Private company asking for $5M in donations to bring back P3 air tankers

P3 air tanker
A P3 air tanker makes one of its last drops on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, July 15, 2011. All contracts for P3’s were cancelled by the USFS a couple of weeks later and the company, Aero Union, was forced out of business. Photo by Kari Greer for the USFS.

A private company has launched a campaign asking for $4,950,000 in donations so that they can begin flying P3 air tankers again.

A company called Orion Aerial Firefighters, with Dale Head as the CEO, is described as “a unique team of engineers, maintenance experts and pilots who are passionate and dedicated to provide effective aerial firefighting service in order to protect lives and assets.” Their stated goal is to return the P3 “as the critical component of the US Forest Service’s national firefighting fleet.”

Mr. Head said “The P-3 drops in terrain that other aircraft have trouble dealing with, and pilots feel that the maneuverability of a turboprop and the relatively short wingspan allows the P-3 to get to places other airtankers just cannot.”

The company is asking for donations through Indiegogo, where as of January 20, 2015 they have raised $1,857 since January 15 toward their goal of $4,950,000. They have 55 days left in their money raising campaign.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.

Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.

Tanker 17 at McClellan P3
Tanker 17 at McClellan, March 21, 2014.

In late 2013 the eight airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us in January, 2014, that  the P-3s at McClellan were still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

Buffalo P3
Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways on his purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of the P3s was in Canada undergoing major maintenance when the USFS cancelled the contract and it will never fly again. The other seven sat at McClellan near Sacramento until one was purchased in March 2014, by Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, leaving six.

15 thoughts on “Private company asking for $5M in donations to bring back P3 air tankers”

  1. Let’s say they succeed in their fundraising and miraculously reach the $5M goal, and somehow manage to regain an approved operator’s certificate, maintenance plan and airworthiness certificates for a fleet of P3s and have them ready to go for the 2015 fire season. Do you think this in-your-face tactic will work? I kinda doubt embarrassing the USFS will yield any meaningful contract, nor do I think any State agencies will bite.

    I’m afraid to say they’re done, let’s move on.

    1. Chris I don’t believe this is an in-your-face tactic. Unless there is something seriously structurally wrong with the airframes I can’t find any reason why the P3s should not be on contract protecting our natural resources and peoples property., I think this campaign is a great try to get 6 fully tanked and IATB approved tankers back in the air. With the USFS C-130 program so messed up having 6 more private contractor aircraft especially a proven airframe like the P3 would be a blessing to all the ICs who order air tankers.

  2. I agree with your assessment of the airplane, Matt. Nothing wrong with it at all. But with the recent dispute-ridden history between the USFS and the P3s, added to the fact that the USFS has made a very big deal of turning the page towards a Next-Gen future, I just can’t see this venture succeeding.
    I don’t see the feds amending today’s contract terms to enable a P3 to qualify. If a P3 gained a federal contract under existing terms, you could expect fierce resistance from current Next-Gen operators who have demonstrated their ability to effectively protest against competitors they feel do not meet those terms. Meanwhile, nobody is thinking about the ICs on the ground.
    Could the P3s find a contract with one or more state agencies? I’m not sure.

    1. The P3s do meet Next Gen requirements.The Lockheed P3 Orion is the “Original NextGen Airtanker”. P3’s are field-proven, turbine powered LAT’s that meet the 3000 gallon, 300 knot criteria of USFS NextGen specifications. As Norm Cook testified to a COngressional Committee, “If you were going to build a Large Airtanker for firefighting from scratch, it would look like a P-3 Orion.” These firefighting aircraft are fitted with IAB approved tanks already so the only issue is getting the structural issues handled. That is possible and manageable as well. The USFS didn’t cancel the contracts because the planes were unsafe, but because the SIP was not fully implemented.

  3. i agree with Matt,these people just want to save a good tanker set and get them back in the air during fire season,and thats what should be the main concern here,fire suppression and citizen protection.i just wish the politics of it would cease,and allow the P3s to get back in the air some how..i honestly dont think they will get 5 million dollars in 55 days..thats almost unreasonable..unless some wealthy guy steps forward,i dont think they will get there.

    as an aside,Norm Cook was talking to my dad and i one day and he was telling us that if he had a choice of an S2T..or a P3..he’d take the P3..he swore up and down the P3 was more maneuverable than the S2 in narrow steep canyons like we have here in my area,Auburn California,and to that,i remember watching the tankers work a fire on the middle fork of the american river,just east of Auburn,the P3s were going in much deeper than the S2Ts were ,except Joe Hoser Satrapa in T-89..he was right in there with the P3s,they would drop almost straight down the canyon wall,drop and then hang a sharp left and fly up canyon a ways then back out and back to altitude…was an awesome show for sure.

  4. If considering the air tanker program a “National Asset” then this whole argument could have been OVER yeeeaaaars ago if some sort of wording or legislation got it together to get the Public Use designation limited in scope.

