Above: a 47-second video showing the aircraft at the Redmond Tanker Base on June 13, 2016.
Clouds were hovering just above the ridges bordering the valley around the Redmond, Oregon airport when I was there on Monday, June 13. There was a chance of rain across the entire Pacific Northwest and there were no orders for the four large air tankers staged at the Redmond Air Tanker Base.
Eric Graff, who has been the base manager for the last 12 years, said they had been busy in recent days sending tankers to fires in Oregon and northern California. They had pumped 165,000 gallons of fire retardant into tankers so far this fire season.
Working with Mr. Graff on Monday was Cynthia Buehner, in her third season as timekeeper for the base, and summer seasonal, Marissa Kraweczak, whose previous experience before this year was on the Zigzag Hotshots.
Also at the base was the normal contingent of pilots and mechanics for the four tankers that were on the ramp — three Aeroflite RJ85s, and one Neptune Aviation P2V. One lead plane was also on scene.
I asked Mr. Graff if dispatchers proactively tried to group aircraft from the same company together at a tanker base, and he said no, it was not intentional. Aeroflite recognized that they had three of their tankers and crews at Redmond and called a meeting, with executives flying in on the company’s Pilatus PC12. The state of Colorado recently purchased two PC12s to use as intelligence gathering and communications platforms, calling them “multi-mission aircraft”.
Other fire-related operations at the Redmond Airport include the Redmond Smokejumpers, the Northwest Fire Training Center, the Redmond Hotshots, and the Regional Air Group which supplies pilots for the jumpers and lead planes.
We have been honored recently with a wealth of information and photos from Medford, Oregon. Tim Crippin took these between June 7th and 9th of air tankers departing from the air tanker base for the Pony Fire in Northern California.
The progression of the three air tankers through the retardant loading and refueling procedures was “like a ballet on the tarmac”.
Above: Neptune tankers 01 and 41 at Medford, Oregon, June 9, 2016. Photo by Kristin Biechler.
Kristin Biechler spent a couple of hours Thursday at the Medford air tanker base in southwest Oregon. She sent us this report and took the photos Thursday evening. Thanks Kristin.
“Base Manager Lonnie Allison was very cooperative and allowed me to talk with various staff, including ground crews, pilots and dispatchers and to take photos up close. The Medford base is really jumping these past three days with the Pony fire in northern California. Neptune tankers 01, 10, and 41 (all BAe-146s) are making turnarounds to the Pony fire in about 45 mins. From Medford it’s about 12 minutes of flight time to the fire. They drop their retardant, then return to Medford to fill up with retardant and refuel if needed.
The pilots were telling me they get about 3 hours of flight time per refueling. Pilot John Gallagher said the Pony fire had made a big run on Wednesday night. He noticed a significant difference this morning that the fire had gone down into the canyon almost to the river and up another flank. He was based out of Redmond yesterday, but the three Neptune tankers are in Medford today for the Pony fire.
It was like a ballet on the tarmac with all three planes on the ground at the same time. The Redmond airport is also busy with aircraft on several fires in Eastern Oregon. T-162 and T-163 (photos from 6/8/16) are now assigned to Eastern Oregon fires, rather than the Pony fire in California.
I was listening to the air traffic communications between pilots and the Medford tower plus the USFS tanker base. A few minutes after departure one of the Neptune pilots reported seeing a new wisp of smoke, single column, and circled around to give coordinates. That turned out to be a small grass fire, very near the USFS Applegate Ranger District office. The tower made appropriate notifications and an Oregon Department of Forestry hand crew was dispatched.
Also of interest was the report that the Redmond, Oregon airport had to be shut down due to a disabled air tanker on the runway. Tankers from there are currently assigned to Eastern Oregon fires (Owyhee Canyon and Akawana fires.) All tankers were being diverted to Klamath Falls, OR for refueling. There is also an air tanker base at Klamath Falls so refueling and retardant would not be an issue.
Also, note that VLAT T-912 is flying out of Castle AFB in California to the Pony fire. One of the dispatchers told me the turnaround on that DC-10 was about 53 minutes on the Pony fire.
I also met and talked with the ground crew that manages the retardant station. Cristina Serabia and her daughter, Jasmine Serabia are employed by Hunot Retardant Company out of Ramona, California and work on a USFS contract at Medford. Ms. Serabia indicated when the second, portable base is opened at Medford for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) she will assign a crew to that location and will also work shifts on that side of the airport. The scheduled date for opening that base is July 1 but with all the early fire activity it may be necessary to open it sooner.
Medford Air Tanker Base Manager Lonnie Allison wanted everyone to know, “we’re already kicking butt here at Medford.” As of noon today, they had just pumped 100,000 gallons of retardant for the season which began on June 5.”
