MD-87 air tanker experiences engine failure after takeoff

Above: Air Tanker 101, showing the added external tank, December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 8:38 p.m. MDT August 1, 2018; updated at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018)

An engine malfunctioned on an air tanker operated by Erickson Aero Air July 30 after taking off from the Coeur d’Alene Airport in Idaho. A person we talked with at the airport said they heard a very loud “boom” as the engine failed, and said the aircraft was an MD-87 air tanker. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that contracts for the large and very large air tankers used by the federal government, confirmed Wednesday evening that “an  Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 did have an engine upset shortly after takeoff from the Coeur d’Alene Airport on Monday at approx. 1430 PDT”. He said the aircraft landed safely after the incident.

The Coeur d’Alene Post Falls Press reported that unofficial sources have told them that hot debris from an air tanker engine started multiple fires after the pieces fell to the ground north of the airport. They also wrote that the runway was closed while “unspecified debris” was removed. The newspaper was not able to find any government officials who would comment about the cause of the fires, saying it was under investigation.

Kootenai County Government reported on their Facebook page that “several small fires resulted from an aircraft incident” at the airport.

(UPDATE at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018: Late yesterday Jim Lyon, Deputy Fire Marshal/Public Information Officer with Northern Lakes Fire District, issued a statement confirming that a jet-powered air tanker under contract to the U.S. Forest Service, at approximately 2:30 p.m. “had mechanical problems on take-off and was able to make an immediate circle route to return to base safely. In so doing, it appears the plane was discharging some sort of material as a result of the mechanical problem, starting several fires throughout the area approximately a five mile radius of the airport.” Marshal Lyon said “up to eight fires” started by the incident were under control by the evening of July 30th.)

Below is an excerpt from a July 31 article in the Spokesman Review about the incident:

Jim Lyons, spokesman for Northern Lakes Fire District, said crews battled about seven fires, though none grew to the size of a major wildfire. The first blazes started about 2 p.m. and spread from there.

Shoshana Cooper, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in North Idaho, said the fires burned to the northwest, south and east of the airport near U.S. Highway 95. She said they burned mostly grass and brush and were not affecting structures. As of 3:30 p.m., no structures had been lost.

Multiple aircraft were sent in to drop retardant on the blazes, but firefighters weren’t sure early Monday afternoon how large the fires had grown.

KXLY reported that a firefighter was injured while working on one of the fires near the airport:

A Kootenai County Fire and Rescue firefighter was injured Monday evening when he was struck by a vehicle that was backing up on Dodd Road by Strayhorn while responding to fires burning near the Coeur d’Alene Airport. He was evaluated at the scene. His injuries were not life threatening, but he was transported to Kootenai Health as a precaution.

The airport resumed normal operation at about 6:30 p.m. Monday.

We were not able to find a SAFECOM report about the incident, and very few people are willing to talk about it. Our calls to personnel at Erickson Aero Air late in the afternoon August 1 either were not returned right away or the employees we talked with were not able to comment.

This is not the first time that an engine on an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 exploded and falling debris caused problems after hitting the ground. On September 13, 2015 debris from a failed engine landed in a residential area of Fresno, California. One chunk of metal crashed through the rear window of a car, while other shrapnel was found in city streets.

There has been concern about retardant being ingested into the engines when the MD-87 is making a drop, since at least 2014. A SAFECOM filed back then considered the possibility after engine surges or intermittent power was a problem for one aircraft after making a drop. Photos were taken of retardant stains on the fuselage caused by retardant flowing over the wing.

The first fix that Erickson Aero Air implemented was in 2014,  “a new spade profile that has proved to eliminate this problem by keeping the fluid column much more vertical”.

MD-87 retardant tank
Air Tanker 101, showing the added external tank December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Then in June, 2017 the company took a much more radical step. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowered the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations, said at the time.
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Aircraft grounded on Grassy Ridge Fire after near miss with drone

KIFI reported that all air operations were shut down on the Grassy Ridge Fire north of Idaho Falls, Idaho after a near midair collision between a drone and a helicopter on August 1.

