A former Aero Union P3 to be resurrected

A new company expects to have it airworthy again by the end of this year.

Above: Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field May 17, 2017. Airstrike photo.

(Originally published at 2:23 p.m. MDT August 8, 2017)

Another one of the P3 Orion air tankers formerly operated by Aero Union has been sold. Tanker 23, N923AU, was purchased by Airstrike Firefighters LLC, a new company with Aero Union roots that was incorporated September 1, 2016. One of the founders of the company is Bill Douglas who is serving as the President. He told us that he worked for Aero Union from 2005 until 2009 where he was an investor and the CFO.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field July 11, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento where they are concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program. Before acquiring the aircraft Mr. Douglas consulted with Avenger Engineering, a company that has had a hand in the development, design, and maintenance of many water and retardant delivery systems and type certificates for firefighting aircraft including the P3. One of their goals is to complete all of the work and inspections that the U.S. Forest Service and the Interagency AirTanker Board requires for contracted air tankers.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23’s retardant tank at McClellan Air Field July 24, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Mr. Douglas expects Tanker 23 will be physically ready to fight fires by early to mid-fall of this year. Then, of course, the aircraft and pilots will need to be inspected and carded and it will need a contract. Even though it will have the same constant flow 3,000-gallon RADS II retardant delivery system that it used for years and is the gold standard for air tankers, Airstrike is not sure if it will be required to retake the grid test. Like the owners of the 747 SuperTanker found out, even though the system had been approved before, some of the standards and test procedures have changed in recent years which meant the 747 had to repeat some of the tests or take new ones only recently developed.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field. Airstrike photo.

In late 2013 the eight Aero Union P3 airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company’s financial problems.

Of the eight P3’s UAC acquired, one was sold to Buffalo Airways, T-20 is in Tucson and may or may not be scrapped, T-21 is also in Tucson and is designated as scrapped, and Airstrike bought one, leaving UAC with an inventory of five. Mr. Douglas said he is in discussions with UAC about the possibility of purchasing the remaining fleet.

Tanker 20 at Tucson March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.
T-21 at AMARG in Tucson, March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

At the time of the Aero Union bankruptcy Tanker 20 was in Canada in the middle of heavy maintenance, partially disassembled. Then when the company lost their USFS contract in 2011 and later went bankrupt, that process stopped and it sat there for a while until UAC had it shipped on a truck as a wide load from Halifax to Tucson. There has been talk about converting it to a simulator.

We have reached out to Buffalo Airways a few times since they bought their P3 in 2014, but owner Joe McBryan, the “Ice Pilot” reality show star, has not been willing to disclose to us the status of Tanker 22.

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan (right) of Buffalo Airways, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base March 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The P3’s that are now owned by UAC were manufactured between 1962 and 1965 and have less than 20,000 hours, according to Bradford Beck, the President and COO of the company.

P3 air tanker makes a pass over McClellan Air Field

It has been years since most people have seen a P3 air tanker, on the ground OR in the air.  Today one of the P3s that has been stored at McClellan Air Field for several years made a demonstration pass over the airport as part of the Aerial Firefighting conference. Check out the video below.

MAFFS LLC owns the six remaining P3’s that were formerly operated by Aero Union. Two years ago at the Aerial Firefighting Conference at McClellan I took a photo of Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical shaking hands with Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways shortly after Mr. McBryan purchased Tanker 22. Yesterday Mr. McBryan told me that I might get a chance to take another similar photo. He is negotiating with MAFFS LLC, the company now marketing the P3s, to buy more — perhaps more than one, Mr. McBryan said.

The P3 they purchased in 2014 is currently being worked on in Florida. Buffalo Airways expects it to live on an as air tanker.

Patent application for MAFFS 2 in 2004

In conducting research for work being done to develop an internal tank for a Chinook helicopter we ran across the patent for the portable, roll-on/roll-off retardant dispensing system that became known as the second generation Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS 2.

MAFFS 2 patent
Illustration from the patent application for what became known as the MAFFS 2 retardant tank system.

The patent application was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office by inventors Michael David Hutter, Steven Thomas Marine, Richard Lawnewce, and Ken Woodland in 2004 and was published in 2007.

The tie-in to the Chinook came from the claim in the patent that the system would be suitable for that helicopter as well as a host of other aircraft, including Boeing C-17, Boeing V-22 Tilt-rotor, EADS/CASA C-235/295, and Alenia C-27.

This second generation MAFFS is different from the original invented in the early 1970s:

  • It discharges retardant through the port side paratroop door. This eliminates the need to have the rear cargo ramp door open, preventing corrosion caused by the retardant collecting on various parts of the aircraft, or even coming inside the aircraft through the open door.
  • It has two onboard air compressors for recharging the pressurized retardant dispensing system.
  • A pintel in the dispensing tube can provide a constant flow rate and vary the flow, permitting different coverage levels.
  • Overflow of retardant inside the aircraft while refilling the tank is prevented by the incorporation of an overfill vent and hinged refilling pipe to funnel excess retardant off board away from the aircraft.

The patent was held by Aero Union from 2008 until 2011 after which it was owned by Comercia Bank and later VRB Corp when Aero Union declared bankruptcy. The patent lapsed in January 23, 2015 for failure to pay maintenance fees but was reinstated right away after the fees were paid. On March 19, 2015 it was assigned to United Aeronautical Corp.

In addition to acquiring the MAFFS 2 patent, United Aeronautical Corp also purchased the eight P-3 air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union. Since then they have sold at least one, to Buffalo Airways.

