Seven things to know about fire aviation

There is a lot going on in wildfire aviation, but it seems like that is always the case. Here are updates on seven topics that are currently on our minds:

1.  MAFFS activated again

Four Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers have been activated. A couple of days ago the two at Channel Islands in California were activated by the state to be used on fires currently burning, primarily to assist with the 24,000-acre Mountain Fire in southern California between Idyllwild and Palm Springs. That fire seems to be trying to take out most of the San Jacinto Mountains. Two more MAFFS, one each from Wyoming and North Carolina, are also being activated with orders to report to Boise by July 21. Earlier this month four MAFFS, two each from Wyoming and North Carolina, had been deployed but they ended their assignment on July 12.

2. Nose gear problem on CV-580

One of the two CV-580 air tankers on loan from Saskatchewan had a malfunction with a nose gear and is out of service until it can be replaced or repaired.

3. Availability of next-generation air tankers

Six of the seven aircraft that received next generation air tanker contracts are still being built and have yet to begin grid tests of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. The mandatory availability period was to begin in August. We recently talked with someone who is familiar with the progress of the four companies that are working on the six air tankers.

  • Minden’s BAe-146 and Erickson Aero Tanker’s (aka Aero Air) two MD87s may be certified around the first part of September.
  • At least one of Aero Flite/Conair’s two RJ85s may be ready to go by the end of August.
  • Coulson’s C-130Q could be ready by the first or second week of August. They will begin static testing next week.

10 Tanker’s DC-10 that received an exclusive use next-gen contract was already fully certified and began work almost immediately upon receipt of the contract.

4. Neptune to test new design

Neptune has made some changes to their tanks that are being installed on their third and fourth BAe-146s, hoping to correct the inconsistent flow rates which results in the last 500 to 600 gallons trailing off, exiting the aircraft at a slower rate than the first 2,400 gallons. They will begin grid testing the new design next week in Missoula.

5. C-27Js

The U.S. Forest Service expects to hear formally very soon, or by the end of this fiscal year at the latest, that the Air Force will transfer to them at least seven C-27Js. When we saw him July 2 at the dedication of the memorial for the four crew members of MAFFS 7 that were killed in the crash on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota a year earlier, the USFS Assistant Director of Aviation, Art Hingman told us that instead of a slip-in MAFFS-type pressurized tank system, the C-27s would likely have a conventional gravity-powered tank that would require cutting a hole in the bottom of the aircraft. The tank would be removable so that the aircraft could be used for hauling cargo.

He said that while some would be used as air tankers, he seemed even more enthusiastic that others could be assigned to smokejumpers. He was not sure how many gallons of retardant they would hold because it is unknown exactly how much weight can be removed from the aircraft during the conversion process. He estimated that they could hold as little as 1,800 gallons. Another source told us that it could take two to three years to convert the aircraft into air tankers, which would be operated as Government Owned/Contractor Operated, much like the CAL Fire air tankers.

6. Lead planes

A lead plane preceding a big, lumbering air tanker flying low and slow through turbulent air, is not required for the air tanker pilots that are qualified for Initial Attack (IA), but many of them will tell you that they prefer it, since it adds another level of safety. There is discussion going on about the future of lead planes, much of it motivated by saving money. Today there are only 14 lead planes and 14 qualified pilots, but more “are in the pipeline”, according to Art Hingman.

Not all of those 14 qualified pilots are always available because the federal agencies sometimes reassign them to other functions, including Forest Health, management studies, and smokejumper operations.

This shortage has created real problems in using Very Large Air Tankers and MAFFS, since those pilots are not IA qualified and require lead planes. At times dispatchers would like to split up the VLATs and send them to different fires in different geographic areas, but occasionally that has not been possible due to the lead plane shortage. And when the six additional next-gen air tankers begin flying, the shortage will be even worse.

