Seven air tankers activated on federal CWN contracts

15 are working now on exclusive use contracts

DC-10 air tanker drops Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
DC-10 air tanker drops on the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire, May, 2022. Santa Fe NF photo.

The US Forest Service has activated seven air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts to join the 15 large air tankers that were already mobilized on exclusive use (EU) contracts.

Six of the seven CWNs are water scoopers, CL-415s and CL-415EAFs, operated by Bridger Aerospace and Aero Flite. While the FS calls it a CWN activation, four of the scoopers are on a 120-mandatory availability (MAP) arrangement while the other two are day to day.

The seventh ship on CWN is a 10 Tanker DC-10, on a 120-day MAP.

There are still three large air tankers with EU contracts that will start later this month, an RJ85, an MD87, and a Coulson aircraft to be named later, probably a 737 or C-130. This will bring the number of EU large air tankers up to 18.

The contract awards for CWN scoopers, announced by the FS on May 19, 2021, went to three companies, Aero Flite, Air Spray, and Bridger Air Tanker.

Air tanker requests filled, canceled, and unfilled

Last year 19 percent of the requests for air tankers were unable to be filled (UTF) and 22 percent were cancelled; 59 percent were filled.

Air tankers requests unable to be filled fire

Sometimes an Incident Commander’s request for an air tanker gets cancelled because the situation suddenly changed and the need no longer exists. But often, we have been told, the Geographic Area Coordination Centers tell the ordering point to cancel a request that they can’t fill. In those cases, what is actually a UTF is changed to a canceled request.

If we look at just the UTFs and canceled on a bar chart, it looks like this:

Large air tankers requests unable to be filled Cancelled through 2021


And it’s not just air tankers requests that get converted to canceled. We wrote this in a May 11 article on Wildfire Today:

Last year 1,858 (40 percent) of the orders for hand crews were unfilled, and 1,853 (29 percent) of orders for engines were unfilled. In addition, the number of cancelled orders were 32 percent of crew orders and 22 percent of engine orders. There can be multiple reasons why orders are cancelled, but they can include the order sat unfilled and the requesting unit gave up, or finally the need no longer existed. The number of orders actually filled in 2021 were 27 percent for crews and 49 percent for engines.

It conceivable that if the true numbers of UTF requests were tracked, it would easily justify an increase in numbers of resources — crews, engines, air tankers, and helicopters.

CAL FIRE Director gives update on C-130 air tankers

Air Tanker 118 training Ramona, California fire airtanker
Tanker 118, during training flights at Ramona, CA February, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

In an interview this week with CBS Bay Area, Joe Tyler, the new Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the seven C-130s that are being transferred from the US Coast Guard to CAL FIRE will go to Georgia this year to have the 4,000-gallon retardant tanks installed.

CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler
CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler making the keynote address at the Aerial Firefighting conference in San Diego, March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

During Mr. Tyler’s first interview after becoming Director March 4, he told Fire Aviation two weeks later that it looked like the incorporation of the C-130s into their fleet might be pushed back to 2024 due the pandemic/endemic and supply chain issues. This was in spite of the agency’s efforts in attempting to facilitate movement of the project. In the CBS interview this week he generally confirmed the 2024 timeline, but also maintained hope that one or more would be in service before 2024.

Below is the CBS Bay Area interview with Mr. Tyler.

The U.S. Air Force was directed by Congress in December 2013 to perform  maintenance on the seven aircraft and convert them to air tankers. At that time they were given $130 million for the project. In 2018 Congress appropriated an additional $20 million, bringing the total cost to $150 million. It has now been 3,066 days since the process started.

New CAL FIRE Firehawk delivered, destined for Prado

CALFIRE's new Copter 305 (N476DF)
CAL FIRE’s new Copter 305 (N476DF) arrives at McClellan, May 12, 2022. Mike McKeig.

Another of the 12 Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopters that are being purchased by CAL FIRE arrived in the state today. Mike McKeig shot this photo as it landed at McClellan just before noon. It will be deployed at Prado, east of Los Angeles.

Coulson sells a 737 air tanker to a province in Argentina

The multi-use air tanker can carry 4,000 gallons of retardant or up to 72 passengers

737 Fireliner purchased by Provincia de Santiago del Estero in Argentina
Livery design to be on the 737 FIRELINER purchased by the province of Santiago del Estero in Argentina.

Coulson Aviation USA has sold one of its Boeing 737 FIRELINER large airtankers to the province of Santiago del Estero in Argentina.

Britton Coulson, President and COO of the company, said the arrangement is similar to what was implemented in New South Wales, Australia when they purchased a FIRELINER in 2019. In NSW the state owns the aircraft which is operated and maintained by Coulson. When the Australian deal was signed, Mr. Coulson said the company would be looking to hire Australian pilots and ground crew.

