Private company asking for $5M in donations to bring back P3 air tankers

P3 air tanker

A P3 air tanker makes one of its last drops on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, July 15, 2011. All contracts for P3’s were cancelled by the USFS a couple of weeks later and the company, Aero Union, was forced out of business. Photo by Kari Greer for the USFS.

A private company has launched a campaign asking for $4,950,000 in donations so that they can begin flying P3 air tankers again.

A company called Orion Aerial Firefighters, with Dale Head as the CEO, is described as “a unique team of engineers, maintenance experts and pilots who are passionate and dedicated to provide effective aerial firefighting service in order to protect lives and assets.” Their stated goal is to return the P3 “as the critical component of the US Forest Service’s national firefighting fleet.”

Mr. Head said “The P-3 drops in terrain that other aircraft have trouble dealing with, and pilots feel that the maneuverability of a turboprop and the relatively short wingspan allows the P-3 to get to places other airtankers just cannot.”

The company is asking for donations through Indiegogo, where as of January 20, 2015 they have raised $1,857 since January 15 toward their goal of $4,950,000. They have 55 days left in their money raising campaign.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.

At that time some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.

Tanker 17 at McClellan P3

Tanker 17 at McClellan, March 21, 2014.

In late 2013 the eight airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us in January, 2014, that  the P-3s at McClellan were still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

Buffalo P3

Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways on his purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of the P3s was in Canada undergoing major maintenance when the USFS cancelled the contract and it will never fly again. The other seven sat at McClellan near Sacramento until one was purchased in March 2014, by Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, leaving six.

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MAFFS crew receives award for actions during emergency landing

MAFFS 3 hard landing

The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A guard, reserve and active duty aircrew aboard a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130H3, recently received the Air Mobility Command Chief of Safety Aircrew of Distinction Award for its efforts following a landing gear malfunction while fighting fires in southern Utah on August 17, 2014..

The Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) #3 air tanker crew had finished two successful fire retardant drops when it was instructed to reload for a third drop at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah. As the crew prepared to land, Maj. Jack Berquist, aircraft commander, and his co-pilot, Maj. Derik George, noticed the nose gear wasn’t functioning properly. At that point, the crew, including the navigator Capt. Brett Goebel, flight engineer Tech. Sgt. Damian Hoffmann, and load masters, Master Sgts. Brandon York and Christian Reese, began troubleshooting the problem. Berquist also began communicating with Hill Air Force Base’s air traffic control about the issue.

MAFFS 3 nose gear problem

Greg Brubaker sent the photo below to Fire Aviation. He said he noticed the aircraft was flying in the area for over an hour and he observed that the nose gear was not visible. Photo by Greg Brubaker.

After two hours of circling and with only about 30 minutes of fuel remaining, the crew realized they had exhausted all of their options. That’s when Berquist directed his crew to prepare for an emergency crash landing. Preparations included having Hill officials spray foam on the runway and having crash fire rescue personnel in place.

After configuring the disabled aircraft, Berquist landed the plane and held the nose up off the ground as long as possible, before gently bringing it in contact with the runway. Berquist was able to bring the aircraft to a smooth stop on the center of the runway and the crew exited the plane without any injuries.

The efforts by the MAFFS 3 crew resulted in the safe return of six airmen and only minor damage to a $37 million aircraft.

“In-flight emergencies and emergency landings do happen,” said Goebel. “We train extensively year-round in the aircraft and simulator for unlikely events such as these.

“Without a doubt, we provide some of the best training and preparation of any professional flying organization from not only an individual, but also a crew standpoint. This was definitely a crew effort!”

****

Fire Aviation first reported on the incident August 17, 2014.

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Two military MAFFS air tankers activated

MAFFS Cheyenne

File photo of MAFFS C-130s and crews during training in Cheyenne, Wyoming, April 30, 2014. Shown are MAFFS 0, 1, and 3. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service has activated two military air tankers, Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS), out of the 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in southern California. Eight National Guard or Air Force Reserve C-130s can be called up when privately owned contracted air tankers are committed on fires or initial attack. Presently there are about 17 large air tankers on exclusive use contract with the U.S. Forest Service, down from 44 in 2002.

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MAFFS air tanker experiences a hard landing

MAFFS 3 hard landing

The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

One of the military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers experienced a hard landing Sunday. The crew detected a potential malfunction with the nose landing gear and executed an emergency landing at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah. Upon landing at 2:53 MDT, there was a small fire and the aircraft, designated as MAFFS 3, sustained damage, but there were no injuries, according to the United States Northern Command.

