Erickson Aero Tanker buys Butler, intends to convert 7 MD-87s into air tankers

Erickson Aero Tanker's new Tanker 105
Butler DC-7
Butler DC-7. Photo: Butler Aviation

Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, has purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick. Aero Air acquired Butler’s three DC-7 air tankers, support equipment, and spare parts in Madras, Oregon. They will take over the lease of Butler’s new city-owned hangar at the Madras Municipal Airport (map) as well as the contracts with the state of Oregon for the three air tankers. The company did not have a contract with the US Forest Service for the DC-7s.

Kevin McCullough, now the President of Aero Air, and Jack Erickson, founder and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, became co-owners of Aero Air in 1998 and since then have been growing the company. After Mr. Erickson sold Erickson Air-Crane to ZM Private Equity Fund in 2007, they began talking about getting into the air tanker business. A couple of years ago they decided to go with MD-87s and pulled together teams to develop a tank design and to handle obtaining the supplemental type certificate (STC)  from the FAA.

Erickson Aero Tanker's new Tanker 105
Erickson Aero Tanker’s Tanker 105. November 15, 2012 at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona. Photo by John Oram. (click to enlarge)

They have purchased seven MD-87s, most of them from SAS airlines, and the conversion process is 99 percent complete on one of them, Mr. McCullough told Wildfire Today on Tuesday. The parts for the others are being fabricated in Hillsboro where all of the conversion work will be done. The other six MD-87s are at Hillsboro, Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona (map), and Madras. Some of them have already been painted at Phoenix Goodyear prior to beginning the other modifications.

After the conversions are complete, Aero Air will conduct all of their air tanker operations out of the facilities in Madras that were formerly owned or leased by Butler. That branch of the company will be known as Erickson Aero Tanker, and that is what is being painted in large letters on the MD-87s, similar to the style of the lettering on the DC-10 and 747 very large air tankers.

The 4,000-gallon internal tanks will rely on gravity, rather than pressurized air, to force the retardant out of the tank. An MD-87 can cruise at 504 mph and is powered by two rear-mounted jet, or turbofan engines. The company has secured a block of air tanker numbers from the USFS, 101 through 112 — which is more than seven, you’re thinking. Right. Mr. McCullough told us that their long term plans are to operate 12 to 15 MD-87s.

Technicians from the USFS’ San Dimas Technology and Development Center have been at Aero Air this week checking the design of the tank system to determine if it is in compliance with the very extensive and complex requirements for federally-contracted air tankers. Aero Air has already done a static test, expelling water from the tank while the aircraft is on the ground, but more are scheduled. In the Spring they hope to pass the airborne retardant drop tests where the retardant is captured in hundreds of cups arranged in a grid pattern on the ground. If the STC and the approvals from the Interagency Air Tanker Board have positive results, there may be at least one MD-87 dropping on fires next summer.

Assuming… that the U.S. Forest Service completes the evaluation of the proposals from air tanker companies for “next generation air tankers” and awards a contract to Aero Air. The company, along with three others, was notified last Fall that they were going to receive contracts, but before the contracts were actually awarded and signed, two companies that were not slated to get contracts, 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson, protested, and the USFS halted the process. Months later they started over, amending the request for proposal which then closed again in November. If the contracts had actually been awarded, Aero Air would have been expected to provide two MD-87s beginning in 2013. The other companies that almost got contracts were Neptune for BAe-146s, Minden for BAe-146s, and Aero-Flite for an Avro RJ85, a derivative of the BAe-146.


Thanks go out to Scott and Jeff

14 thoughts on “Erickson Aero Tanker buys Butler, intends to convert 7 MD-87s into air tankers”

  1. While I’m very happy to see new air tankers, I’m not keen on the idea of the MD-87s. Working at a ATB myself, and after traveling to others over the summer and talking to others, it seems some bases will have issues with this AC. At 130 feet long, they’re 33 feet longer then the C-130Js, which are already large AC. If they put the loading ports in the middle of the AC then that will help a bit with loading operations. Parking and turning, however, are still going to be issues at places like JEFFCO, and Billings.

    1. Not that big of a difference really:
      P-3 orion
      Length: 116 feet 7 inches (35.57 meters)
      Wing Span: 99 feet 6 inches (30.36 meters)
      Height: 33 feet 7 inches (10.27 meters)

      Length: 147 ft 10 in (45.06 m)
      Wing Span: 107 ft 10 in (32.87 m)
      Height: 30 ft 6 in (9.30 m)

  2. Erickson may have a winner here. Two things: Douglas product and gravity
    feed.. I wouldn’t count the DC7’s out yet either, The state of Oregon has
    66 and 62 on long term contracts-and they have done Calfire too…
    But I agree this is the future…
    Old friend friend of mine who is a former Airtanker Pilot and is now flying for
    a major airline said that the MD-80 would have the best potential of all
    the current crop of Jets….

  3. Yep TG

    Even the weights (empty and MTOW) are “relatively close.”

