20 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contracts this year

We also have updates on the MD-87’s, as well as the HC-130H aircraft the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.

The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.

air tankers contract wildfire 2017
This does not include Call When Needed, Single Engine, or scooper air tankers.

In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)

2016 call when needed wildfire air tankers

There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.

Future contracts

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.

The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.

Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.

MD-87’s

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

Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.

Coast Guard HC-130H’s

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.

The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.

500 nautical mile radius
500 nautical mile radius from Sacramento, California. Fire Aviation graphic.

None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.

Tanker 116 Mather California
Tanker 116, an HC-130H, landing at Mather Airport east of Sacramento, February 28, 2017. Photo by Jon Wright.

None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.

The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.

Tanker 60 makes emergency landing at Chico

Air Tanker 60, an Erickson Aero Tanker DC-7B, made an emergency landing at the Chico, California airport Thursday morning. A person who was monitoring radio traffic told Fire Aviation that the pilot declared an emergency after shutting down the #3 engine and losing all hydraulics. The video was apparently captured by someone on the nearby Eaton Road that borders the airport.

The pilots deserve kudos for keeping the aircraft on the runway.

Click on the image above and you’ll be taken to the Action News Now website where you can view it. The resolution on the video is very poor, but you can pretty much tell what is happening.

Tanker 60
File photo of Tanker 60 taken by Bill Gabbert at Madras, Oregon June 13, 2016.

This DC-7B is 58 years old, manufactured in 1958. Over the last three to four years several P2V air tankers in that same age range have had serious problems with hydraulics that resulted in problems as they landed.

In 2006 a P2V operated by Neptune lost an engine due to a bad piston shortly after taking off from Chico. Pilot Dale Dahl dumped the retardant east of the airport and landed without incident.

Erickson adding a second tank to their MD-87 air tankers

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)

In order to eliminate the problem of retardant from the MD-87 air tanker entering the tail-mounted engines, Erickson Aero Tanker is making a major modification to their tank system. The company is adding an external tank on the belly of their MD-87s. This tank will have an exit point for the retardant that is quite a bit lower than the previous spade opening that was virtually flush with the belly.

Chuck Rhodes, Maintenance Supervisor for Erickson Aero Tanker, told us that the new exit point is in clean air well below the slip stream. At that location, the company expects the air flow will carry the retardant straight back, and will not force it up onto the wings and into the engines as before.

Chuck Rhodes Erickson DC-7
Chuck Rhodes, Erickson Aero Tanker Maintenance Supervisor, with Tanker 60, a DC-7 (not an MD-87), at Madras, Oregon, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After experiencing what Erickson called “intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”, they installed air deflectors in front of the exit points for the retardant. But since they are taking this extraordinary step of a major modification to the tanking system, apparently the deflectors were not as effective as they had hoped.

The air tankers will still have the internal tanks and the capacity will remain at 4,000 gallons. Mr. Rhodes said they will not carry a full load this year until the company becomes more familiar with the new system.

This modification will require that the company start over again with the approval process, which includes receiving a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA and certification from the Interagency AirTanker Board.

The two MD-87s on exclusive use contract were scheduled to begin their mandatory availability periods on June 5 and 10, but the start dates are being pushed back by weeks, if not months.

In other Erickson news, they have four MD-87s and one MD-83 parked at the Madras, Oregon airport that have been stripped of their engines and have not been converted to air tankers. (See the video below.) The MD-83 is being used for parts, while they expect the MD-87s will be converted into air tankers after the bugs are worked out in the tanking system.

Erickson also has DC-7s. Tanker 62, now located at Redmond, will likely work on an exclusive use contract with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) from July into mid-September. Tanker 66 has the option to work on a call when needed basis with the ODF. Mr. Rhodes said the company hopes Tanker 60 will receive a contract with CAL FIRE.

Tanker 66 Erickson
Erickson Aero Tanker 66 at Redmond, Oregon, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Report that pieces of metal fell from Erickson MD-87 air tanker over Fresno, California

(UPDATE at 9:20 p.m PT, September 13, 2015)

KMPH reports that the pieces of metal that fell into a Fresno neighborhood Sunday afternoon, breaking a car window, came from an engine that failed on an air tanker, reportedly an Erickson MD-87. Below is an excerpt from their article:

…The plane had departed the Fresno Airport around 3:30 p.m. Sunday when, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and Fresno Firefighters, the pilot reported a left engine failure.

Shortly after, families in a neighborhood near Ashlan and Highway 168 said they heard a boom and saw smoke coming from the plane.

In the process, pieces of the plane’s engine fell into a neighborhood. At least one piece shattered a windshield. Others landed on the streets.

