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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aero Air’s tests of their 4,000-gallon MD-87 are expected to begin January 13, weather permitting, and will last four or five days. The aircraft will start dropping at about 7:30 a.m. each day and will continue until either the wind increases to over 10 knots or until one hour before sunset if there is no wind.
The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds or thousands of cups intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires. For the RJ85 tests, both paid and inmate fire crews were on hand at Fox Field last month to assist with the set-up of the grid and the collection of the cups after each drop. Firefighters have been asked again to assist with the MD-87 tests.
Kevin McCullough, the President of Aero Air, told Wildfire Today in December, 2012 that they had purchased seven MD-87s and intended to convert them into air tankers.
Aero Air received a contract from the U.S. Forest Service on June 7, 2013 for two MD-87 air tankers. The aircraft were not ready and missed the contractual start date a couple of months later. The U.S. Forest Service then issued “cure notices” to Aero Air and two other companies that received the next generation contracts for five air tankers, none of which met the required start date. Aero Air responded saying the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014. Later in a justification for awarding a sole source contract to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers, the USFS wrote they were “not confident that [the] five … contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014″.
Below is a video about Aero Air’s MD-87 air tanker making their first test drop early in 2013.
We attempted to contact all four of the vendors that received contracts for next-generation air tankers that are still working to convert their aircraft into air tankers. We wanted to get updates on how close they are to being ready drop retardant over fires. Minden and Coulson returned our phone calls. 10 Tanker had their two DC-10s ready to go and fully certified when the contracts were announced, so their status is obvious.
As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that exclusive use contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The activation of the contracts was held up by a protest from Neptune Aviation, but the awards finally went to.
Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.
The other four companies are finishing the tank installations and still have to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the FAA and have to pass a static test, dropping while parked on the tarmac; then, finally a grid test during which they drop actual retardant from the air into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground which will determine the volume and consistency of the drop pattern. As far as I know none of the four remaining companies have scheduled a grid test yet with the Interagency AirTanker Board, which must certify all air tankers under contract with the federal government.
Minden Air Corporation
We talked with Len Parker, the CEO of Minden, who told us that they are making good progress on their BAe-146, Tanker 46, and that they expect to make the deadline for full certification, which is in the first part of August. Their tank design is very different from Neptune’s design for their BAe-146 which uses cabin air pressure to assist in forcing the retardant out of the tank. Mr. Parker told us their tank totally relies on gravity, having more than 10 feet of vertical head pressure. When asked if the door system was constant flow, he said yes and no, explaining that it is more advanced than a typical constant flow system, and uses advanced technology.
The tank holds about 3,100 gallons, he said, and when empty weighs about 2,000 pounds less than other tanks that may be used on BAe-146s, meaning they would not have to carry reduced loads of retardant as often when density altitude is an issue on hot days at high altitude.
Tanker 46 has passed the static test and meets the required flow rates, Mr. Parker told us. They are still working on the STC, but expect to select a date for the grid test by July 12.
Minden has purchased a second BAe-146 and has already started converting it.
Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.
Britt Coulson sent us these photos that were taken June 28, 2013. He told us the aircraft, which holds 3,500 gallons, has been painted and they will apply the wrap, which we ran a photo of earlier, later this month. He said on July 2:
…most of the tank is now installed, gear and all flight controls are checked, tank doors are going on this week, hydraulics are being finished this week as is the floor to complete the tank install.
As you can see in the photo, there are wheels attached to the tank. Mr. Coulson told us they can remove or reinstall the tank in about 30 minutes.
They still have to obtain the STC and the other certifications.
The other two companies
We called and left messages at Aero Flite and Aero Air, but the calls and emails were not returned.
Aero Flite photos?
We received the two following photos from someone who told us that they show Aero Flite’s RJ85 (Tanker 160) external retardant tank being attached to the belly and sides of an aircraft last week. We can’t independently verify they are genuine, so for now we’ll just call them an artist’s conception of what their RJ85 may look like.
The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.
The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.
The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.
The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.
The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.
It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.
Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.