    Understandably the FAA has probably less personnel assigned due to budgets foisting an already jacked up contract system with very few aviation experts in true aviation expertise. This is what happens when a single agency is put in charge of aviation.

    An impartial board should have designed by someone with the Mahoney go do this…..while the BRP of 2000 can claim all sorts of positives from their “townhall” meetings throughout the Western US and elsewhere… sure did not fairly look at outside strategies to create a TRULY National Asset program…..instead it has remained in the same hands for 13 yrs while study upon study has been done.

    Makes the airlines look efficient….and there is an efficient way to run the LAT program……

    50 some days to raise $5 million……..hope they can do it….

    Hey USFS why don’t YOU buy the P3’s…..after all ….Mark Rey is already a lobbyist for Lockheed and the P3 is a Lockheed product……..

    Win win win if you catch my zarcasm..

    The sarcasm might stop if a TRUE aviation outfit other than USFS was in charge
    IF Rey was truly as bright as everyone seems to think he is then he singlehandedly ought to have lobby ed for both airframes NOT JUST the C130….

    The saga will continue whether or not the P3’s get a contract……the mickey mouse will continue even if Orion succeeds……….

  5. Just a question – how can the USFS not allow P3’s to qualify as an air worthy tanker when there are 50 year old P2V is still flying under USFS contracts? Just doesn’t make sense, but then again that’s the government isn’t it!

    1. Joe, my understanding of the matter is there was a contract issue with one of the parties involved with the P3s which led to the cancellation of the contract with Aero union who owned and operated the P3s, and that also led to the USFS claiming that it doesn’t qualify. At this point in the game that really is all the needs to be known the whole Aero Union issues has been brought up so many times. The P3s do meet the Next-Gen contract requirements at 3,000 gallons and 200+ knot cruise speed. It also already has an approved tank system and is fully certified by the tanker board.

  6. The Forest Service has $65 million burning a hole in their taxpayers pocket. Someone quick put a fresh coat of paint over the A.U. livery, and sell those things to the Feds. That will still leave $60 million to accomplish more studies.

  7. Fellas, well I have the truth I have any answers to why. As a lead structures mechanic until the last days with aero Union I can honestly swear to anyone out there that we had a continued airworthiness program and it was awesome and had approved already. We where well ahead of schedule on completing all our inspections we had a bad ass structers crew and team of engineers that worked with us all day every day. The planes were not grounded for any safety reasons they weren’t grounded for any maintenance issues they were simply grounded for a constant fight between mr harbour and aero unions new owner and horrible leader Brit gourley. That’s it. Aero unions new owner was a Wall Street lawyer, say no more, and knew nothing about aviation. Instead of listening to the aviation experts at aero Union he surrounded himself by yes man that also knew nothing. He constantly tried to bully mr harbour and the usfs. Not to mention lockhead and there engineers. So it sucks but it was very fitting the usfs yanked aero unions contract unfortuantely many great men and woman lost there jobs and the greatest plane to ever fly over a fire was sitting on the deck for no good legitimate reason while the country burned

    1. I agree Mike, there was nothing wrong with those aircraft, it was all political! Tom Harbour is a patsy! There is a group now working with congress to have fire aviation taken out of the forest service and given its own agency. Let’s face it, the forest service is incompetent.

        1. This is a story about P3s in the US, Mark. Please stop trolling your opinions here, just because the BCFS was the last of many agencies to decline to contract a certain large airplane. British Columbia happens to run a world-class fixed-wing airtanker program. It’s no accident that it has partnered with local private companies to develop or introduce many of the assets we take for granted today (Bambi Buckets for example).

          1st operational use in Canada for the B-17, TBM Avenger, A-26, DC-6, S-2 (tied with ONT), AT-802, RJ-85, etc.
          1st operational use in the world of the Martin Mars, L-188, AT-802 FireBoss, CV-580, Q-400, etc.

          The BCFS has canceled a total of one airtanker contract in its history, at the aircraft owner’s request: (Martin Mars 2009). The owner wanted it to work a contract in California instead.

  8. Nick

    You sure of that there is a group in Congress to take aviation out?

    If it is true ….it could only benefit aviation in general….

    If it is true, it is sad it took this long.

    But again, we will see how that all goes…

    Build a single agency…take all the aviation money out of the LMA’s, build an agency with aviation personnel from outside the agencies with degreed backgrounds in aviation itself.

    National Assets like LAT’s and capital equipment NEED to be out of LMA hands, operated with people knowledgable in aviation and FAA SMS systems not just other agencies copying, plagarizing, and recreating the wheel.

    Especially the C130 and P3 programs ……ought to be completely stripped of the USFS contracting and ownership and give Lockheed a helluva contract convienient to some Guv terms and operated by folks who know the ship to include in put from former H&P, AUC, T&G, types who could really assist in the build of the program.

    Nick, if this all true……it could only be a dream…hopefully Mark Rey isn’t part of this program….the program needs knowledge…not lobbyists!!

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