New owners of Aero Union’s assets intend to sell or lease the P-3s

P-3 Orion air tanker
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From zionhelitack.blogspot.com

When we wrote on October 15 that the eight P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union had been purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft, it was unknown what the fate of the planes was going to be. The company that bought them and the other assets, United Aeronautical (UAC), was not disclosing their plans and there was concern among those who would like to see the big four-engine turboprops back in the air that they would be parted out or scrapped. While that still could happen, a new development raises the possibility of a continued life for the P-3 air tankers.

Aero Union logoUAC has partnered with a second company, Blue Aerospace, in an effort to sell or lease the eight aircraft. Blue Aerospace made a presentation last month at the Hercules Operators Council in Atlanta promoting the air tankers, and proudly displayed the Aero Union logo. They intend to:

  • Work with the customer community to ensure that the appropriate maintenance is conducted;
  • Provide legacy support for older systems, RADS II and Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS I); and,
  • Regenerate the capability to supply new fully operational MAFFS II units.

Blue Aerospace said in their presentation, “we are not an operator, but seek to make the highly effective assets of UAC available to those who are”.

A pdf of their presentation can be found HERE.

Over the last few years we have received calls from a variety of people asking where they could buy new MAFFS units or arrange for maintenance or parts for existing systems. So there may be a market for new MAFFS and even the Aero Union P-3s.

There are varying reports of how much work and how many dollars would be needed to bring the eight aircraft back into flyable shape. Six of them were still being used on fires when the U.S. Forest Service cancelled their air tanker contract with Aero Union in July of 2011, saying safety inspections were not being completed. Shortly after that the company laid off most of their employees and eventually sold all of their assets to a bank.

Aircraft on the Rim Fire

MAFFS C-130 drops on Rim Fire
MAFFS C-130 drops on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013

Mike McMillan took these photos of aircraft working on the Rim Fire in California on August 29, 2013 for the U.S. Forest Service. Earlier we posted some photos of UH-60 Blackhawks and HH-60 Pave Hawks arriving at Columbia Airport to be used on the fire.

OV-10 on Rim Fire August 29, 2013
OV-10 on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013
CD-10 Rim Fire drops
DC-10- drops on the Rim Fire below Pilot Peak August 29, 2013

Below are two videos posted by J N Perlot showing the DC-10 dropping on the Rim Fire. In the first one, on August 24, the approach to the drop begins at about 1:50.

In the next video, shot on August 31, the approach to the drop begins at about 1:00.

MAFFS videos, Rim Fire

These videos were shot by crews on MAFFS 4 and MAFFS 6 while dropping on the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in California August 18, 19, and 22. The first one has spectacular views of the fire from a vantage point seen by very few people. If you only watch one, watch the first one.

If you’re not familiar with the “Landing Gear” audio warning, it comes on automatically when the lady in the dashboard senses the terrain and thinks the crew is landing without lowering the gear. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a way to disable it while dropping retardant, but it will not be available until 2014 at the earliest.

 

Thanks go out to Michael

Air tanker status update, August 20, 2013

As we move into national Preparedness Level 5 today for the first time since 2008, and we have more than 48 uncontained large fires, it’s a good time to see what air tankers are available. These numbers are provided by Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.

Today, not counting 2 air tankers that are on their days off and five that are down for maintenance, there are 13 in service.

Overall, if none were on days off or down for maintenance, we would have:

  • 7 P2Vs on Exclusive Use Contract
  • 2 BAe-146s on Exclusive Use Contract
  • 2 DC-10s on Exclusive Use Contract
  • 4 CV-580s borrowed from Canada and Alaska
  • 5 MAFFS borrowed from the military

This amounts to 11 that are on federal contract and 9 that are borrowed, for a total of 20.

Six of the seven air tankers that received “next generation” contracts, and the 747 that will be under a CWN contract, are weeks or months away from being physically ready and fully certified. However, these are counted when the USFS distributes misleading stats claiming, “Overall, we could have up to 26 airtankers available for wildfire suppression.”

Video of MAFFS drop

This is a video of MAFFS 4 from the 146 Air Wing of the California Air National Guard making a drop on the American Fire, August 17, 2013 in northern California. The audible gear and altitude warnings are normal for MAFFS drops. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a fix so that they can disable them while dropping retardant.

MAFFS drops on the Mountain Fire

California Air National Guard MAFFS drops
A C-130 MAFFS from the California Air National Guard drops retardant near the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on the Mountain Fire.  Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicholas Carzis.

There probably will not be a great need for air tanker drops on the southern California Mountain Fire for at least another day or two. It rained much of the day on Sunday and two weather stations near the fire measured between 1 inch and 2.3 inches in the 24-hour period, triggering a flash flood watch.

