The large air tanker fleet in the United States is on track to have more than double the number that were flying at the beginning of the summer in 2013. Last year there were nine large air tankers available near the beginning of the western fire season, and by mid-July this year there are expected to be 20 on contract that are fully certified, flyable, and ready to assist firefighters on the ground. In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, but that number as been generally in a downward spiral since then until it reached the low point of nine in 2013. Thanks to the the U.S. Forest Service adding three additional jet-powered BAe-146s to the “legacy contract” temporarily this year, and with nine other air tankers being on five-year or temporary one-year “next generation” contracts, we expect the air tanker fleet to be the largest since 2009.
Five of the 20 air tankers are on temporary one-year contracts added under the “additional equipment” provisions of the contracts that Neptune and 10 Tanker Air Carrier have for their BAe-146s and DC-10s. Unless the USFS decides again next year to award them another one-year contract (if they have the funds to do so) those five may disappear and the total number could decrease to 15.
Within the next week or so 16 large air tankers should be fully activated and on duty. There are still four that have contracts but are still going through the final stages of conversion, live drop tests, or approval of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In addition to the 20 large air tankers, there will be 33 single engine air tankers (SEATs) on exclusive use national contracts.
10 Tanker Air Carrier is converting their third DC-10. It has all of the necessary approvals and is expected to be ready to fight fire in July.
Aero-Flite has the approval of the Interagency AirTanker Board and is waiting on the STC before their two RJ85s can begin work. They hope to have everything all squared away by mid- to late June.
Minden has been working on their BAe-146 for several years and has scheduled their airborne drop tests, the “grid test”, to begin the week of June 16. They are waiting for the FAA to issue their STC. The FAA representative who was working on it had to leave the country on an assignment, slowing down the process.
By mid-summer there will be three additional air tankers that that the U.S. Forest service could activate on one-year additional equipment contracts. Neptune, Erickson Aero Tanker, and Aero-Flite will each have one additional approved air tanker sitting on their ramps.
The U.S. Forest Service could have, with the stroke of a pen, a total of 23 large air tankers flying this summer. The states in the far west are expected to have an above normal wildfire potential this summer. If that turns out to be accurate and houses are burning and residents are being killed, some questions will be asked if those three recently converted next generation air tankers are still cooling their wheels on an airport ramp because a bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture decided to look the other way.