Miguel Mandrille, the Minister of Production, Natural Resources, and Land said the new large airtanker’s main base will be at Las Termas De Rio Hondo and that the government plans to build a hangar for maintenance and training of the personnel as well as a loading base to fill the airplane. Minister Mandrille added “This is important not only for the province but also to the rest of the Argentinean provinces and neighbor countries that might need it.”

The agreement between Coulson Aviation and the Government of Santiago del Estero was made at the initiative of Governor Gerardo Zamora.

The FIRELINER is multi-use and can carry 15,150 liters (4,000 gallons) of retardant or up to 72 passengers. It is the first to be FAA Certified for both firefighting and passenger transport and is the largest and fastest multi-use air tanker. The Q400 MRs operated by France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defence and Emergency Preparedness) can carry up to 10,000 liters (2,600 gallons) of water or retardant and can be converted in a few hours to carry 64 passengers.

Santiago del Estero is an inland province on the semi-arid Gran Chaco plains in northern Argentina. The Copo National Park is in the northeast corner.

Provincia de Santiago del Estero
The arrow points to the Provincia de Santiago del Estero in Argentina.

Coulson Aviation began their 737 project in 2017 when they purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines which had decided to replace them with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two  737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they had a relatively low number of hours in the sky.

In 2017 Britt Coulson said “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

Tanker 137 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire near Santa Barbara, CA, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD.

New FireHawk spotted at Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base

CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 at Hemet-Ryan
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301, a Sikorsky S-70i, at Hemet-Ryan, April 25, 2022 by Ryan Grothe.

Ryan Grothe captured these shots of firefighting aircraft at the Hemet-Ryan Air Tanker Base in Southern California. The helicopter is the new Sikorsky S-70i FireHawk, one of 12 purchased by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

CAL FIRE Air Attack 310 at Hemet-Ryan
CAL FIRE Air Attack 310, an OV-10 Bronco, at Hemet-Ryan, April 25, 2022 by Ryan Grothe.

Eight water-scooping air tankers spotted at Santa Fe Airport

Eight scooping air tankers at Santa Fe airport
Eight water-scooping air tankers at Santa Fe airport, May 6, 2022, operated by Bridger Aerospace and Aero-Flite. The Calf Canyon and Hermit Peak Fires were nearby. Photo by Jerry Messinger.

Jerry Messinger got this photo showing eight water-scooping air tankers at the Santa Fe Airport in New Mexico on May 6, 2022. It is very rare in the United States to see eight scoopers in one place. Mr. Messinger said the tanker numbers represented are: 281, 282, 283, 284, 260, 261, 262, and 263.

On April 25 Wildfire Today reported that four water-scooping air tankers were obtaining water from Lake Isabel and dropping it on the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fires east of Santa Fe. The lake is 8 miles east of the fire, which would be less than a 5 minute one-way trip carrying up to 1,600 gallons of water. A CL-415 can cruise at 233 mph. Apparently four more scoopers were ordered.

The aircraft are operated by Bridger Aerospace and Aero-Flite.

The photo reminded me of one taken in Europe in 2017.

And this one from 2015:

Air Tankers at Dryden
Firefighting aircraft at Dryden Regional Airport in Ontario, Canada, in June, 2015 before they were dispersed to deal with the rising number of wildfires.

New South Wales adds two Cessna jets to their aircraft fleet

Coulson Aviation has another based in North America

New South Wales Rural Fire Service's FS 200, a Cessna Citation V
New South Wales FS 200, a Cessna Citation V. Coulson photo.

Australia —

In 2021 the New South Wales Rural Fire Service took delivery of two new Cessna Citation V aircraft in a boost to the Service’s aerial firefighting capability. The two aircraft (call signs Fire Scan 200 and Fire Scan 201) will serve a multipurpose role, able to perform lead plane functions for the NSW RFS 737 Large Air Tanker (LAT) and also conduct scanning operations and transport personnel.

Able to operate at the same airspeed as the 737 LAT, the Citations are a significant upgrade as lead planes for water-bombing missions. Compared to the much slower Bird Dog aircraft that previously functioned as lead planes on water-bombing missions, the new Citations will substantially cut the lag time associated with lead plane work. This means the LAT can now reach fires around the state in a shorter time to provide aerial support.

“Historically, what we were using three planes for, can now be done in one of the new Citations alone,” says Chief Superintendent Christopher Ryder, Manager Operational Field Support in State Operations. “The Citations can keep up with the LAT and can scan straight after the LAT drop.

“They can also do passenger transport, and their speed means we can move people around state a lot quicker too.”

The two new Citations will also be equipped with TK-9 imaging systems, designed and manufactured by Overwatch Imaging. The TK-9 will enable the Citations to perform high-resolution scans of fires in a range of spectrums including thermal and infrared anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 feet in altitude.

The technology will give the NSW RFS the ability to scan large areas quicker and more easily identify hot spots and fire edges.

The mission system installed inside the planes runs the scanning software and allows for the control of flight operations in real time from the NSW RFS State Operations Centre. The system’s speed of data delivery and automation of mapping processes enable fire imagery to be released to the public via the NSW RFS website or the Fires Near Me NSW app in much quicker time.

