Senators urge Forest Service to award air tanker contract

A Call When Needed contract was first advertised 476 days ago but has not been awarded

Air Tanker 170 making test drop
Air Spray’s Air Tanker 170 made retardant drops during a grid test at Fox Field in California in September, 2018 but does not have a contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Screen shot from VMC Aviation video.

Two Senators and one Representative sent a letter to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen yesterday urging the agency to award the Call When Needed contract for Large and Very Large Air Tankers that was first advertised May 30, 2018, which was 476 days ago.


Congressional Letter CWN air tanker Contract


On August 12 we asked Kaari Carpenter, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, “When will the CWN contract be awarded?” She said, “We expect an award on this contract very soon.”

It took the Forest Service 555 days to award the first next-generation air tanker contract in 2013.

Videos of air tanker drops on the Francis Fire north of Salt Lake City

Monday afternoon the Francis Fire was burning on the slopes above Fruit Heights between Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah. More information about the fire is a Wildfire Today, but below are videos of fixed wing activity on the fire.

Aircraft at the scene included, at least, an MD-87, a BAe-146 (Tanker 168), and multiple helicopters in addition to an air attack ship.

Coulson operating on three continents

location Coulson operated aircraft
The location of Coulson operated aircraft, September 15, 2019. Coulson image.

Coulson Aviation posted this image on their Facebook page September 15 that shows company-operated aircraft in North America, South America, and Australia at the same time. Three continents is probably a record, at least for North American based firefighting aircraft companies.

New drone attachment holds almost triple the number of aerial ignition spheres

Ignis 2 drone aerial ignition
The recently developed Ignis Version 2.0 aerial ignition system. Photo by Drone Amplified.

The company that developed an aerial ignition system that can be carried by a drone has introduced an improved model that can hold almost three times the number of plastic spheres.

The Ignis 2.0 made by Drone Amplified can be loaded with 400 to 450 spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being released from the drone. Their previous system, Ignis 1.0, carried 150 spheres. The new design is easier to maintain and can drop the spheres at up to four times the rate if desired, an increase from 30 to 120 spheres per minute. By using an Android app, the user can configure ignition spacing, number of ignition spheres, mission duration, and altitude.

Ignis Version 2.0
Android application to program ignition within geofence and monitor progress. Photo by Drone Amplified.

Firefighters have employed the concept of using machines for aerial ignition for 40 to 50 years starting with an aerial drip torch suspended below a helicopter and later advancing to equipment installed in the open door of a helicopter.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Dennis Kirkley of Kaibab Helitack loads the plastic sphere dispenser (ping pong ball machine) with plastic spheres. Grand Canyon Helitack’s A-Star was used to do aerial ignition on the Sitgreaves Complex in northern Arizona August 8, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

Just before they are released, the spheres, which contain a chemical, are injected with a second chemical that causes them to ignite 30 to 45 seconds later. Aerial ignition allows prescribed fires or firing operations on wildfires to be ignited in areas that can be difficult for firefighters on the ground to reach safely, reducing their exposure to hazards. It can also ignite controlled burns more quickly than it can be done by personnel on foot, and at less cost than a helicopter.

reload drone plastic spheres aerial ignition
Fire personnel on the Maroon Fire on the Coconino National Forest reload a drone with plastic spheres used for aerial ignition, June 1, 2019. USFS photo.

The Department of the Interior began experimenting with drones for aerial ignition in 2017 and in 2018 began using a much larger aircraft, the Matrisse 600 that can carry up to 13 pounds. In August it was used to ignite a firing operation at night on the Inyo National Forest on the Springs Fire 13 miles southeast of Lee Vining, California.

According to Drone Amplified, the DOI just finished testing the new Ignis 2.0 in Arizona and ordered 20 for immediate delivery.

The Chief Engineer for Drone Amplified, Jim Higgins, was a mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln when he and others built the first drone to be used to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska. Drone Amplified is based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Firefighter’s widow files suit against CAL FIRE and Global Supertanker over air tanker drop

The widow of the Draper, Utah firefighter who was killed while fighting a wildfire in Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, according to a report by the Sacramento Bee.

Matthew Burchett
Matthew Burchett. Photo: Draper City FD

Matthew Burchett, a 42-year old Battalion Chief from the Draper City Fire Department was killed August 13, 2018 when a retardant drop from the 747 air tanker uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him. Three other firefighters had different assortments of injuries from sheered-off trees and limbs, including broken ribs, deep muscle contusions, ligament damage to extremities, scratches, and abrasions.

On September 14, 2018 CAL FIRE released what they call a “Green Sheet” report about the fatality and injuries that were caused by the falling tree debris. The accident occurred on the Ranch Fire which was part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

Standard procedure is for firefighters to leave an area before an air tanker drops. The report said the personnel on that Division were told twice that day to not be under drops — once in a morning Division break-out briefing, and again on the radio before the fatal drop and three others from large air tankers were made in the area. It was not confirmed that all supervisors heard the order on the radio to evacuate the drop area.

