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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
When we wrote on October 15 that the eight P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union had been purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft, it was unknown what the fate of the planes was going to be. The company that bought them and the other assets, United Aeronautical (UAC), was not disclosing their plans and there was concern among those who would like to see the big four-engine turboprops back in the air that they would be parted out or scrapped. While that still could happen, a new development raises the possibility of a continued life for the P-3 air tankers.
UAC has partnered with a second company, Blue Aerospace, in an effort to sell or lease the eight aircraft. Blue Aerospace made a presentation last month at the Hercules Operators Council in Atlanta promoting the air tankers, and proudly displayed the Aero Union logo. They intend to:
Work with the customer community to ensure that the appropriate maintenance is conducted;
Provide legacy support for older systems, RADS II and Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS I); and,
Regenerate the capability to supply new fully operational MAFFS II units.
Blue Aerospace said in their presentation, “we are not an operator, but seek to make the highly effective assets of UAC available to those who are”.
Over the last few years we have received calls from a variety of people asking where they could buy new MAFFS units or arrange for maintenance or parts for existing systems. So there may be a market for new MAFFS and even the Aero Union P-3s.
Fire Aviation has learned that the eight P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union have been 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.
It is not clear what UAC is going to do with the P-3s, but being a spare parts and manufacturing facility, it is doubtful they will be operating them as air tankers. UAC owns and operates an active aircraft yard next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon (at 32.147513° -110.855944°), so the aircraft could be parted out or preserved in long term storage like dozens of S2 aircraft at UAC’s facility. CAL FIRE has 23 S2 air tankers in their air tanker fleet. Davis-Monthan is the facility where thousands of military aircraft go to die become mothballed. Or, in the case of the almost new C-27Js that have been flown there recently, they can be stored until they are transferred to another government agency.
UAC bought other inventory formerly owned by Aero Union, including spare parts packages and ground support items. They also acquired at least some of the intellectual property rights for the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS), a self contained aerial firefighting system that can be loaded into the cargo holds of C-130 aircraft. Aero Union built both generations of the MAFFS under contract for the U.S. Forest Service, beginning with the first ones in the early 1970s and the second generation, called MAFFS2, first used on a fire July 15, 2010.
Eight of the MAFFS2s are used by Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units when needed and called up by the USFS in a surge capacity when the small remaining fleet of large air tankers under contract to the agency are overwhelmed by wildfire activity.
Aero Union began in Redding, California in 1960 as Western Air Industries, changed the name to Aero Union, and moved to Chico in 1964. They began acquiring military surplus P-3 Orion aircraft in 1990, beginning with two and later increasing the total to eight. In 2005 a group of investors in the Seattle area bought the company and moved it to the former McClellan Air Force Base at Sacramento in 2010.
Under the new management Aero Union began laying off their staff, which degraded the organizational structure necessary for maintaining the aircraft, built between 1962 and 1965. The U.S. Forest Service canceled their air tanker contract with Aero Union in July of 2011, saying safety inspections were not being completed, and shortly after that the company laid off most of their employees. At the time of the cancellation six of the P-3s were still under contract and being used regularly on wildfires. Today, seven of them are at McClellan and an eighth is in Canada where it was undergoing maintenance when the company shut down.
Air Spray, an air tanker company with headquarters in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, has received a Call When Needed contract from CAL FIRE for an L-188 Electra “Long Liner” air tanker. The company flew Tanker 482 down to California last week, Chico and later McClennan, to get the aircraft and pilots carded by CAL FIRE. The flight crew will be evaluated by CAL FIRE this week.
Air Spray will leave the L-188 at Chico until the weather turns, and when activated on the CWN contract, they will fly a crew down from Red Deer. They may add up to three more L-188s to the contract when the air tankers are released from their Canadian contracts.
Air Spray also operates Turbo Commander 690 “Bird Dogs” or lead planes, as well as some charter aircraft.
The L-188’s air frame is virtually the same as the P-3, a maritime patrol aircraft which has also seen service in its later years as an air tanker; the L-188 has been called a P-3 with windows. Both of them carry about 3,000 gallons of retardant.
They hired several workers who had previously worked for the now bankrupt Aero Union. Seven of Aero Union’s P-3 air tankers have been parked at McClellan for over a year, with an eighth in Canada. They are still owned by the bank, unsold, due to the very high cost of putting them back into flyable shape. The rumors that the P-3s have been scrapped are not true.
The video below which shows dozens of air tanker drops is very interesting. Most of the video was shot from a lead plane, with views rarely seen by most of us. The technical quality of the video is not great — low resolution and a little shaky — but it’s very worth viewing. Occasionally you can see the smoke generated by a BLM lead plane which marks the target for the air tanker.
Some of the aircraft include: P-3, P2V, S2T, DC-10, C-130 MAFFS, and an air tanker that is very rarely seen, Evergreen’s 747.