At least one P-3 air tanker expected to be fire-ready this Spring

The P-3’s formerly operated by Aero Union are slowly being brought back to life.

Buffalo Airways P-3 Tanker 22

Above: Tanker 22 at Sacramento McClellan Airport, February, 2018.

(Originally published at 2:20 p.m. MT February 20, 2018)

Two companies expect to bring some of the Lockheed P-3 Orions formerly owned by Aero Union back into the aerial firefighting fleet. Buffalo Airways and Airstrike Firefighters are both actively working on aircraft, putting them through an “intensive and expensive inspection program”, according to Bill Douglass, President of Airstrike.

One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service cancelled the air tanker contract with Aero Union was that certain required inspections were not being done. Mr. Douglass said the company that wrote the original structural integrity inspection program for the P-3 air tankers, Avenger Engineering, is carrying out the inspections now on their P-3, Tanker 23. Most of those are now complete, the FAA is satisfied, and he expects the aircraft will be ready to fight fire later this Spring. Avenger 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.

When they finish T-23 Airstrike plans to begin work on another P-3, Tanker 17, and later take on others as they have time.

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

Buffalo Airways and Airstrike are cooperating in some ways as they both work on their respective air tankers. Buffalo’s main headquarters is in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada, but their P-3 is registered to one of their offices in Hawthorne, Florida. The aircraft, Tanker 22, is still using the same “N” number as when it was flown by Aero Union, N922AU. Buffalo purchased T-22 in 2014. The company operates at least one Lockheed L-188 in Canada, Tanker 416, which is very similar to the P-3. In 2016 they received a five-year contract to operate eight new Air Tractor 802F FireBoss single engine air tankers owned by Northwest Territories.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P-3 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.

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14 thoughts on “At least one P-3 air tanker expected to be fire-ready this Spring”

  1. I’m so excited to see the P3 flying again. The P3 will prove that jets arent “the future” of aircraft fire fighting.

    1. No?
      The jets that fly higher and faster? The jets that have full IFR/IMC capability, making them safer and more reliable for longer leg dispatches in and through wx? Jets that are 20 plus years newer?
      Yeah, the p3 is the future.

      1. Your right,

        The 2 things you don’t want when dropping retardant, being too high and too fast.

        1. P-3 Orions were made to chase Soviet subs at 100 ft. above the water. Also, they can fly very slow. Both capabilities increase accuracy of dropping fire retardant, right?

  2. Google US Navy P-3 Orion Long Range ASW Aircraft. It was so good the Soviets copied it with their May 38 Aircraft.

  3. I very much doubt that the real reason the Obama Administration abruptly cancelled Aero Union’s contract, and put them out of business, without any warning or due process, right in the middle of the 2011 fire season, was because of “inadequate safety practices” and/or failure to do “certain required inspections.”

    The CEO of Aero Union told Wildfire Today that the Orions were in full compliance, and meticulously maintained.

    I know of no evidence to the contrary. In fact, ONE of the seven Orions was fresh from a major overhaul and refit. The Obama Administration cancelled Aero Union’s contract ON THE VERY DAY that seventh plane was scheduled to enter service. Obviously THAT airplane wasn’t overdue for its inspections!

    The fact that the Obama Administration did the deed on the EXACT day that a seventh Orion was scheduled to enter service, after Aero Union had completed the expensive process of fitting it out for firefighting, looks like a calculated decision to do the maximum possible amount of financial damage to Aero Union.

    What’s more, there’s no disputing the fact that the big four-engine Orions had an excellent safety record, much better than the smaller two-engine Neptunes, six of which are still in use by the USFS.

    The USFS really needed those planes. (They still do.) I wonder how many people have lost their lives because those planes were unavailable when they were needed?

    The supposed safety concerns sure look like a pretense, not a reason. If they REALLY thought there was a safety problem, or a problem with the inspections, on even one of those planes, the obvious remedy would be to TEMPORARILY ground that particular plane, until the issue was resolved. Instead they abruptly and PERMANENTLY cancelled the entire contract, for all seven planes, right in the middle of the fire season.

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