Above: One of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87’s, Tanker 105, makes a drop on the Whittier Fire northwest of Goleta, California. Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo.
Originally published at 11 p.m. MDT July 13, 2017
We have not seen the MD-87 air tankers over fires for a while, but the photo above and the video below were posted on Twitter July 13, 2017 by Mike Eliason of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
As we reported in March, we talked with Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Tanker, who told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on exclusive use contracts and they hope to have the others on call when needed contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.
Check out the video below of a drop on the Whittier Fire northwest of Goleta, California.
In September of 2015 an Erickson MD-87 experienced an engine failure after departing from Fresno Airport. Pieces of the engine fell into a neighborhood, with at least one fragment shattering the rear window in a car. The aircraft returned to the airport.
We also have updates on the MD-87’s, as well as the HC-130H aircraft the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard.
Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.
The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.
The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.
In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)
There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.
Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.
The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.
Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.
Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.
Coast Guard HC-130H’s
One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.
The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.
None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.
None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.
The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.
KMPH reports that the pieces of metal that fell into a Fresno neighborhood Sunday afternoon, breaking a car window, came from an engine that failed on an air tanker, reportedly an Erickson MD-87. Below is an excerpt from their article:
…The plane had departed the Fresno Airport around 3:30 p.m. Sunday when, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and Fresno Firefighters, the pilot reported a left engine failure.
Shortly after, families in a neighborhood near Ashlan and Highway 168 said they heard a boom and saw smoke coming from the plane.
In the process, pieces of the plane’s engine fell into a neighborhood. At least one piece shattered a windshield. Others landed on the streets.
The plane returned to the airport moments later…
(Originally published at 5:43 p.m. PT, September 13, 2015)
We don’t know what caused the engine to fail, and it might not be related, but here is a link to a story we ran in June of 2014 about all three of Erickson’s MD-87s being recalled“ due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”.
The video shows multiple retardant drops by Air Spray’s Tanker 489, a Lockheed Electra, on a fire in Kokanee Creek Provincial Park in British Columbia (map).
Here is the description provided by the videographer:
“Published on 4 Jul 2015
Fire season has arrived in the Kootenays! This video was taken July 3rd, 2015 showing the new small forest fire near Kokanee Creek Provincial Park towards Kokanee Glacier. This video features many of the aircraft involved in battling the blaze including water bombers, air tankers and helicopters with bambi buckets.
–The aircraft featured in this video include:
–Air Spray Lockheed L-188 Electra Airtanker
–Air Spray Twin Commander 690 Birddog C-FZRQ
–Cessna Caravan Birddog
–Selkirk Mountain Helicopters Aerospatiale AS 350 B-2 C-GSKL with water bucket
–Air Spray Air Tractor 802 Fire Boss Amphibious Tanker Plane
This was my first time ever seeing aircraft fighting a wildfire in person and it was truly an impressive sight. It was especially cool seeing the massive Electra turboprop diving down into the valley near Kokanee Creek Park and dumping fire retardant onto the flames.”
This video of an MD-87 dropping on a fire in Laguna Canyon in southern California on July 3, 2015 is shot from pretty far away but you can clearly see the retardant and after the drop, the air tanker as it exits the area closer to the camera. It looked like an excellent drop. I could not make out the tanker number.
BONUS VIDEO #2, added July 9, 2015
I found this video today, and it looks like the same air tanker, the MD-87, making another drop on the fire in Laguna Canyon. It’s interesting how at 0:48 it disappears into a canyon while making the drop.
Now that we have summarized the evolution of the federal large air tanker fleet over the course of 2014, it’s time to look at what is in store for 2015. There could be between 14 and 21 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts this year. Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist with the U. S. Forest Service in Boise, told us that the list should include these aircraft:
1 DC-10, 10 Tanker Air Carrier
1 C-130Q, Coulson
2 RJ-85s, Aero-Flite
2 MD-87s, Erickson Aero Air
1 BAe-146, Neptune
6 P2Vs, Neptune
1 C-130H, U.S. Forest Service
In 2014 a DC-10 and three more BAe-146s were brought into service as “additional equipment” on a 1-year temporary basis under exclusive use contracts awarded in 2013. Due to a change in Department of the Interior procurement policies, this will not be done again in 2015.
The USFS expects to award another “next generation” contract for up to 7 more air tankers in 2015. We will be watching to see how long it takes the agency to advertise and award the contracts. Last time it took 555 days.
The USFS will also have one CL-415 water scooping air tanker on contract this year. And, eight military C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) are expected to be available if needed.
According to an FAA report, one of Erickson Aero Tanker’s aircraft was struck by a garbage truck while parked at San Antonio, Texas January 5, 2015. There were no injuries, and the amount of damage to Tanker 105 is unknown.
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.