attempted a formal grid test, but has passed a static test, releasing water from the tank while parked on the ground.

Here is the breakdown of Type 1 air tankers which are now, or may soon be active on USFS exclusive use contracts this year:

Air tankers available in 2014

Other air tankers

10 Tanker has a second DC-10 on a call when needed contract. It could either remain as call when needed, or the USFS could add it as additional equipment on the company’s next-gen contract.

As mentioned above, Erickson Aero Tanker has a third MD-87 that will ready to drop on fires in a couple of weeks, according to Mr. McCullough. It is not currently on contract but could be added as additional equipment. They have four more MD-87s that could be retrofitted.

Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. One of the five is on a “legacy” contract (as noted in the chart above), and the other four have no contract. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.

The Department of the Interior also has 33 single-engine air tankers (SEATs) on exclusive use contract that carry 800 gallons, and the USFS has a 1,600-gallon CL-415 water-scooping air tanker. The DOI usually has two CL-215s on contract that have a 1,400-gallon capacity.

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Update on next-gen air tankers

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013

Aero-Flite’s Tanker 160 at the retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Five companies received contracts on May 6, 2013 for seven “next-generation” air tankers. Of those seven, only two have met all of the specifications in the contracts and received the required certifications from the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) for a supplemental type certificate, a static drop test on the ground, and an airborne test of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups. The two that have passed and have flown on fires are 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s 11,600-gallon DC-10, and Coulson Group’s 3,500-gallon C-130Q.

Here is what we learned this week while talking with aviation professionals at Cheyenne.

Minden Air Corp, who received a contract for one BAe-146, has passed the static test. They have not attempted a formal monitored grid test. The retardant system they are building has some impressive capabilities, including a high flow rate and a great amount of flexibility in the flow rate. It has the ability to select two different flow rates on one drop, for example, going from coverage level 5 to coverage level 8. (The numbers refer to the number of gallons of retardant that lands on 100 square feet of flat terrain.) That feature could be used when there is a change in vegetation or topography, moving, for example from grass to timber, or flat terrain to a steep slope. In each case it would be helpful to increase the coverage level.

Erickson Aero Tanker, received contracts for two MD-87s. One of the aircraft participated in a grid test in January, and the Interagency Air Tanker Board is still reviewing the results. Even though they added a fairing to modify how the air flow affected the performance of the aircraft and the retardant flow near the fuselage, the aircraft experienced some problems in qualifying at the higher coverage levels. The engineers may need to enlarge the retardant door openings to increase the flow rates.

Aero-Flite has two RJ-85s, an aircraft similar to the BAe-146. It has passed the grid test and the company is working on obtaining dual “citizenship”, supplemental type certificates for the retardant system from Transport Canada and the United States FAA . It is likely that the aircraft will be certified very soon by the IATB for an 18-month interim approval, which will be the new standard operating procedure for air tankers that receive an initial blessing from the IATB. The interim approval provides an opportunity for field trials, to determine if anything surfaces that was not apparent during the static, STC, and grid tests.

Bonus coverage:

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” was not part of the next-gen contract, but the company did have a couple of call when needed contracts (CWN), with the last one being issued June 14, 2013. After receiving the contract Evergreen scheduled a needed C check which would have started August 2, and depending on what was found during the process would have been ready to fly in mid- to late September — about the time the western wildfire season begins to wind down. The cost of the C check is over a million dollars. But a few weeks after receiving the contract, Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Evergreen Supertanker Services, told Fire Aviation they reconsidered and decided to postpone the C check since there was “insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades.”

A matter of weeks after Mr. Soelberg gave us that update the company filed for bankruptcy. The change in ownership made the CWN contract void. As of now, the 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker is not covered by an air tanker contract.

Neptune has one BAe-146 working on the “legacy” air tanker contract, even though it now meets the criteria for a next-gen, including the required air speed and a 3,000-gallon retardant capacity. Before they modified the tanking system for the third time last fall, the tank held about 2,900 gallons and there was a problem in coverage level of the last 400 gallons exiting the tank, so the Forest Service restricted it to only carrying 2,500 gallons. The modifications increased the tank size to 3,000 gallons and made other changes in the system. At another grid test last fall it showed improved consistency for all 3,000 gallons, and in the flow rate at all coverage levels. As a result the Forest Service has now certified the tank system to carry 3,000 gallon of retardant. Their new design is innovative in that it uses GPS to measure the aircraft speed and then can automatically modulate the retardant flow rate to maintain the desired coverage level. They also have a sensor on the drop tubes which measures the actual flow rate. They system can then direct the valves or doors to change the size of the opening in order to maintain the coverage level as other factors change, such as the head pressure in the tank or if the aircraft encounters turbulence. Neptune expects to have a total of five BAe-146 air tankers available by later this summer.

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Tanker 101 dropping retardant at the grid test

Tanker 101, an MD-87

Tanker 101, an MD-87, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

Jeff Zimmerman took this excellent shot of Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101, an MD-87, dropping retardant. It was shot during the grid test at Fox Field in southern California January 15, 2014.

Erickson Aero Tanker received a contract for two MD-87s 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.

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