Above: Air Tanker 44, with a blown tire, on the runway at Redmond. Photo by Redmond Fire Rescue.
A runway at the Redmond Airport closed for approximately an hour June 9 after Air Tanker 44, a Korean War vintage P2V, blew a tire while landing after reporting problems with the landing gear. The tanker had been working the Akawana Fire in Oregon. There were no injuries.
In 2010 Air Tanker 44 had a problem with the hydraulic system which caused a brake failure upon landing at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado. It slid off the end of the runway, but thankfully both pilots walked away.
Because of an ongoing paving project, there is only one functioning runway at Redmond, so all landing and takeoff activity was shut down, including commercial aircraft and tankers assisting with the Owyhee Canyon and Akawana fires. The firefighting aircraft were diverted to Klamath Falls for reloading and refueling.
Below is an excerpt from an article at KBND:
…Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky was there. He tells KBND News the emergency call initially came in just before 12:30 p.m. that a plane’s landing gear wasn’t working. “It was coming from the fire near Camp Sherman. When it came into view the landing gear was down, and it stayed down. However, as it reached about halfway across the runway, the left rear tire blew; so it skidded and began to bank a little bit to the right, but the pilots did a great job at keeping it straight. There were no injuries, no fire, no smoke; but, just a totally destroyed tire.”
…No word on how many tankers were impacted by the 50-minute closure, but Witcosky says they are busy at the Redmond Airport, right now. “We were out here for a half an hour, waiting for that plane to come in and we saw three tankers go in and out, within about a half an hour to an hour…
A Blackhawk and a Homeland Security surveillance aircraft are staged at Burns.
Above: file photo of Department of Homeland Security’s Beechcraft Super King Air 350 (N50056). FlightAware photo.
As we reported on January 10, the FBI has been staging equipment at the Single Engine Air Tanker Base at Burns Municipal Airport four miles east of Burns, Oregon. Initially a large truck with numerous antennas showed up that is probably used as an incident command post.
The airport is 21 air miles north of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where armed domestic terrorists broke into and seized the facilities at the site.
In the last few days additional equipment arriving at the tanker base included about half a dozen armored vehicles, a Blackhawk helicopter, and a Beechcraft Super King Air 350 surveillance aircraft (N50056) with very obvious external accoutrements, sensors, and communications gear.
The King Air, registered to the Department of Homeland Security, has a logo that appears to be “U.S. Customs and Border Protection”. According to FlightAware records it flew in from Boise on January 27 after having been at St. Augustine, Florida on January 25.
The Bureau of Land Management operates the SEAT base independently of the city-owned airport which remains open. The base, which cannot handle air tankers larger than a SEAT, has one pit for loading aircraft and parking for three.
The FBI’s Blackhawks are rarely seen. Below is an excerpt from Wikipedia about aircraft operated by the agency’s Hostage Rescue Team:
The HRT’s Tactical Aviation Unit is staffed by FBI special agents. The Tactical Helicopter Unit, a sub-unit of the Tactical Aviation Unit, contains a variety of specially modified helicopters. These helicopters include military converted Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk tactical transport helicopters and tactically enhanced Bell 412 and Bell 407 helicopters. The HRT’s tactical aviators are required to fly daily.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is staging equipment at the Air Tanker Base at Burns Municipal Airport four miles east of Burns, Oregon. The Oregonian reported that FBI personnel were blocking the entrance to the Bureau of Land Management’s Single Engine Air Tanker Base and that “… a large vehicle sat equipped with FBI signage, numerous antennae, a satellite dish and other gear.” Law enforcement officers have been seen at the site for several days.
The airport is 21 air miles north of the Headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where armed domestic terrorists have broken into and seized the facilities at the site.
The BLM operates the base independently of the city-owned airport which remains open. The general aviation airport, with two runways a little less than a mile long, began as a military air base in the 1940s. The SEAT base, which cannot handle air tankers larger than a SEAT, has one pit for loading aircraft and parking for three.
Two Single Engine Air Tankers operated by Air Spray and contracted to the state of Oregon dropped 195,906 gallons of retardant in 2015. That is about a fourth of the 838,000 gallons dropped by all air tankers working for the state this year. The two SEATs were primarily based in Prineville.
Below is an excerpt from an article in The Bulletin:
…The planes were part of a $5 million program to beef up the firefighting fleet in Oregon this past year. The agency was able to move the small tankers around the state when needed. Over the course of the fire season, they reloaded in John Day, Medford, Roseburg and The Dalles. But primarily they flew in and out of Prineville and Redmond, carrying 71,784 gallons of retardant from Prineville and 48,977 from Redmond.
Contracted with the state, the planes that flew out of Prineville belong to Air Spray, a Chico, California, company. Built by Texas-based Air Tractor, they cost $1.7 million each.