    The only problem….and it comes with time, since most of us in the aviation world have spent more than 180 days in a fire season on many a jet ramp.

    Jet noise, APU noise (if the APU hasn’t been stripped for alternate power source) etc, jetblast after rollout from the batch plants etc, non standard single point hookup for retardant fill (if that has not already been addressed)

    IT is going to be “newer world” for those folks on the ramp…for the rest of us observing here in our former lives… so much

  4. Radials, can’t the DC-7’s be almost anywhere in Oregon within thirty minutes? If the radial overhaul issue doesn’t stop these workhorses (DC-4,6,7’s) the cost of operation compared to a turbine (turbo) seems to be worth a second look. It appears that the private air tanker operators are moving ahead at jet speed. Private industry will rise to the needs for aviation assests, now it it time for the “fire managers” to look at their “house” and understand when to dispatch aircraft in a timely manner. Location, weather, time of day, access, fuel, aspect, past fire history, risk of escape, its not rocket science, but it does require an understanding of potential. Isn’t it better to respond a tanker (s) and have it return loaded when it wasn’t needed, than to have a fire escape while second guessing what the fire may do or how much will it cost. How about the real pioneers of the “next generation” jet tankers? 10 Air Carrier and Evergreen proven and proven again. Who says a DC-10 can’t work a fifty acre initial attack fire? Don’t these companies respect MORE than CWN or no contract?

  5. Messrs McCoy, Coldwater, tankerdude, BMorgan etc etc

    Where y’all been? Catching any news lately?

    How about Delta / Pinnacle looking to get rid of about 140 CRJ200’s in the future? How about the USAF reducing F16’s, some A-10’s from the Air Guard in Arkansas and even mentioning the proverbial C27 as mentioned today or recently in AF Times (not necessarily too reliable)

    Hey why not the CRJ 200, heck one of those 1995-96 airtanker studies mentioned the S3 A6 etc on the jet side….heck if those guys were all dreaming of that extry military iron out there in the AMARC property, why not have fun with the retiring Delta iron that will get “ironed out” here in the future due to the bankruptcy of Pinnacle Airlines (Pinnacle/Colgan/ Mesaba or Pinnacolaba as in the regional biz call it.

    Hey let’s have fun with this one…… after all…. all those folks doing the “airtanker studies” 20 years ago…they had their fun dreaming of all the “future possibilities.”

    We now ought to have the fun, since the 20 year old activity called “airtanker studies” from 20 yrs ago did not produce the BAe 146 nor the MD87. Those were pretty far from the radar, at that time.

    So let’s have fun with this and the current possibility of availability of aircraft and stir up some debate for some more possibilities while waiting for the C27 to be approved as an airtanker (hehehe) and the upcoming AVID LLC “study” that is due, presumably, the end of the month!!

  6. Just returned from a retirement lunchon with Cal Fire/BLM/F.S. aviation fire folks; thousands of hours of flying on fires this 2012 fire season. What a wealth of contemporary information. I wonder if anyone outside Cal Fire will ask these folks what needs to be corrected, deleted, added or changed? One statement mentioned by all was a SEAT dropping every thirty minutes (nothing wrong with SEATS) on a 30,000 acre fire leaves an air attack guy and lead (?) lots of time to thing “what if I had? More overheard stuff to come.

  7. “lots of time to think” (not thing) its Johnny Coldwater, drop the Mr. The S-3 Viking as was mentioned is a good prospect for a future tanker. Leave this web site (return quickly) and look at California Fire Pilots Association web site newsletter, July 2012. Good overview on the S-3, its at the very bottom of that page. Although the private sector air tanker operators are rising to the need, the problem is much more complex than just air tankers. Jurisdictions like cities and counties that are now (growth) exposed to the urban/wildfire interface fire problem but outside direct protection (mutual threat or mutual aid) from a state or federal agency need to be included and trained in the dispatching of air tankers without hesitation. Let me say again trained. The demand for fixed wing air tankers can’t be assigned like a number (17 to 24 air tankers) ” that is all we need.” What will be the nationwide demand for air tankers for those exposed to these potentially catastrophic fires in the next five or ten years? It is much more than just choosing a number. California is an excellent model of how this system could work. It is not uncommon for Cal Fire tankers to work inside cities or outside the State’s responsibility areas, we all pay taxes.

    1. JC S-3 has potential I think it would be good one.
      good room for a tank, performs and fanjet not too thirsty .
      Anyone know what happening with the Q400’s?

  8. The “upside ” to the S-3 is that it has better structural design strength than commercial aircraft and significantly lower wing loading, resulting in better maneuverability.

  9. my name is Hal, i flew seats for a number of years ( AT 802F ) and have been a B737 Captain for the last 12 yrs, im here to say that a 737-200 would be the best fit for a tanker with the -17 engines. im surprised nobody has looked into these aircraft, and there are some really good deals out there. The 200 hand flies really good and has a nice roll rate at slow airspeed.

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