MD-87 air tanker experiences engine failure after takeoff

MD-87 retardant tank

Above: Air Tanker 101, showing the added external tank, December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 8:38 p.m. MDT August 1, 2018; updated at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018)

An engine malfunctioned on an air tanker operated by Erickson Aero Air July 30 after taking off from the Coeur d’Alene Airport in Idaho. A person we talked with at the airport said they heard a very loud “boom” as the engine failed, and said the aircraft was an MD-87 air tanker. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that contracts for the large and very large air tankers used by the federal government, confirmed Wednesday evening that “an  Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 did have an engine upset shortly after takeoff from the Coeur d’Alene Airport on Monday at approx. 1430 PDT”. He said the aircraft landed safely after the incident.

The Coeur d’Alene Post Falls Press reported that unofficial sources have told them that hot debris from an air tanker engine started multiple fires after the pieces fell to the ground north of the airport. They also wrote that the runway was closed while “unspecified debris” was removed. The newspaper was not able to find any government officials who would comment about the cause of the fires, saying it was under investigation.

Kootenai County Government reported on their Facebook page that “several small fires resulted from an aircraft incident” at the airport.

(UPDATE at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018: Late yesterday Jim Lyon, Deputy Fire Marshal/Public Information Officer with Northern Lakes Fire District, issued a statement confirming that a jet-powered air tanker under contract to the U.S. Forest Service, at approximately 2:30 p.m. “had mechanical problems on take-off and was able to make an immediate circle route to return to base safely. In so doing, it appears the plane was discharging some sort of material as a result of the mechanical problem, starting several fires throughout the area approximately a five mile radius of the airport.” Marshal Lyon said “up to eight fires” started by the incident were under control by the evening of July 30th.)

Below is an excerpt from a July 31 article in the Spokesman Review about the incident:

Jim Lyons, spokesman for Northern Lakes Fire District, said crews battled about seven fires, though none grew to the size of a major wildfire. The first blazes started about 2 p.m. and spread from there.

Shoshana Cooper, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in North Idaho, said the fires burned to the northwest, south and east of the airport near U.S. Highway 95. She said they burned mostly grass and brush and were not affecting structures. As of 3:30 p.m., no structures had been lost.

Multiple aircraft were sent in to drop retardant on the blazes, but firefighters weren’t sure early Monday afternoon how large the fires had grown.

KXLY reported that a firefighter was injured while working on one of the fires near the airport:

A Kootenai County Fire and Rescue firefighter was injured Monday evening when he was struck by a vehicle that was backing up on Dodd Road by Strayhorn while responding to fires burning near the Coeur d’Alene Airport. He was evaluated at the scene. His injuries were not life threatening, but he was transported to Kootenai Health as a precaution.

The airport resumed normal operation at about 6:30 p.m. Monday.

We were not able to find a SAFECOM report about the incident, and very few people are willing to talk about it. Our calls to personnel at Erickson Aero Air late in the afternoon August 1 either were not returned right away or the employees we talked with were not able to comment.

This is not the first time that an engine on an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 exploded and falling debris caused problems after hitting the ground. On September 13, 2015 debris from a failed engine landed in a residential area of Fresno, California. One chunk of metal crashed through the rear window of a car, while other shrapnel was found in city streets.

There has been concern about retardant being ingested into the engines when the MD-87 is making a drop, since at least 2014. A SAFECOM filed back then considered the possibility after engine surges or intermittent power was a problem for one aircraft after making a drop. Photos were taken of retardant stains on the fuselage caused by retardant flowing over the wing.

The first fix that Erickson Aero Air implemented was in 2014,  “a new spade profile that has proved to eliminate this problem by keeping the fluid column much more vertical”.

MD-87 retardant tank
Air Tanker 101, showing the added external tank December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Then in June, 2017 the company took a much more radical step. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowered the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations, said at the time.

On December 12, 2017 I was given a tour of Tanker 101 by the flight crew while it was in Rapid City, and noticed there was evidence of retardant flowing over the top of the wing. If you check out the profile photo of Tanker 101 at the top of this article, you will see that the top of the wing is not much lower than the height of the engine intake.

MD-87 retardant wing engine failure
Tanker 101, an MD-87, with evidence of retardant stains on top of the wing, December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Another unique characteristic of the MD-87 is that they are required by the FAA to lower the gear while dropping — in fact it is specified in their Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) issued by the FAA. That 10-page STC uses the words “stall” or “stalling” 60 times, an average of 10 times on every page.

Our view

How many second chances should an air tanker design get after exploding engines on two occasions drop hot shrapnel over a city and at an airport? The FAA and the Interagency Airtanker Board should rescind the Supplemental Type Certificate and the IAB approval and carding of the air tanker before something much worse happens than a car is damaged while parked at a home, shrapnel closes a runway, multiple wildfires are ignited, and a firefighter is injured putting out the blaze. I fear not only for the safety of the flight crews in the MD-87’s, but people on the ground who have every right to expect that firefighting air tankers on U.S. Forest Service contracts will not kill or injure them with exploding engines. And, that an air tanker hired to suppress fires will not start them.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
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33 thoughts on “MD-87 air tanker experiences engine failure after takeoff”

  1. Airplanes lose engines. Fact of life. Delta lost an engine in Nashville last week. Erickson has lost two in three years. I don’t see a cause to pull their card.