The plane returned to the airport moments later…

****

(Originally published at 5:43 p.m. PT, September 13, 2015)

Medford tankers by Dave Clemens (4)
File photo of Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Medford in September, 2014. Photo by Dave Clemens.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Barbara and Steve.

UPDATE, September 15, 2015: The Fresno Bee published an article on September 14 with additional information.

We don’t know what caused the engine to fail, and it might not be related, but here is a link to a story we ran in June of 2014 about all three of Erickson’s MD-87s being recalled“ due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”.

Updated: MD-87 and DC-10 back in the air

(Originally published at 11:24 a.m. MDT, August 3, 2014; revised August 4, 2014)

The issues that kept one of the DC-10s and all three of the MD-87 air tankers grounded for a while have been partially mitigated for the MD-87s, and totally fixed in the case of the DC-10.

DC-10

Tanker 910, a DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, suffered some damage to a wing on July 19 as it was taxiing at the air tanker base at Moses Lake, Washington. While relocating in the loading pit area the aircraft struck a portable “air stair”, a structure that can be pushed up to the aircraft door. Two people on the ground were marshaling the DC-10 as it slowly moved, directing it where to go and supposedly watching for obstructions. Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker, told us that the air tanker was back in service on July 28.

Mr. Hatton said their second DC-10, Tanker 911, has been busy on fires. The third one being built now, Tanker 912, was test flown on August 2. It will enter service later this month, perhaps as early as August 11.

MD-87s

On June 27 Erickson Aero Tanker recalled the three MD-87s they were operating, tanker numbers 101, 103, and 105, “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Oregonian later reported that retardant was being ingested into the engines. On June 30 Tanker 101 returned to service, but with restrictions. Tanker 105 should be in service the week of August 4, but with same restrictions.

We have confirmed that the air tanker is limited to no more than coverage level four, which is four gallons per 100 square feet — about half of the maximum coverage level for fully capable air tankers. Our understanding of the issue is that the MD-87s have two retardant openings on the belly. On most air tankers they are called “doors”, since they operate much like a door on a hinge, swinging down on some air tankers. But the MD-87 has two “spades”, which function like a stopper in a bathtub. The spade in the aircraft normally plugs the hole, but raises, in a constant-flow manner, to allow retardant to flow around it and exit the aircraft.

Tanker 101 is using just the left spade instead of both. That spade now has half a funnel at the leading edge to get the retardant moving backwards as it comes out. There is a report that a slight mist was still contacting the wing but it appears that retardant is no longer going into the engines. The leading edge slats make that small amount of retardant that touches the wing look worse than it is.

One of the MD-87 pilots is qualified for initial attack.

Phone calls to Erickson Aero Tanker requesting comments on this issue were not returned.

Report: One MD-87 air tanker to resume service next week

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014
MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014, showing what appears to be retardant on the fuselage on and above the wing in front of an engine. Photo by Jeff Ingelse.

The Oregonian is reporting that one of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87 air tankers will return to service the week of July 27 with a second to return the following week.

On June 27 the company recalled the three MD-87s they were operating, tanker numbers 101, 103, and 105, “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Oregonian reported today that Glen Newton, the air tanker operations manager for Erickson, said the aircraft were shut down because retardant was being ingested into the engines. Engineers are making modifications at the drop doors which they expect will solve the problem.

Erickson bought seven MD-87 airliners, planning to convert them into air tankers. The first two, Tankers 101 and 105, began working for the first time on contract to the U.S. Forest Service on June 4 and June 8, respectively. Soon thereafter, a third, Tanker 103, reported for duty.

We ran a story (with the photo at the top of this article) on June 9 which raised the possibility of retardant being ingested into the engines.

The way the U.S. Forest Service runs the air tanker program, most of the responsibility and costs for research and development for the airborne tools that ground-based firefighters need is left on the shoulders and at the discretion of private companies. It can cost millions of dollars to convert an airliner into a firefighting machine, and even more if the wheel has to be invented again for a new model of aircraft which requires a custom-engineered retardant system. It is inevitable that as these new designs are integrated into the fleet, bugs will be discovered. Engineers will have to go back to the drawing board and tweak certain systems. Neptune is on Version 3.0 of the retardant system in the five BAe-146 airliners they have converted.

Building an air tanker from an aircraft designed to carry a hundred passengers is a risky undertaking for a private company. They have to invest millions, and then hope that the U.S. Forest Service will give them contracts to operate it for 10 or 15 years so that they can recoup their investment. Some of the next-generation air tankers that have entered service for the first time over the last year are working on a five-year contract. When the companies have been allowed to bring on a second or third aircraft, in most cases those are on a one-year “additional equipment” contract, with no certainty that they will be used after that.

A banker evaluating a loan application for a company with a business model having such an uncertain future probably has some sleepless nights.