New lead plane?

A comment by Bill Blake after we posted this photo on the Wildfire Today Facebook page gave us an idea… about starting a rumor that the Department of the Interior has received ten F-15E surplus fighter jets from the Air Force and will be using them as lead planes in 2016. In return, the Air Force got the 182 DoI drones.

The photo was taken by Colin Moeser as Neptune’s Tanker 02 was paralleling an F15E Strike Eagle landing in Boise in 2015.

Neptune completes their part of the conversion process on two USFS Sherpas

Photo above: C-23Bs being worked on by Neptune Aviation. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation has finished their portion of the process of converting two of the U.S. Forest Service C-23B Sherpa aircraft to civilian SD3-60 certificates. The contract Neptune received last year could involve converting another 13 of the former U.S. Army Sherpas. The USFS expects to use them to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

Neptune’s project began at the USFS facility in Ogden, Utah where the first two aircraft were done, but is in the final stages of being moved to the company’s facilities in Missoula, Montana for the remaining aircraft.

Field Aviation in Oklahoma City began the process in October, 2015 of converting the analog cockpits in the Sherpas to glass flight decks using the Garmin G950 system.

More details about Neptune’s Sherpa maintenance contract

KGVO radio, in the video above, interviewed Kevin Condit of Neptune Aviation about the contract the company received June 30, 2015 for maintenance on the C-23B Sherpa aircraft the U.S. Forest Service recently acquired. Up to 15 Sherpas were authorized to be transferred from the U.S. Army the the USFS by legislation signed in December of 2013. The agency expects to use them to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

The specifications of the contract list a number of tasks that will be performed, including inspection, maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, and alteration of the Sherpas. Individual orders may include inspection, repair, painting, overhaul, rebuilding, testing, and servicing of airframes, engines, rotors, appliances, or component parts.

The work will be done primarily at Ogden, Utah, but may also be required at Missoula, Montana; Redmond, Oregon; Redding, California; and Tucson, Arizona.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris and Jared.

Neptune’s newest BAe-146 air tanker

air tanker 12 bae-146 neptune
Neptune’s “new” Tanker 12, going through last minute checks at Missoula, July 14, 2015, before it was due to depart for its contract with CAL FIRE. Photo by Bill Moss.

Bill Moss photographed Neptune’s newest air tanker for us, Tanker 12, on Tuesday as it was going through last minute checks and inspections the day before it was due to report for duty with CAL FIRE. It is expected to begin the contract at 10 a.m. on July 15 at Porterville, California. (We first wrote about this contract on July 10, 2015.)

CAL FIRE is also contracting for a second large air tanker, Erickson’s Tanker 60, a DC-7, to supplement their 22 S-2Ts.

Neptune took delivery of Tanker 12 on May 15 from Tronos Aviation of Summerside, PE, Canada and converted it into an air tanker in house at Missoula. This is one of the Missoula company’s seven BAe-146-200s. The tanker numbers are 01, 02, 03 (still being converted) 10, 12, 40, & 41.

Mr. Moss tells us that the first flight for what is now T-12 was on May 13, 1991, after which it was operated by six different foreign carriers from June 1991 until August 2012.

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This article was corrected to indicate that the conversion of this particular aircraft was done by Neptune, unlike at least one other of their BAe-146s that was done at Tronos.

CAL FIRE contracts for one of Neptune’s BAe-146s

Tanker 41 BAe-146 over Univ of MT 5-21-2014
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, over the University of Montana, May 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert. (Click to see a larger version).

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has contracted with Neptune Aviation for the services of one of their most recently converted BAe-146 air tankers, Tanker #12.

The 3,000-gallon capacity jet aircraft will report for duty at 10 a.m. on July 15 at Porterville, California. Initially it will only be staffed six days a week, but will begin 7 day a week coverage on August 15. It will be carded for initial attack, can be hot loaded with all four engines running, and will sit on the ramp loaded with retardant like the S2Ts.

The tanker number, 12, had previously been used by one of Neptune’s P2V air tankers.

CAL FIRE is also contracting for one of Erickson’s DC-7s, Tanker 60.

Below is a video of Tanker 60 making a drop on the on the Calgrove Fire June 24 in southern California north of the intersection of the 210 and I-5 freeways. It is sporting a new paint job, having adopted Erickson’s new design that has been seen on their MD-87s and their other DC-7, Tanker 66.

CWN contracts awarded for 22 next-gen air tankers

Coulson T-132 grid test
Coulson Aviation’s L-382G during the grid test in early May, 2015.

The U.S. Forest Service announced yesterday that they awarded Call When Needed (CWN) contracts to five companies for a total of 22 next-generation air tankers. Not all of the aircraft exist yet in flyable, modified, inspected, and carded form. In fact, we estimate only about half of them are ready to go now if the phone rang.

The companies receiving the six-year CWN contracts include:

  • Neptune Aviation, 6 BAe-146s
  • Coulson Aviation, 1 Lockheed L-382G
  • Air Spray USA, 4 BAe-146s
  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, 5 DC-10s
  • Aero Flite, 6 BAe Avro 146 RJ85s

These CWN contracts are in addition to the 14 air tankers currently on Exclusive Use Contracts, and the additional aircraft that could be added, up to seven, when the bidding process that is being protested now is settled. Later this year there could be up to 21 air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus the CWN aircraft on this contract that was just awarded. Many of the air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts are also listed on the new CWN contract, so there is some duplication.

An exclusive use contract commits an aircraft to working non-stop, except for days off, for an extended period of days, 160, for example.

However on a CWN contract the aircraft may never be used by the USFS. It could sit for years without being activated by the agency. That was one reason the 747 “Supertanker” ceased to exist. It was parked for years on a CWN contract and was not used.

This, of course, can be a very expensive and risky proposition for a private company. They have to decide if they are going to maintain the aircraft in a continuous airworthy condition and hire flight crews and maintenance personnel. The USFS thinks it’s a great deal since they spend nothing if an air tanker is not used. But even if a CWN aircraft had been at one time fully certified, by the time the USFS decides to activate it, the aircraft and the staff to operate it may or may not be ready to fight fire. And the CWN rates are usually much higher than a multi-year exclusive use contract.

Walt Darren, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away a couple of years ago, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker ready to go.

Ravi Saip, the General Manager and Director of Maintenance for Air Spray at Chico, California, said none of their BAe-146s are fully operational today. They are working on two of them, and hope to have one finished by the end of this fire season. He said most of the work is done on that aircraft, and they are working closely with British Aerospace on the cutouts in the belly through which the retardant will flow. In about two months they hope to begin flight tests, and they still need to get the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and the Interagency AirTanker Board certifications.

Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker told us they have three completed DC-10s. Two are carded and are being used today on fires in California, T-911 and T-912. The third, which replaced and upgraded the older T-910, will retain that tanker number and is waiting for the USFS to issue their certification.

Britt Coulson of Coulson Aviation said they hope their recently converted Lockheed L-382G will be carded by the USFS next week. A civilian version of the C-130, it completed the grid test in early May.

The full list of air tankers receiving CWN contracts is below. Click on the image to see a larger version.

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