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.

United Aeronautical buys Aero Union P-3 air tankers

Aero Union P-3
Aero Union P-3 taking off from Fox Field in 2007. Photo by Alan Radecki.

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. 

The first attempt to sell Aero Union’s assets occurred February 28, 2012, at an auction. While some of the spare parts and other equipment sold, the eight aircraft did not.

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.

MAFFS unit in Cheyenne
MAFFS2 unit in a C-130 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, showing the two-person loadmaster crew. May 7, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

P-3s at McClellan AFB
P-3s at McClellan AFB, Oct. 6, 2012. Google Earth.

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.