BLM awards contract for first jet-powered lead plane in the U.S.

Dynamic Aviation Citation lead plane
A Dynamic Aviation Cessna Citation. Photo courtesy of Dynamic Aviation.

The Bureau of Land Management has awarded a contract for the first jet-powered lead plane in the United States. Lead planes fly ahead of the much larger air tankers that drop retardant on fires. They identify the targets and evaluate the fire and wind conditions. Dynamic Aviation, with headquarters in Bridgewater, Virginia, will be supplying a Cessna Citation CJ to serve as a lead plane and Air Supervision Module (ASM) this fire season. With the jet-powered air tankers now in use, including DC-10s, BAe-146s, and MD-87s, there is a need for a lead plane that can keep up with the “next-generation” air tankers.

The Dynamic Aviation aircraft is not the first jet-powered lead plane. British Columbia currently operates two Citations as Bird Dogs, according to information we received from a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.

In January the Citation was for sale at Controller.com with an asking price of $1.1 million. On February 10, company employees watched the aircraft, purchased from an owner in the UK, arrive at their facility. During the off season it will be at their headquarters, where they operate a heavy maintenance and modification center, engine shop, and a privately owned airport. The company employs over 550 people and in September of last year began construction on their fifth hangar, named Hangar E. In addition to the new (to them) Citation, they have Beechcraft King Airs and Bombardier Dash 8-100s.

Dynamic Aviation King Airs
Dynamic Aviation’s King Airs. Photo courtesy of Dynamic Aviation. (click to see larger version)

Caleb T. Stitely, an account manager at Dynamic Aviation, told us that the company has a contract with the BLM to supply two additional Cessna Citations beginning in 2015.

Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the BLM said this year the agency will have three lead plane/ASMs on exclusive use contracts (the Citation and two King Air E-90s) and a fourth one on call when needed status (a King Air E-90). All four will be supplied by Dynamic Aviation. In addition, the Department of the Interior owns a King Air BE-200 that the BLM will use for Lead/ASM operations this coming fire season.

The U.S. Forest Service owns a Cessna Citation Bravo II equipped with a system for mapping fires using infrared imaging technology. It can download the imagery in near real time once each night to infrared interpreters on the ground who use it to make maps showing the location of fires.

The BLM will also have nine Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) platforms on contract this year. Three are on contract now and the other six are still out for bid. Spur Aviation will operate an Aero Commander AC690B, and Ponderosa Aviation will also have an Aero Commander AC690B and one Aero Commander AC680T.

We are working on collecting information about the U.S. Forest Service’s fleet of lead planes and Air Tactical platforms and hope to write about that in a day or so.

10 thoughts on “BLM awards contract for first jet-powered lead plane in the U.S.”

  1. I seem to remember the Citation being discussed as a lead platform at and aviation meeting in Reno sometime in the ’90s. Can’t remember the year. It was when the FS finally figured out that all the Barons in the fleet were worn out and needed to be replaced. The King Air came along as an alternative. Round and round we go.

  2. The CJ 525 platform has been on contract as a lead plane in British Columbia since 2012. It will be entering its 3rd season in 2014. It has also seen temporary service in Alberta and Alaska. Note that it will not keep up to a DC-10, and may (barely) keep pace with a BAe146. Not sure if an MD-87 will outpace it either. The CJ is well matched to the speed of the Lockheed Electra, but only because of the speed restrictions placed upon it by the addition of the tank. Otherwise, the Electra would leave the CJ far behind.
    On a positive note, the CJ is a suitable aircraft for low-level work and has proven to be very comfortable loitering at 120kias for 3.5 hour missions plus reserves. Some occupants of a larger stature may find the cockpit area a bit cramped, particularly in headroom.

    1. Hey anthoney, 380 kts is enough for a BA 146, they cruise loaded to the fire at that speed, the DC 10 isn’t going 500 kts with that huge tank under the belly either. CJ525 sounds like a winner to me

      1. DJ, the CJ is indeed a good aircraft for the role. The turbine 690 is a bit better suited, as it has greater endurance, more than enough performance and more physical interior room. But the 690 is becoming expensive to maintain from what I understand. Slight speed penalties can be offset by proactive fleet management (ie: don’t launch your fleet on 300nm dispatches if you can help it). If you are correct in that a loaded BAe 146 cruises at 380kts to the fire, then the CJ will need to be well ahead of it in order to arrive overhead first. If the average dispatch distance is kept <100nm, the 690 will, in most cases, be able to arrive ahead of a jet airtanker.

        Also, a note to the author of the article, it may be worth qualifying that the new BLM-contracted CJ is the first jet-powered lead plane *in the United States*. She is not the first CJ525 lead plane in service. Nor the second.

        1. Good point, Anthony. British Columbia currently operates two Citations as Bird Dogs, according to information we received from a spokesperson for the USFS. I added a note to that effect in the above article.

  3. Transition to a light jet powered Lead/ASM is long overdue…hopefully (someday) the FS will be able to follow suit.

  4. I assume firefighters will now be required to show a 1 hour, unpaid lunch break to help pay for the extra cost of operating a jet. Still trying to remember the last time an aircraft put a fire to bed.

  5. Well Dave

    Most of us pilots are in the full realization that it is the firefighters on the ground.

    The leadership at the USFS is still trying to show its aviation prowess. Nice to know that they have to contract it out. They MIGHT think they know the costs of operating a jeeeeeeeet. But like others here have indicated …….

    Unpaid lunch or not….. The Citation series may not keep up with the ‘146 and the ’10.

    They do not have the staff to fly or maintain a fleet of corporate and King Air series aircraft by themselves….like I like say at work……..the contractor is doing the job that government can not perform or does not have the SME level of said above.

    Enjoy your unpaid lunch…..many a pilot has suffered the same……..

  6. Dave, I guess we should make it a 2 hr unpaid lunch to pay for all the air conditioned HS buggies and engines as well, back in the day I road around in a bus, with tools hanging up in the back, we used old beat up Home-lite chain saws with no chain break or anti-vibration. When I wake up on cold mornings, my wrist still remind me of this old “technology” now that I’m in my 50’s.

    Don’t complain about updating the fleet until you know the facts. The efficiency and added speed to keep up with the new Generation Air Tankers will $ave money.

  7. Not to get picky..I think BC forest service contracts one CJ. On a side note, Airspray Ltd operated a Citation jet for years as a bird-dog aircraft for the BC forest service.

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