Seven things to know about fire aviation

There is a lot going on in wildfire aviation, but it seems like that is always the case. Here are updates on seven topics that are currently on our minds:

1.  MAFFS activated again

Four Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers have been activated. A couple of days ago the two at Channel Islands in California were activated by the state to be used on fires currently burning, primarily to assist with the 24,000-acre Mountain Fire in southern California between Idyllwild and Palm Springs. That fire seems to be trying to take out most of the San Jacinto Mountains. Two more MAFFS, one each from Wyoming and North Carolina, are also being activated with orders to report to Boise by July 21. Earlier this month four MAFFS, two each from Wyoming and North Carolina, had been deployed but they ended their assignment on July 12.

2. Nose gear problem on CV-580

One of the two CV-580 air tankers on loan from Saskatchewan had a malfunction with a nose gear and is out of service until it can be replaced or repaired.

3. Availability of next-generation air tankers

Six of the seven aircraft that received next generation air tanker contracts are still being built and have yet to begin grid tests of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. The mandatory availability period was to begin in August. We recently talked with someone who is familiar with the progress of the four companies that are working on the six air tankers.

  • Minden’s BAe-146 and Erickson Aero Tanker’s (aka Aero Air) two MD87s may be certified around the first part of September.
  • At least one of Aero Flite/Conair’s two RJ85s may be ready to go by the end of August.
  • Coulson’s C-130Q could be ready by the first or second week of August. They will begin static testing next week.

10 Tanker’s DC-10 that received an exclusive use next-gen contract was already fully certified and began work almost immediately upon receipt of the contract.

4. Neptune to test new design

Neptune has made some changes to their tanks that are being installed on their third and fourth BAe-146s, hoping to correct the inconsistent flow rates which results in the last 500 to 600 gallons trailing off, exiting the aircraft at a slower rate than the first 2,400 gallons. They will begin grid testing the new design next week in Missoula.

5. C-27Js

The U.S. Forest Service expects to hear formally very soon, or by the end of this fiscal year at the latest, that the Air Force will transfer to them at least seven C-27Js. When we saw him July 2 at the dedication of the memorial for the four crew members of MAFFS 7 that were killed in the crash on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota a year earlier, the USFS Assistant Director of Aviation, Art Hingman told us that instead of a slip-in MAFFS-type pressurized tank system, the C-27s would likely have a conventional gravity-powered tank that would require cutting a hole in the bottom of the aircraft. The tank would be removable so that the aircraft could be used for hauling cargo.

He said that while some would be used as air tankers, he seemed even more enthusiastic that others could be assigned to smokejumpers. He was not sure how many gallons of retardant they would hold because it is unknown exactly how much weight can be removed from the aircraft during the conversion process. He estimated that they could hold as little as 1,800 gallons. Another source told us that it could take two to three years to convert the aircraft into air tankers, which would be operated as Government Owned/Contractor Operated, much like the CAL Fire air tankers.

6. Lead planes

A lead plane preceding a big, lumbering air tanker flying low and slow through turbulent air, is not required for the air tanker pilots that are qualified for Initial Attack (IA), but many of them will tell you that they prefer it, since it adds another level of safety. There is discussion going on about the future of lead planes, much of it motivated by saving money. Today there are only 14 lead planes and 14 qualified pilots, but more “are in the pipeline”, according to Art Hingman.

Not all of those 14 qualified pilots are always available because the federal agencies sometimes reassign them to other functions, including Forest Health, management studies, and smokejumper operations.

This shortage has created real problems in using Very Large Air Tankers and MAFFS, since those pilots are not IA qualified and require lead planes. At times dispatchers would like to split up the VLATs and send them to different fires in different geographic areas, but occasionally that has not been possible due to the lead plane shortage. And when the six additional next-gen air tankers begin flying, the shortage will be even worse.

7. 747 Very Large Air Tanker

Fire Aviation told you on June 14 that Evergreen received a 3-year call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service for their 20,000-gallon 747 “Supertanker”. Since it last had a contract with them two years ago, it has been sitting in the desert at Marana, Arizona. Bob Soelberg, Evergreen’s Vice President of Supertanker Service and Program Management, told us today that to protect the engines while in storage, all four of them were removed and replaced with two “slugs”, which are basically weights hanging on the wings to provide stability for the aircraft. He said the 747 is scheduled to begin maintenance and a C-check In Marana August 2 which will take at least 45 days, depending on what the check finds. So possibly by mid- to late September, when the western fire season begins winding down, it could be available to drop retardant on fires. Evergreen also recently signed a 3-year CWN contract with CAL FIRE.

Evergreen did not renew their last CWN contract because the aircraft was not used enough to cover the maintenance of the air tanker and the salaries of the crews. The C-check and maintenance next month will cost several million dollars.

Mr. Soelberg was interviewed by Lars Larson on 101KXL Radio recently. The audio recording is below.