Report from Medford air tanker base, June 9, 2016

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.

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“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.

Neptune pilots
Neptune Pilots Rob Minter (left) – 6 years with Neptune and John Gallagher (right) 8 years with Neptune.

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.

Neptune tanker 10

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.

retardant
Hunot Retardant Co. employees Jasmine Serabia (left) and her mother Cristina Serabia (right) in front of the retardant pumping station for Pits 1 and 2 at Medford.

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.”

U.S. air tanker dispatched to Canada

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Neptune’s Tanker 02, with four of her sister BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo, May 2014.

An air tanker operated by a United States firm was dispatched to Canada on Sunday. Today Neptune Aviation’s Tanker 02, a BAe-146, is in Grand Praire, Alberta (map).

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said there are no plans to send any additional air tankers to Canada at this time.

Tanker 02 does not have an exclusive use contract with the U.S. Forest Service, but received one of the 22 recently awarded Call When Needed contracts.

It is not common to send U.S. air tankers north across the border. But in recent years CV-580 air tankers have spent quite a bit of time in the United States after making the trip south.

Articles on Fire Aviation tagged CV-580.

Photos of air tankers on Oregon fires

Tanker 27, a P-3
Tanker 27, a P-3, on the Middle Fork Fire, Oregon, 2009. Todd McKinley.

Todd McKinley sent us these photos from fires in Oregon. Thanks Todd!

Tanker 01, a BAe-146
Tanker 01, a BAe-146, on the Sunflower Fire, Oregon, 2014 Todd McKinley.

The photo above of the BAe-146 clearly shows the second group of drop doors or nozzles that were added in front of the others to improve the release of the last 600 gallons or so of retardant, especially when dropping downhill.

Tanker 882
Tanker 882 on the South Fork Complex in Oregon, 2014. Todd McKinley.
Tanker 892
Tanker 892 on the South Fork Complex in Oregon, 2014. Todd McKinley.

Air tankers at Medford

Medford Tankers by Kristin Biechler (1)
DC-10s, Tankers 910 and 911, at Medford. Photo by Kristin Biechler.

Kristin Biechler sent us these photos that she and Dave Clemens shot at the Medford, Oregon Airport (map) over the last few days. She said her house is directly under the tankers’ flight path to the Happy Camp and Beaver Fires in northwest California. The planes depart MFR, she explained, bank west, and mostly follow Highway 238 toward Jacksonville and out to Applegate Reservoir and into California.

Medford Tankers by Kristin Biechler (2)
A P2V (Tanker 07) and a DC-10 at Medford. Photo by Kristin Biechler.
Neptune 01-10 by Kristin Biechler
Neptune’s BAe-146s, Tankers 01 and 10, at Medford. Photo by Kristin Biechler.
Medford tankers by Dave Clemens (1)
Tanker 910, a DC-10, at Medford. Photo by Dave Clemens.
Medford tankers by Dave Clemens (5)
Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Medford. Photo by Dave Clemens.
Medford tankers by Dave Clemens (4)
Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Medford. Photo by Dave Clemens.

Three more BAe-146 air tankers on contract

Three more of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers are being brought into the current fleet. Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, confirmed today at the Large Fire Conference in Missoula that two BAe-146s came on in the last few days and a third will be on board by June 1.

The three aircraft are being added to Neptune’s “legacy” air tanker contract using the “additional equipment” provision.

These three air tankers are being added to the fleet along with the two additional DC-10s that were announced last week. 10 Tanker Air Carrier had one DC-10 already working on a next-gen contract and a second was converted last week from a call when needed contract to exclusive use, using the additional equipment provision on their contract. 10 Tanker is converting a third DC-10 that will also be on the next gen exclusive use contract when it is complete this summer.

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
File photo of Neptune’s five BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo.

Neptune Aviation’s five BAe-146 air tankers

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Neptune’s five BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo.

Neptune Aviation assembled their five BAe-146 air tankers on the tarmac at Missoula for picture day. It is a pretty remarkable photo — five jet-powered air tankers that meet the basic U.S. Forest Service criteria to qualify as “next-generation” air tankers, which require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons.

Only one of these five air tankers has a confirmed contract with the federal government, the USFS. It is on a “legacy” contract. Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. 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 for the USFS 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.

A very unlikely option would be for the USFS to allow competitive bidding on an additional contract. All of the existing valid legacy and next-gen contracts allow for up to four additional aircraft to be added as “additional equipment” to each line item. The vendors that won the awards for those contracts are all hoping to add more aircraft down the road, and would most likely be very distressed if another company came in that lost competitive bidding previously, and basically took away their opportunity to supply more air tankers.

But, it is painful to see four recently retrofitted, freshly painted, jet air tankers sitting on the tarmac — with a rather bleak future.