Below is an excerpt from an article at KIFI’s web site:

Officials say the[helicopter] pilot was fortunate enough to have spotted the other aircraft just in time to take evasive action and narrowly avoid a midair collision.

A photo of a white pickup truck speeding away from the area of the near miss was taken by a flight crew member.

The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office was notified and Law Enforcement officers were dispatched to the area.

All aircraft in use for fighting the Grassy Ridge Fire were immediately grounded and will remain so, hampering the fire suppression and repair efforts, until it can be verified that the airspace within the TFR over the fire is safe to fly in again.

The 99,502-acre Grassy Ridge Fire has a fireline completely around it for days, but Incident Commander Taiga Rohrer is calling it 97 percent contained.

On or about July 29 fire officials posted this message on InciWeb:

Grassy Ridge Fire contained

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Reid.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Multiple failures of electrical systems forces emergency landing of air attack aircraft

On July 26 the pilot and the Air Tactical Group Supervisor had a close call in an exclusive use Aero Commander 690 while flying a fire in Idaho. Thanks to their close coordination and crew resource management they landed safely at the Rexburg, Idaho airport.

Below is part of the report that was filed:


On Thursday July 26th while flying on the Grassy Ridge Fire, Air Attack XXXX experienced an in-flight emergency requiring an immediate landing at Rexburg {RXE} Airport which was approximately 4 minutes flight time from the fire. The nature of the in-flight emergency was that the ATGS and Pilot started smelling the odor produced from burning wire.

The ATGS immediately turned off the AC unit, as it had a breaker trip 2 days earlier and first thought was that maybe that could be the problem. However within a minute the Door Indicator Light came on, the Pilot went to reset the switch and it immediately popped off again. Then the Pilots radio and intercom went out.

The decision was made to head to the nearest airport which was identified as Rexburg showing 4 minutes on the GPS. The GPS turned off and then came back on. The Pilot and ATGS went through the Electrical Emergency Procedures Check List and set up for a straight in landing on Runway 17 {RXE}. The ATGS notified Dispatch and the IC of the emergency situation in route to the airport. The ATGS due to the Pilots radio being out made the calls on 122.8 of the approach and landing.

Upon landing more things started to fail, the right “Gen Out“ light went on and a couple circuit breakers popped out. Once the plane landed the gear down warning started to sound. The aircraft was taxied to parking and the Pilot went through the shut down procedures, however the engines would not shut down. The ATGS held in the door activation switch and the pilot reset a couple of the breakers and the engines shut down.

The pilot and ATGS did a quick survey of the aircraft to insure there was no fire and no smoke was visible, just the strong odor of the burning wire. With all power turned off the aircraft was monitored while the Pilot and ATGS made calls to Dispatch and company owner and mechanic.

The Owner and Head of Maintenance arrived in Rexburg about 1830 and began to do an inspection. The initial finding was that the Pulse Light on the right wing tip had caused the control switch to “melt“. For some reason a breaker or fuse did not trip and it cause the wiring to start to melt. This caused other wires to also “fry“ which was the cause of the loss of the pilot radio and other items turning off and circuits to pop. The company is starting the process of going through the wiring trunk and repair the damage caused by the incident.

Using drones and artificial intelligence to map and analyze fires

Above L. to R. — Dale Hamilton, Nick Hamilton, Casey Lewis, Aleesha Chavez — all of Northwest Nazarene University.

A group from Northwest Nazarene University is working on systems using artificial intelligence to analyze data collected by drones to map wildfires and determine fire effects.

We filmed this interview in a room where exhibits were being installed at the Fire Continuum Conference in Missoula, Montana the week of May 21, 2018.

Neptune retires their P2V air tankers

Spectators in Missoula enjoyed seeing water drops and flyovers.

