Kristin Biechler sent us these photos that she and Dave Clemens shot at the Medford, Oregon Airport (map) over the last few days. She said her house is directly under the tankers’ flight path to the Happy Camp and Beaver Fires in northwest California. The planes depart MFR, she explained, bank west, and mostly follow Highway 238 toward Jacksonville and out to Applegate Reservoir and into California.
A loyal Fire Aviation reader sent us this video of Tanker 101, an MD-87, taking off at La Grande, Oregon.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
All three of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87s have been “recalled” — pulled out of service “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”. John Kent Hamilton, the Aviation Safety Manager for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, said the company believes they have a fix for the problem.
Erickson has developed and flight tested a new spade profile that has proved to eliminate this problem by keeping the fluid column much more vertical. They are in the final engineering approval stages and should be able to install with full approval early next week.
Since we ran a photo on January 6 of an MD-87 dropping water in an early test of the retardant system, there have questions raised on our site about retardant being ingested into the engines. That possibility gained further traction on June 9 with a photo of a parked MD-87 with what appeared to be retardant residue above the wing in front of an engine.
When we asked Kevin McCullough, the President of Erickson Aero Tanker, on June 9 if there were any problems with the MD-87s ingesting retardant into the engines, he said there were none.
The first two MD-87s, Tankers 101 and 105, began working June 4 and June 8, respectively. Soon thereafter, a third one, Tanker 103, reported for duty.
A few days after the MD-87s began dropping retardant on fires, a retardant leak inside the aircraft required that they be returned to their home base for repairs.
The last time we can remember an air tanker model being recalled was February 8, 2012 when the Federal Aviation Administration issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive that required inspections of P2V aircraft after a 24-inch crack was found in a wing spar and skin on one of Neptune Aviation’s P2V-7 air tankers. This grounded the entire fleet of federal air tankers until all 11 of them were cleared the next day. Today we have a mix of five aircraft models, all with different retardant systems, reducing the chance that all of them will be shut down at the same time due to a defect.
Tanker 101, an MD-87 operated by Erickson Aero Tanker, showed up for its first day of work at Redmond, Oregon June 4 and made its first ever drop on a fire three days later on June 7 when the Two Bulls Fire started west of Bend, Oregon. Jim Hansen grabbed the photo above as it made its inaugural drop.
Its sister ship, Tanker 105, began work on June 8 at Redmond, and the two of them were busy working the fire that day.
Kevin McCullough, the President of Erickson Aero Tanker, told us the air tanker delivered 12 loads of retardant in 3.9 hours of flight time. It was reloading at the Redmond air tanker base, 17 miles northwest of the fire. I don’t know if that’s a record for an air tanker that is not a 747 or DC-10, but there can’t have been many that dropped 48,000 gallons of retardant in less than four hours. Mr. McCullough said it carried 4,000 gallons on each sortie. The Martin Mars which holds 7,000 gallons of water may have hit that number or maybe even a lot more if a scoopable lake was close.
Earlier today we posted a video showing the two MD-87s and other air tankers taking off at Redmond to work the Two Bulls Fire.
We asked Mr. McCullough if there were any problems with ingesting retardant into the engines and he said there were not.
Two of Erickson Aero Tanker’s DC-7 air tankers will begin their contract with the Oregon Department of Forestry in the first part of July. They are waiting for the final paperwork but it appears that their third DC-7 will start a 120-day contract with CAL FIRE at about the same time.
Erickson purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick in December of 2012. The deal included three DC-7s.
Jeff Ingelse took this photo of an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 parked at Redmond, Oregon Monday morning. He said both of the MD-87s at the airport had similar stains on the fuselage approximately the color of fire retardant. The air tankers made multiple sorties to the Two Bulls Fire over the weekend, dropping retardant.
Earlier on Fire Aviation the question was raised about the possibility of retardant being ingested into the engines. From the photo above, we of course can’t tell if that is an issue or not. Maybe Erickson Aero Tanker has it all figured out and it is not a problem.
A video of the MD-87 being tested. It was uploaded to YouTube April 15, 2013.
Erickson Aero Tanker expects to begin flying two of their MD-87 air tankers on contract next month. Kevin McCullough, President of the company, told Fire Aviation on Wednesday that they have received a supplemental type certificate for the aircraft from the FAA, they have passed the grid test of dropping retardant into hundreds of cups on the ground, and the Interagency AirTanker (IATB) board will soon issue an interim 18-month approval. The new policy of the IATB is to award 18-month interim approvals, basically two fire seasons, for new air tanker designs.
The mandatory availability periods for the two MD-87s that received next-generation air tanker contracts will begin June 5 and June 10. Mr. McCullough said the aircraft are in Arizona now and will fly up to their facility in Oregon next week. The following week they will go through the carding procedure.
The MD-87s have a retardant capacity of 4,000 gallons and will very rarely have to carry less than that due to density altitude, Mr. McCullough said.
The company bought seven MD-87s and so far three of them have been completely retrofitted as air tankers. Their next-gen contract allows for the U.S. Forest Service to add as “additional equipment” eight more MD-87s, for a total of ten. The decision to add more air tankers is totally up to the USFS, assuming of course that the vendor has the aircraft available. The USFS would, 1) determine that there is a need, and then, 2) come up with the money. Mr. McCullough told us they hope to have ten MD-87s in service somewhere down the road.
The air tanker numbers on the three completed MD-87s are 101, 103, and 105.
Erickson Aero Tanker was one of five companies that received contracts in May of 2013 for a total of seven next-gen air tankers:
- Minden Air Corporation; Minden, Nev., for 1 BAe-146
- Erickson Aero Air, LLC; Hillsboro, Ore., for 2 MD87s
- Aero Flite, Inc.; Kingman, Ariz., for 2 Avro RJ85s
- Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.; Portland, Ore., for 1 C130Q
- 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; Adelanto, Calif., for 1 DC-10
Coulson and 10 Tanker had their aircraft flying soon after the awards became final last summer, following the resolution of the protest that was filed over the contract by Neptune Aviation. It is our understanding, after talking with USFS officials, that Aero Flite will very soon receive final IATB approval for their two RJ85s. That leaves Minden’s BAe-146, which has not yet attempted a formal grid test, but has passed a static test, releasing water from the tank while parked on the ground.
Here is the breakdown of Type 1 air tankers which are now, or may soon be active on USFS exclusive use contracts this year:
Other air tankers
10 Tanker has a second DC-10 on a call when needed contract. It could either remain as call when needed, or the USFS could add it as additional equipment on the company’s next-gen contract.
As mentioned above, Erickson Aero Tanker has a third MD-87 that will ready to drop on fires in a couple of weeks, according to Mr. McCullough. It is not currently on contract but could be added as additional equipment. They have four more MD-87s that could be retrofitted.
Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. One of the five is on a “legacy” contract (as noted in the chart above), and the other four have no contract. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.
The Department of the Interior also has 33 single-engine air tankers (SEATs) on exclusive use contract that carry 800 gallons, and the USFS has a 1,600-gallon CL-415 water-scooping air tanker. The DOI usually has two CL-215s on contract that have a 1,400-gallon capacity.