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.