The Fox 13 TV station in Salt Lake City reported that the air tanker was scheduled to “refuel and resupply” at Ogden when the problem was first detected.

Greg Brubaker sent us the photo below. He said he noticed the aircraft was flying in the area for over an hour and he observed that the nose gear was not visible.

MAFFS 3 nose gear problem

MAFFS 3 circling in the Ogden area before it landed with a nose gear problem. Photo by Greg Brubaker.

In the photo, the doors that cover the nose gear appear to be partially, but not fully open. Click on the photo to see a larger version.

On July 19, two MAFFS C-130s, MAFFS 1 and 3, from the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne were activated to assist with the firefighting effort and have been deployed ever since, working out of Boise and other bases while rotating fresh crews in and out.

There have been three other hard landing incidents involving privately owned contract air tankers with failed landing gear or brakes since 2010. No injuries were reported in these accidents:

  1. 2010, June 26: Neptune’s Tanker 44, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure upon landing, had no brakes, and went off the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado.
  2. 2012, June 3: One of the main landing gears did not lower and lock on Minden’s Tanker 55, a P2V. The aircraft landed at Minden, Nevada and slid off the runway.
  3. 2014, June 15: Minden’s Tanker 48, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure, resulting in the nose gear collapsing while it landed at Fresno, California.

On July 1, 2012 a MAFFS C-130 air tanker, MAFFS #7 operated by the North Carolina National Guard crashed. The accident occurred July 1, 2012 as the aircraft was attempting to drop retardant on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota. There were four fatalities.

MAFFS at Helena

File photo of MAFFS 1 and 3 at Helena Regional Airport August 3, 2014. Photo by Jeff Wadekamper.

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Video of a MAFFS drop on the Day Fire

The C-130 Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS) crews are great about filming what they do. This in-cockpit footage of them dropping on the Day Fire in northern California a few days ago shows the pilots and the ground, while you listen to their radio and intercom traffic. If you look carefully at about 1:20, you will see the lead plane producing smoke to mark the target area a few seconds before the drop.

It appears that as promised, Lockeed fixed the automatic “LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR” audible warning that in the past plagued them for several minutes during the approach to each drop. I just heard some “ALTITUDE” warnings right as they were dropping this time.

After getting confirmation that it was a good drop, the pilot, who I believe is actually the actor Alec Baldwin ;) , smiles, laughs and says, “Good job! Isn’t that fun?”, and another voice says, “Oh, man, it’s awesome!”.

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Updates on RJ-85s, CV-580s, CL-215/415s

In addition to the news about the MD-87 and DC-10 air tankers we posted on Sunday (and updated today), there is also news about four or five other models of air tankers.

RJ-85s

Aero Flite’s two RJ-85s are now fully qualified and on contract. They are tankers 160 and 161, both piloted by initial attack qualified crews.

CV-580

Three CV-580s are in the lower 48 on loan from the state of Alaska. There was one more and a birdog that was borrowed from Canada, but they returned last week.

MAFFS

Last week the two C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) at the Channel Islands National Guard base in California were activated by the governor of California to help deal with wildfires in the northern part of the state. Two MAFFS from Cheyenne, Wyoming (MAFFS 1 & 3) had previously been activated and have mostly been working out of Boise, but last weekend their temporary home was the tanker base at Helena Regional Airport in Montana.

MAFFS at Helena

MAFFS 1 and 3 at Helena Regional Airport last weekend. Photo by Jeff Wadekamper.

On August 1, 17 California National Guard helicopters were also activated to assist with the fires in the state.

CL-215/415

The CL-415 and the two CL-215s late last week were working out of Deer Park Washington.

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National Guard MAFFS and helicopters activated in California

 

California National Guard helicopters

Chief Brockly is interviewed as the California National Guard helicopters are activated. CNG photo.

The two C-130 MAFFS at the Channel Islands National Guard base in California are being activated to help deal with wildfires in the northern part of the state. Earlier today 17 California National Guard helicopters were also activated. More details are at Wildfire Today.

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Video from a MAFFS cockpit as it drops on a fire in Utah

This video was shot from Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) 3 as Lt. Col. Todd Davis and his crew dropped retardant on the Rockport Fire near Park City, Utah, July 25, 2014. Lt. Col. Davis and the lead plane pilot can be heard discussing where the drop should go to most effectively assist the firefighters on the ground.

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