Below are additional illustrations from the patent application.

MAFFS 2 nozzel
MAFFS 2 nozzel
MAFFS2 patent in C-130
MAFFS 2 as installed in a C-130

Private company asking for $5M in donations to bring back P3 air tankers

P3 air tanker
A P3 air tanker makes one of its last drops on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, July 15, 2011. All contracts for P3’s were cancelled by the USFS a couple of weeks later and the company, Aero Union, was forced out of business. Photo by Kari Greer for the USFS.

A private company has launched a campaign asking for $4,950,000 in donations so that they can begin flying P3 air tankers again.

A company called Orion Aerial Firefighters, with Dale Head as the CEO, is described as “a unique team of engineers, maintenance experts and pilots who are passionate and dedicated to provide effective aerial firefighting service in order to protect lives and assets.” Their stated goal is to return the P3 “as the critical component of the US Forest Service’s national firefighting fleet.”

Mr. Head said “The P-3 drops in terrain that other aircraft have trouble dealing with, and pilots feel that the maneuverability of a turboprop and the relatively short wingspan allows the P-3 to get to places other airtankers just cannot.”

The company is asking for donations through Indiegogo, where as of January 20, 2015 they have raised $1,857 since January 15 toward their goal of $4,950,000. They have 55 days left in their money raising campaign.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.

Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.

Tanker 17 at McClellan P3
Tanker 17 at McClellan, March 21, 2014.

In late 2013 the eight airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us in January, 2014, that  the P-3s at McClellan were still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

Buffalo P3
Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways on his purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of the P3s was in Canada undergoing major maintenance when the USFS cancelled the contract and it will never fly again. The other seven sat at McClellan near Sacramento until one was purchased in March 2014, by Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, leaving six.

Photographic essay of air tankers, by Joe Cupido

Aero Union's P3A Tanker 22
Aero Union’s P3A Tanker 22 getting reloaded at Hemet Ryan Air Attack Base while another P3A is headed towards the fire.

We are honored to present a photographic essay of air tankers by professional photographer Joe Cupido. He tells us below about his career in photography.

I grew up in a military family and acquired the love of aviation early on. When I was in high school I started photographing aircraft. Then later while in the military I became a Combat Photographer / Photojournalist and continued photographing aircraft professionally. I specialized in Air to Air photography working with the military and for some of the major aircraft companies. I was lucky enough to finish my career with about 5,500 hours in over 100 different airframes, 7 books and over 2,000 magazines articles on aviation subjects.

I’ve always enjoyed chasing fire-fighting aircraft whenever I had the time. The images below were captured over time and with a lot of cooperation from a lot of good people in the Air Tanker business. Without their help I could not have captured the images that I did and I thank all of you. Hope you enjoy!

Thanks Joe!

Hawkins & Powers Tanker 121
Hawkins & Powers Tanker 121, a PB4Y2, an ex-US Navy World War II patrol bomber.
McDonnell-Douglas DC 10
McDonnell-Douglas DC 10s, Tankers 911 and 910, operated by10 Tanker Air Carrier
Butler Aviation's Douglas DC7's
One of Butler Aviation’s Douglas DC7s, Tanker 66 during engine start. Nothing better than four smoky Pratt & Whitney radial engines.

Continue reading “Photographic essay of air tankers, by Joe Cupido”

Photos of aircraft at Aerial Firefighting conference

CAL FIRE OV-10
CAL FIRE OV-10

We took these photos last week, March 20, at the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento. There were about 90 minutes set aside for displays of firefighting aircraft at McClellan Air Force base, as well as live demonstrations of water and water pellet drops from a helicopter, and the use of the AirTEP Airborne Tactical Extraction Platform marketed by Aerial Machine Tool. We have photos of Coulson’s C-130Q in another article.

CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
Croman S-61 dropping water
Croman S-61 dropping water
Croman S-61 with modified tank for water pellets
Croman S-61 with modified tank for water pellets

Continue reading “Photos of aircraft at Aerial Firefighting conference”

Buffalo purchases a P3

Buffalo P3
Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Breaking news from the Aerial Firefighting conference. Buffalo Airways just purchased Tanker 22, one of the P3s formerly owned by Aero Union. They intend to use it as an air tanker. This was confirmed by Joe McBryan of Buffalo, who was pleased to say the P3 will live on.

They purchased it from Blue Aerospace/United Aeronautical Corporation.

You might recognize Mr. McBryan from the Ice Pilots reality show on the History Channel.

Update on Aero Union P-3 air tankers

There is still a chance that some of the P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union could see service as aerial firefighters. The company was forced out of business after their U.S. Forest Service contracts were canceled citing safety violations. United Aeronautical (UAC), which primarily deals in aircraft parts, bought the eight aircraft from the bank and then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Aero Union P3s at McClellan 8-13-2013
P3s at McClellan AFB that were formerly owned by Aero Union. Google Earth photo, August 13, 2013.

As we wrote in November, they do not intend to operate the aircraft, but hope to sell them.

Blue Aerospace specializes in providing support and parts for  P-3s, C-130s, F-16s, and T-56s, and they are a licensed distributor for Lockheed Martin and other original equipment manufacturers. Before Aero Union shut down, they provided spares and repairs for their P-3 air tankers.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us that the seven P-3s that are still at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California are still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

When Aero Union ceased operation, one of their P-3s was in the middle of heavy maintenance in Canada. The engines and other parts had been removed. It was, and still is, “in pieces”, Mr. Benz said, and will never fly again. But there is hope for the other seven. He said there has been considerable interest from potential buyers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.