20 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contracts this year

We also have updates on the MD-87’s, as well as the HC-130H aircraft the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard.

T-162 air tanker airtanker wildfire

Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.

The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.

air tankers contract wildfire 2017
This does not include Call When Needed, Single Engine, or scooper air tankers.

In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)

2016 call when needed wildfire air tankers

There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.

Future contracts

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.

The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.

Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.


Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.

Coast Guard HC-130H’s

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.

The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.

500 nautical mile radius
500 nautical mile radius from Sacramento, California. Fire Aviation graphic.

None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.

Tanker 116 Mather California
Tanker 116, an HC-130H, landing at Mather Airport east of Sacramento, February 28, 2017. Photo by Jon Wright.

None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.

The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.

11 thoughts on “20 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contracts this year”

  1. Anyone know what Neptune is doing with the old P2V’s? Sad to see them go but they have done their job!

    1. According to my source at Neptune, all but 2 will probably be going to museums. The remaining 2 will be kept in tanker configuration and will be making the airshow circuit.

    2. When we went to the retirement show they are going to museums but they’re going to be mothballed for at least a year in New Mexico as far as I understood tanker 44 and tanker 4 still have flight hours and solar going to use them for flight shows only

  2. Looks like from the rough map, if the HC-130 was based out of Boise it’s 500 NM range would actually extend nearly from the N. Border with Canada to the S. Border with Mexico, and extend further inland, with coverage all the way to the WA, OR, & CA coasts.

    Is the reason for the station a conversion facility or something?

    1. Most likely because the Coast Guard has a large facility at McClellan and the Forest Service has been working closely with their maintenance folks in the past.

  3. Thank you for the updates. Follow fire fighting aircraft use in Northern California. Specific locations; Redding, Chico, Sacramento(McClellan) & many helo ports.

  4. Any pics of Aero Air’s mod to the MD87 and pics of the drop testing? That seems like news considering the issues they had before.

  5. This is about an idea I had years ago when I lived in Visalia (Tulare county). I pitched it at that time to the local forest service supervisor and was told they would look into it, but obviously nothing has happened. I am trying to start a discussion about this in hopes to find knowledgeable folk who can venture if this is feasible, and with what impact. So here is what I have:

    The US Air Force has a number of C5 Galaxy heavy lift cargo aircraft stationed at Travis AFB outside of Sacramento (I think there are like 40, not all at Travis). You can fit 6 standard oval tanker trailers inside (two abreast, three long) each carrying a maximum of 8,000 gallons of liquid. The lift capacity of a C5B Galaxy is 230,000 pounds, so each tanker can carry 38000 pounds, or like 4000 gallons, for a total of 24,000 gallons. If you use the C5M you get 285,000 pounds or 34,000 gallons. ( The reason for using more tank trailers is to allow for faster dumping of water (or retardant or whatever)– 6 parallel hose systems. )

    The C5’s can fly with their rear gates lowered, so if you arrange really big hoses from each of the tankers, secured to the gate, you could fly the thing and dump on a fire. I understand that there are configuration issues to resolve, but not difficult ones. The advantage of this system is that it does not require modifying the aircraft, it uses mostly off the shelf equipment, and could be scaled up as needed, depending on the USAF having better uses for the aircraft… Imagine 10 C5M’s dropping at once, delivering 340,000 gallons to a fire. At a refilling/refueling station, spare tanker trailers could be pre-filled with water and then just swapped out with the empties to minimize turnaround.

    The problems I see are getting the USAF to share, paying for them, and testing to make sure dropping that kind of volume is actually helpful ( and what the parameters are for the best effect).
    I have idly wondered about the weather effects of dropping massive amount of water at altitude, so that could be another topic of discussion.

    Considering that wildfires in the western states are not going away any time soon ( I grew up watching the Malibu fires in the 1950’s), it might save lives and a lot of property if this kind of capability were developed. Another minor selling point is that the USAF could consider this as training for flying under less that ideal conditions. Consider it a summer job for the USAF heavy lift squadron…

    I hope this sparks some interest among those here, and look forward to other comments pro and con.

    Sincerely, Gary Cordell
    Retired in Pahoa, Hawaii.

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