7. 747 Very Large Air Tanker

Fire Aviation told you on June 14 that Evergreen received a 3-year call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service for their 20,000-gallon 747 “Supertanker”. Since it last had a contract with them two years ago, it has been sitting in the desert at Marana, Arizona. Bob Soelberg, Evergreen’s Vice President of Supertanker Service and Program Management, told us today that to protect the engines while in storage, all four of them were removed and replaced with two “slugs”, which are basically weights hanging on the wings to provide stability for the aircraft. He said the 747 is scheduled to begin maintenance and a C-check In Marana August 2 which will take at least 45 days, depending on what the check finds. So possibly by mid- to late September, when the western fire season begins winding down, it could be available to drop retardant on fires. Evergreen also recently signed a 3-year CWN contract with CAL FIRE.

Evergreen did not renew their last CWN contract because the aircraft was not used enough to cover the maintenance of the air tanker and the salaries of the crews. The C-check and maintenance next month will cost several million dollars.

Mr. Soelberg was interviewed by Lars Larson on 101KXL Radio recently. The audio recording is below.

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18 thoughts on “Seven things to know about fire aviation”

  1. Hmmmm

    Once again the C27J. well maybe it will on the list of becoming available

    Lets seeee here….. CL415’s available currently from some or one operator 1400-1600 gallons depending on the airframe


    Waiting for 2-3-4 years for a C27J …..1800 to 2500 gallons…wouldn’t put money on it yet until engineering studies done by independants……and then to design, FAA approvals, STC’s on the airframe

    See where this going? RAND Study …..mixture of aircraft……CL415 available for a number of years …so far

    Even if the C27J come on….after these past 2-4 yrs…somehow the enthusiasm for a smokejumper ship after all these years waiting for 2500 gallons dreams seems pretty anticlimactic.

    Hopefully GOCO is not even on the dashboard for the USFS….it really needs to go to an agency who has not ignored or paid for studies that they can not even learn the basics from independent lenses such as RAND

    If you can not take the advice you pay high dollars for….then an agency like the USFS does not deserve to “own” the government owned portion part of it!!

    Like the “lessons learned” purported by the LMA’s….time to LEARN from your mistakes……or have you??

  2. Good info, Bill

    Especially mentioning the 45 day “C” checks as was nearly the standard in the old NWA shops for the DC10 when I was there 14 yrs ago.

    AND the “cost of several millions of dollars” is no BS….why does on suppose the operators want 5 + yr contracts

    Pretty easy to recover SOME costs when you are running an airline…..NOT so much so when the industry of aerial wildland firefighting works a 7-9 month season.

    PREEEETY easy for me to see what is needed in the LMA aviation business….smarter people in contracting who can see these costs farther ahead and the leadership that NEEDS to see the future of already FAA certificated jets in the operating environment……the bills have not totally come in yet…..

    “Next Gen”……better have “a bunch of millions lying around” cuz when the all the “Next Gen” is up and contracted………pilots pay and jet fuel MAYBE the only cheeeep things in this business

    1. “PREEEETY easy for me to see what is needed in the LMA aviation business….smarter people in contracting who can see these costs farther ahead and the leadership that NEEDS to see the future of already FAA certificated jets in the operating environment……the bills have not totally come in yet…..”

      …and a Congress that supports either a more agressive fire fighting force (through greater numbers) or a let burn policy.

  3. Item #1 really irritates me. The whole concept of MAFFS is to provide surge capacity on exceptional years, as I remember. To Preposition MAFFS should result in someone getting hit upside the head with a shovel.

    Not that I am complaining about the aircraft, units, crews, but really, the System that requires the “Surge” capacity to be part of the initial plan, and not the backup plan.

    Next, what happens if the NextGen tankers aren’t ready at the beginning of their MAP? I suspect that Neptune is watching very closely.

  4. Well, there are still seven P-3s which meet Next Gen requirements sitting at McClellan Field in Sacramento. Aero Union went out of business after the Forest Service cancelled their contract in the middle of the 2011 fire season. For some reason, the USFS won’t give investors who have expressed an interest in buying them any encouragement whatsoever about the chances of obtaining a five year contract if they get them up and flying. Bring on those C-27s….they’ll solve our problems for sure!

    1. Bjorn, while I agree looking into the Aero Union fleet, I would be really concerned by the lack of NET that was required to meet the requirements inspections. Was just the cost the driver to not have them performed, or was the management concerned the aircraft would fail?

