A former Aero Union P3 to be resurrected

A new company expects to have it airworthy again by the end of this year.

P3 Orion air tanker

Above: Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field May 17, 2017. Airstrike photo.

(Originally published at 2:23 p.m. MDT August 8, 2017)

Another one of the P3 Orion air tankers formerly operated by Aero Union has been sold. Tanker 23, N923AU, was purchased by Airstrike Firefighters LLC, a new company with Aero Union roots that was incorporated September 1, 2016. One of the founders of the company is Bill Douglas who is serving as the President. He told us that he worked for Aero Union from 2005 until 2009 where he was an investor and the CFO.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field July 11, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento where they are concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program. Before acquiring the aircraft Mr. Douglas consulted with Avenger Engineering, a company that has had a hand in the development, design, and maintenance of many water and retardant delivery systems and type certificates for firefighting aircraft including the P3. One of their goals is to complete all of the work and inspections that the U.S. Forest Service and the Interagency AirTanker Board requires for contracted air tankers.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23’s retardant tank at McClellan Air Field July 24, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Mr. Douglas expects Tanker 23 will be physically ready to fight fires by early to mid-fall of this year. Then, of course, the aircraft and pilots will need to be inspected and carded and it will need a contract. Even though it will have the same constant flow 3,000-gallon RADS II retardant delivery system that it used for years and is the gold standard for air tankers, Airstrike is not sure if it will be required to retake the grid test. Like the owners of the 747 SuperTanker found out, even though the system had been approved before, some of the standards and test procedures have changed in recent years which meant the 747 had to repeat some of the tests or take new ones only recently developed.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field. Airstrike photo.

In late 2013 the eight Aero Union P3 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’s financial problems.

Of the eight P3’s UAC acquired, one was sold to Buffalo Airways, T-20 is in Tucson and may or may not be scrapped, T-21 is also in Tucson and is designated as scrapped, and Airstrike bought one, leaving UAC with an inventory of five. Mr. Douglas said he is in discussions with UAC about the possibility of purchasing the remaining fleet.

Tanker 20 at Tucson March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.
T-21 at AMARG in Tucson, March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

At the time of the Aero Union bankruptcy Tanker 20 was in Canada in the middle of heavy maintenance, partially disassembled. Then when the company lost their USFS contract in 2011 and later went bankrupt, that process stopped and it sat there for a while until UAC had it shipped on a truck as a wide load from Halifax to Tucson. There has been talk about converting it to a simulator.

We have reached out to Buffalo Airways a few times since they bought their P3 in 2014, but owner Joe McBryan, the “Ice Pilot” reality show star, has not been willing to disclose to us the status of Tanker 22.

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan (right) of Buffalo Airways, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base March 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The P3’s that are now owned by UAC were manufactured between 1962 and 1965 and have less than 20,000 hours, according to Bradford Beck, the President and COO of the company.

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11 thoughts on “A former Aero Union P3 to be resurrected”

  1. Interesting times ahead. Coulson’s proposed fleet of 6 737 aircraft combined with 6 additional tankers from this company will add alot of capacity to the US airtanker program.
    It is my understanding that some areas, Alaska for one, have contracts expiring at the end of this year.
    Time for the USA flag to fly over our northern State again!

    1. Great points! We think it is more of a repositioning of resources. Jets should be used where they are best at being safe, cost effective and accurate on target. The P-3 is perfect for high/hot/steep climb-out bases as it is not weight de-rated. Also it is a fine paint brush in difficult mountainous terrain and is known for being able to put the payload on target in these conditions. Everyone in this industry has great toys, and they should be allocated properly where they can be most effective.

    2. Richard, the “Canadian flag” has served the state of Alaska (among others) exceptionally well for many years. If Conair, Coulson, Aeroflite or Air Spray are successful bidders on a new AK contract, it will continue to fly over your fine state.

      *note the RADS I and II tank rights are also held by durned forrenners.

  2. Here is another good example of why the private sector is in command of the need for air tankers. Airstrike Fire Fighters where did they guys come from? Forest Service should be firm on placing the nations initial attack (exclusive use) need for air tankers and not trying to enter the tanker business again.

  3. Will the federal agencies certify it to a full 3000 gallons or will it be 15% downloaded again to 2550? Will it end up on state contracts only or will the feds even allow it to be used? Do the feds only want jets now (and C-130’s which are pretty fast for props)?

    1. Looks like to me, the P-3 will cruise at the C-130’s maximum speed, so that shouldn’t be a factor.

  4. As a former wildland firefighter receiving drops from Tankers 00 and 22, it would be a welcome site to see these birds in the air again; especially if they could retain their iconic paint scheme.

    1. My words exactly, Bob. Those two tankers in particular are near and dear to my heart!

  5. Great news! I would love to see this tanker and other P3’s used once again on fires.

  6. I flew as a flight engineer on 3 of the aircraft back in the 70’s. As i remember the aircraft had 60,000 hrs approx when the navy got rid of them. Best thing about the A model was water injection! sure gave a lot of extra power on takeoff. Pitty , the comments here don’t know a thing about the aircraft. With a light load it can takeoff on 2 engines, fly and maintain airspeed on 1 engine. We used to patrol for hours with 2 engines shut down to save fuel. strong bird. It did have a wing spar issue about cracking/corrosion that needed additional inspections. Takeoff and landings when light on fuel with a hot pilot could be done around 1500 ft.

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