Above: Neptune’s Tanker 05, a P2V, makes a red, white, and blue water drop at Missoula, September 30, 2017. Photo by Terry Cook.

(Originally published at 5:30 p.m. MDT October 1, 2017)

Yesterday Neptune Aviation Services officially retired the last of their P2V air tankers in a ceremony at the Missoula airport. This year the company had four of the former submarine hunters on contract that were built between 1954 and 1957 — Tankers 05, 06, 14 and 44. In 2012 ten P2Vs were on contract with the U.S. Forest Service operated by Neptune and Minden.

Neptune planned a fairly elaborate program Saturday with prize drawings, several water drops, numerous food trucks, a water drop from successive tanks with red, white, and blue water, and a formation flyover of their last four P2Vs on contract.

Neptune has been operating the P2V air tankers for 24 years. Many pilots and warbird fans enjoy flying, seeing, or hearing the aircraft and the throaty roar of its two 18-cylinder radial engines. When extra power is needed during takeoff or after a 2,000-gallon drop to climb out of a canyon it can enlist the help of two small jet engines farther out on the wings.

In 2012 the company started its retirement program for the P2Vs when they pulled two of their seven operational P2Vs from regular service.

Greg Jones, Program Manager for Neptune Aviation,  said the tankers will be taken to museums across America.

The planes are going to be stored short term in Alma Gorda, New Mexico. We will ferry them down the next couple weeks and then they will be dispersed throughout museums across the United States.

Art Prints

In 2009, working with Tronos, Neptune began converting jet airliners, BAe-146-200s, into air tankers, adding a 3,000-gallon retardant tank. In 2017 they had seven of them on exclusive use contract.

BAe-146-200 makes first drop
BAe-146-200 makes its first drop October 28, 2009 over Prince Edward island in Canada. Tronos photo.

To our knowledge the jets have not suffered any catastrophic failures or major incidents since they began dropping on wildfires. In the first half of this decade P2Vs were involved in a number of troublesome landings and in one case a crash while dropping on the White Rock Fire near the Utah/Nevada state line, killing all three crewmembers. Two P2Vs operated by Minden encountered landing gear failures, and those aircraft have not been seen over a fire since the incidents. Other fatal crashes occurred in 2008 and 2009.

T-41 Redding
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, lands at Redding August 7, 2014 after dropping on a fire in northwest California.

Interview with a Crew Chief on a C-130 MAFFS air tanker

On April 21, 2017 we interviewed Zach Havel an engine mechanic and former Crew Chief on C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System aircraft. The MAFFS converts the aircraft into a 3,000-gallon air tanker. We talked with him at Boise during the annual MAFFS training and recertification.

Video interview with the Colonel in charge of MAFFS annual training

Colonel Bryan Allen was interviewed during the annual training and recertification for the Modular Airborne FireFighting System crews at Boise, Idaho on April 21, 2017. The MAFFS converts a military C-130 into an air tanker for battling wildfires.

Col. Allen discussed:

  • How playing the recording of the C-130J audible cockpit warning “LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR” over the public address system at Lockheed, helped to develop a software modification that enabled the pilots to turn off that voice while they were on final approach to drop retardant on a wildfire.
  • The number of sorties and description of the training the MAFFS personnel received during the annual session.
  • How the crash of MAFFS 7 in 2012 affected the training.
  • The origin of the MAFFS equipment.

Firehawks in Boise

I was driving by the Boise airport this week and discovered that Firehawk Helicopters has a facility in the area. They were mostly closed, only Tori the receptionist was in the building, but I talked on the phone with Director of Maintenance Josh Ricciardi who said it was OK if I shot a few photos in their hangar. The Blackhawks ships were all receiving maintenance, getting ready for the fire season. 

Firehawk Blackhawk helicopter

Firehawk Blackhawk helicopter

Firehawk Blackhawk helicopter