      The cost to rewing Navy P-3s was like $17 million per plane, and I haven’t seen that the process is available outside the military. I believe the current bank owner probably isn’t considering the costs to get those aircraft airworthy against their perceived value.

      I personally believe a turboprop aircraft is the right way to go, but it’s time to quit blaming the USFS for the Aero Union failure. I know I loved seeing those aircraft overhead, but I wouldn’t want to risk pilots.

    2. In 2010, Aero Union subcontracted their heavy maintenance and inspection program to IMP Group in Canada. IMP Group provides depot level maintenance for P3 Orions including large structural wing repairs and wing box replacement.

      IMP completed heavy maintenance on Tanker 22 in 2010, and Tanker 27 in 2011. Tanker 20 was undergoing inspection and repairs when a stop work order came down after the USFS terminated Aero Union air tanker contract.

      In a report of Tanker 20 condition and status…
      -18,000hrs with 48 years of accrued service with US Navy, Spanish Navy and Aero Union.
      – four nacelle structures with moderate fatigue cracks
      – right forward and both aft paddle frames are cracked
      – airframe has extensive site damage from stress corrosion cracking and fatigue cracks.
      – horizontal stabilizer has 35 defects lower right, 24 upper right, 10 lower left, 11 upper left.
      – wings have significant stress corrosion cracking and intergranular corrosion.
      – at least 40 damage sites on each wing with some areas where planks have to be cut out and engineered repairs installed.

      (reference link…warning 3Mb pdf file)

  5. The tile say C-17’s.. I jumped.. wow… now that would be show; C-17 with Constant Flow Tank…

    C-27’s; If it really happens, I hope they choose GOCO like CalFire.
    My guess is 2000 Gallons.

  6. Why do we always forget the IR birds? They are a vital part of fire aviation and everyone on the ground use them. Not sexy enough ?

    1. The USFS did issue an RFI for C-27J pilot services on July 9th. So they seem hopeful they might be getting some aircraft. (Fedbizopps: SN-2013-05)

      “The USDA Forest Service may have a requirement for a pilot-in-command, co-pilot-in-command and a Flight Engineer/Loadmaster for C-27J aircraft. These aircraft may be used in air tactical, smokejumper, cargo, or administrative missions used in support of firefighting activities within the Forest Service.”

      Doesn’t appear they intend to use them as air tankers.

  7. IR birds?

    Why Dan, that is for those USFS PAO’s and PIO’s to help sell the program.

    You know how the DoD sells their ISR program in the “Stans?”

    You know ISR…Intelligence, Surveillance, and Recon…

    Folks like Avenge, Some L3, and some other are covered in Aviation Week and Space Technology.

    “How’se bouts youse” guys look REAL hard in the masthead in AW&ST…..get a couple of editors contacted and get that infamous WO-FAM bunch to pay their way out there and get the coverage you desire……..cuz you us here out in the fields can suggest more than most GS13 who “manage the aviation program”

    On the other hand….how about getting stories on all those BE200 drivers , NAR Rockwell Sabre, Aero Commander drivers and get a pool of info going and get it to Bill here…..

    Remember where you got this “FREE” information….from a former Pulaski driver, UH1/ UH60 mech and Current COMML / Inst/ Multi/ A&P/ ADX with …wait for it….a forestry degree.

    Funny thing is…….there are plenty here who could have suggested the very same thing

    OH and thank you very much

  8. Meanwhile Lockheed Martin has delivered the 8th of 14 P3 Orion aircraft to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) modifications and phased depot maintenance.

    “The MLU replaces all fatigue life-limiting structures with enhanced-design components; and incorporates a new metal alloy that is five times more corrosion resistant than the original material, greatly reducing the cost of ownership for P-3 operators. The MLU solution removes current aircraft flight restrictions and extends the structural service life of the P-3 up to 15,000 hours, adding more than 20 years of operational use.”

        1. Knew a bit about the P-3 issues from my past military background. Cost to repair / upgrade was THE big P-3 issue that resulted in the P-8 decision. Figured that the homeland security “AWACS” P-3 program was a good place to look for the MLU cost. Looks like electing to go with the MLU is a “pricey” option.

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