“It took roughly 90 minutes to produce aerial fire images under the old process, once we had planned the flight path, sourced approval, undertaken the flight, scanned the fire, downloaded the imagery and entered it into our mapping systems,” says Chief Superintendent Ryder. “Now with the Citations and the TK-9 scanning technology, that process will take more like 30 minutes.

“The new system will take much of the human intervention out of the scanning and mapping process and provide a better and more timely understanding of where the fire is for the public.”

The TK-9 represents a significant improvement in the quality and range of scanned imagery available to the Service. The technology can scan through smoke and will allow NSW RFS aircraft to fly underneath cloud to conduct a scan. It will also scan for fuel density and moisture, soil moisture and canopy density.

The TK-9 can detect fires and heat spots, and trials will be done to develop this capability. It can also be used to scan for new ignitions after lightning storms or even in search and rescue operations.

The different imagery produced will be automatically fed into the NSW RFS Common Operating Picture (COP) to allow for faster and more accurate decision-making around fire suppression.

“Previously our linescans only produced one layer of imagery, now we will be able to take much more information from a single scan,” says Chief Superintendent Ryder. “Nobody in the world has done this before for firefighting, putting hi-tech scanning equipment in a fast plane and automating the flight planning and mapping processes – it’s very exciting.”

The mission system will be operated by a NSW RFS member situated inside the Citation, enabling the mapping and uploading to COP to be done ‘live’ from the air. Previously this was done by personnel on the ground, with a much longer wait to access the imagery once the plane had landed.

The intention is for the NSW RFS to train members already skilled in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping to perform this role in the air in the new Citations. The training process has been finalised and members are currently undertaking the program.

Images of a fire from NSW Cessna Citation V
Images of a fire from NSW Cessna Citation V. NSW RFS image.

© State of New South Wales through the NSW Rural Fire Service 2022


747 Supertanker expected to be fire ready before the end of this year

747 supertanker palmer fire
The 747 SuperTanker 944 drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission.

The 747 Supertanker is on track to be available to fight wildfires again by the end of this year.

Vandi Cooyar, President of Logistic Air, told Fire Aviation that the nose-loading 747-200 that will be equipped with the retardant delivery system (RDS) is going through scheduled maintenance, including a C-check. During that process the necessary modifications will be made to the air frame including installing the retardant doors in the belly, the wiring, and other components in the cockpit to operate the system. After that is complete, the hardware, the tanks that hold retardant and compressed air that are on cargo pallets, will be installed, then ground testing will begin by late summer or early fall.

Mr. Cooyar said the ground testing, which involves dropping water while the aircraft is parked on the ground, will confirm the recently improved algorithms and determine if any additional modifications are needed. The next step will be airborne tests.

After the complete RDS is installed, tested, and fine-tuned, if there is an opportunity to submit a bid for a contract with the US Forest Service, the company will schedule the Interagency Air Tanker Board’s (IAB) grid or cup test which measures the amount of retardant that hits the ground over a large grid.

747 Supertanker Santiago, Chile
The 747 Supertanker at Santiago, Chile, January, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

But regardless if there is an opportunity for a US Government contract or not, after installing the RDS, conducting ground and air tests, and fine-tuning the algorithms if necessary, Mr. Cooyar said at that point the aircraft will be available again for deployment internationally. In fact he said he is in preliminary discussions with officials in multiple countries. In addition to previously having contracts with the US Forest Service, Colorado, Oregon, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Supertanker has fought fires in Mexico, Israel, Bolivia, and Chile.

Just before the Supertanker was mothballed last year the drop controlling system, algorithms, and other components were significantly modified to improve the delivery of retardant, reduce the trailing off of retardant after a drop, and meter the volume dispersed based on the ground speed of the aircraft. It then went through dozens of tests on the ground. The operators were waiting for it to be scheduled for the IAB grid test. But before that took place, the owner, Alterna Capital, shut down the company and sold the aircraft and the RDS. The 747 was purchased by National Airlines to be used as a freighter, and Logistic Air bought the RDS.

747 Supertanker
Some of the tanks inside the 747 Supertanker while the system was basically in place but not fully installed and operational. McClellan Air Field, March 22, 2016.

The SuperTanker’s RDS is comprised of approximately 20 tanks that hold retardant and enough compressed air to pump the retardant out of the four nozzles that were in the belly of the huge aircraft. At various times the air tanker had interim certification by the IAB to carry 20,000, 19,200 and 17,500 gallons of retardant.

Evergreen 747 SuperTanker 979
Evergreen 747 SuperTanker 979 at San Bernardino, May 30, 2004. Photo by Steve Whitby.

The first version of the Supertanker was in a nose-loading 747 operated by Evergreen. Then it was in a conventional 747-400 freighter, and now it will be in a nose-loading 747-200 operated by Logistic Air.

This article was edited to indicate that the aircraft is expected to be available to fight fire by the end of this year.