One of the “Incidental Issues / Lessons Learned” in the report mentioned that some firefighters like to record video of air tanker drops:

Fireline personnel have used their cell phones to video the aerial retardant drops. The focus on recording the retardant drops on video may distract firefighters. This activity may impair their ability to recognize the hazards and take appropriate evasive action possibly reducing or eliminating injuries.

The air tanker that made the drop was T-944, a 747-400 that can carry up to 19,200 gallons. Instead of a more conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery system, the aircraft has pressurized equipment that forces the retardant out of the tanks using compressed air. This is similar to the MAFFS air tankers. When a drop is made from the recommended height the retardant hits the ground as a mist, falling vertically, rather than the larger droplets you see with a gravity tank.

Diagram fatality air tanker drop Green Sheet
Diagram from the CAL FIRE Green Sheet.

In this case, according to the report, the drop was made from approximately 100 feet above the tree tops. The report stated:

The Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) identified the drop path to the VLAT by use of a smoke trail. The VLAT initiated the retardant drop as identified by the smoke trail. Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the VLAT pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path. This rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site.

When a drop is made from a very low altitude with any air tanker, the retardant is still moving forward almost as fast as the aircraft, as seen in this drop. If it is still moving forward there will be “shadows” that are free of retardant on the back side of vegetation, reducing the effectiveness of the drop. From a proper height retardant will gradually slow from air resistance, move in an arc and ideally will be falling gently straight down before it hits the ground. Another example of a low drop was on the Liberty Fire in Southern California in 2017 that dislodged dozens of ceramic roofing tiles on a residence and blew out several windows allowing a great deal of retardant to enter the home.

Global Supertanker, the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, gave us this statement shortly after the Green Sheet was released:

We’re heartbroken for the families, friends and colleagues of Chief Burchett and the other brave firefighters who were injured during their recent work on the Mendocino Complex Fire. As proud members of the wildland firefighting community, we, too, have lost a brother.

On August 13, 2018, Global SuperTanker Services, LLC acted within procedural and operational parameters. The subject drop was initiated at the location requested by the Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) after Global SuperTanker Services, LLC was advised that the line was clear.

The company is owned by Alterna Capital Partners LLC, of Wilton, Conn.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Tankers battling the Lime Fire spotted at Medford

Air Tanker 167 at Medford Oregon
Air Tanker 167 at Medford Oregon September 9, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.

(Originally published at 2:32 p.m. PDT September 11, 2019)

Tim Crippin shot these photos of air tankers that were working on the Lime Fire and reloading at Medford, Oregon on September 7 and 9. They were all departing when the pictures were taken.

The Lime Fire, according to a mapping flight at 1:42 a.m. Wednesday morning, has burned 2,011 acres, but it was reported to be 1,911 acres at about 10 a.m. Wednesday by the Incident Management Team. The blaze is in Northern California 32 miles south of Medford, west of I-5, and just north of Highway 96. The fire has been fairly quiet for the last 24 hours. Fixed wing and satellite overflights Tuesday night did not detect a great deal of heat.

This is the first photo we have published of Tanker 167, an Aeroflite RJ85, and we have very few of Tankers 93 and 96.

Thanks Tim.

Air Tanker 93 at Medford Oregon
Air Tanker 93 at Medford Oregon September 7, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.
Air Tanker 96 at Medford Oregon
Air Tanker 96 at Medford Oregon September 7, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.

P-3 drops retardant on the Swedes Fire

This photo of Air Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion, was taken on the Swedes Fire southeast of Oroville, California.

We are trying to confirm the details but we are led to believe it was taken either September 7 or 8 by John Kerpa or Gary Thomas.

On September 7 the aircraft delivered 10 loads of retardant and accumulated six hours of flight time. Those were the first drops by a P-3 since the Forest Service cancelled the contract the federal government had with Aero Union in June, 2011.

More information about the return of the P-3 air tankers on September 7.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Norm. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Mixing air tankers with racing aircraft at Reno

(Above: Tankers 131 and 107 come in and out of the reloading pits while Tanker 162 is on final approach. Screengrab from the video below.)

Many of the air tankers working the Walker Fire south of Susanville, California are reloading with retardant at the Reno Stead Airport. The situation at the airport is a little different from most air tanker bases, in that earlier this week qualifying was underway for the Reno National Championship Air Races which meant small aircraft were racing around at low levels over the airport while the tanker base was still servicing the incoming and departing air tankers.

As explained in the video below, there was a Temporary Flight Restriction in effect at the airport but the tankers were allowed to come and go under the direction of an air traffic control system.

Some of the air tankers seen in the video are Aeroflite RJ85, T-162; Coulson C-130Q , T-131; Aero Air MD-87, T-107; and Coulson B-737, T-137.

As of Friday night September 9 the Walker Fire had burned 43,931 acres 17 miles south of Susanville, California.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave. Typos or errors, report them HERE.