  2. Dude, you know nothing about the MD-87. The reason why there’s “evidence of retardant above the wing” is the flaps were partially down at drop. The engine blowup was most likely due to FOD which can happen to any aircraft at takeoff, not just an MD-87. BAD REPORTING.

      1. OK lets say there is retardant going over the wing. There is absolutely no proof that’s causing engines to blow. If it was they wouldn’t have been carded by the FAA. 2 weeks or so ago the global supertanker blew an engine, it didn’t start fires (bad luck) but you weren’t posting for them to get their card pulled.

        Airplanes lose engines, sometimes quietly, and sometimes with a bang. Please stop the knee-jerk reaction and blaming something that has nothing to do with engine failure.

        1. does anyone have a link to the video of this? I would like to show some other tanker pilots for education

          1. Sorry but im just seeing this. I took the video of the engine fail. It was pretty scary not knowing what we were about to witness but the pilot recovered the plane pretty well! Not sure how to get you the video on here though.

  3. Above story seems like a knee jerk reaction, to a problem that should not be insurmountable.
    Perhaps Erickson could consult with an aerodynamics expert [ several at Nascar] and using mockups or other, find a SOLUTION to the problem .
    It would be a shame to see more tankers taken out of service and then allow more firefighters to be injured ,100’s of more structures burned ,and as well 10’s of Thousands of more acres . Seems like the scale tilts the balance towards Erickson,and the other tanker companies ! We have already eliminated too many tankers due to misguided USFS and DOI policies.

  4. Two catastrophic engine failures in three years!!!! You can’t gloss over a serious internal problem with Erickson management/maintenance or failure of Interagency maintenance inspectors or USFS contracting officers or their Contracting Officer Representatives. Using the Delta incident to justify this incident is lame. Something is amiss. Problems like this caused USFS managers to shutdown the program in the early 2000s. Granted, wings did not separate from fuselages, however in this case civilians on the ground were put in danger with both flying debris and/or destruction of private property from wildfire. The entire air tanker operation has enough critics without mechanical issues giving the opponents more ammunition. Clean up the act. Where is the SAFECOM??? This program is designed to get the word out on current problems. Is Erickson using their political influence to stonewall the system?

  5. Turbine engine failures causing fires is not a new type of incident. A P-3 airtanker had a total engine failure at rotation while departing fully loaded from Silver City, NM. The debris from the failed engine ignited two fires west of the airport. The P-3 engines located on the wings do not have any possibility of retardant ingestion. Until an engine tear down is performed and the actual cause of the engine failure is determined people should not jump to conclusions with no knowledge of the facts.

  6. Engine failures happen. Two engine failures in three years is not indicative of a systemic problem with the aircraft, its use, or the operator.

    When a catastrophic failure of a turbine engine occurs, parts move through the engine, causing more damage, breaking blades, and causing very hot pieces to grenade out the back. I’ve experienced it, and I’ve seen it happen on several occasion in various turbojets and turboprops. I’ve watched parts rain down out of a 777 and a 747, and had an engine on the 747 I flew back from Afghanistan grenade somewhere prior to landing. It happens.

    It’s irresponsible to suggest that retardant caused this failure. There is absolutely no way to know what caused it until a teardown and inspection is performed.

    I have no dog in the hunt with respect to the MD-87, but like most here, I do have ample turbine experience. These things happen, period. What the MD-87 does have going for it at a time such as this is a guaranteed positive climb gradient with an engine-out, and a disposable load. I’ve flown tankers that will not maintain altitude following a failure, without losing the load and quick action, and I’ve flown single engine tankers that obviously will not maintain altitude after an engine failure…and I’ve put one down on a fire following an engine failure. In this case, the crew did as they were supposed to do. They came back and landed.

    What should have been reported is “job well done” for returning to land. It’s the most important thing. I’ve had engine failures in piston, turboprop and turbojet aircraft; any of us flying fire have. We train for it, we deal with it, and we move on after handling it safely. Focus on that: they did what they were supposed to do in the event of an engine failure, and so did the airplane. What they didn’t do is create a big fire at the scene of the crash. You may have missed that critical aspect of this story.

  7. Was the first failure completely attributed to retardant ingestion? Obviously the planes were taken out of service due to ingestion and subsequent power issues. But, was that the actual cause of the failure?

    It’s probably a little early to say take them out of the air. If both the first and second engine are due to ingestion, it is time to really look at the situation. If the dropped pod is still allowing retardant to get to the engines, something else needs to be done. It’s not safe for the folks flying them or the people on the ground below them to continue with a known issue. That said, engines fail for all sorts of reasons. Will be interesting to see what the outcome is.

  8. Very good and succinct comment ,Doug . It is good that something sensible is said by an actual pilot, with a great deal of experience ! Conjecture gets us exactly no where.

  9. I agree with Chuck and the well written comment by Doug. Engine failures happen, some are benign in nature, and some are not. Southwest Airlines just had a tragic incident this year after a catastrophic engine failure. They are rare, but do happen. I’ve had many, some while over fires(Gotta love Radials!). I commend the crew for getting the plane safely on the ground. And no one in the world feels worse for creating more work for fire crews on the ground than that crew right now.

    I’m disappointed by the editorialized last paragraph so soon after the incident. I know I know, this site is News AND Opinion, but we don’t know what caused this. Too early to say. This site is an amazing resource for many people, but I would like to see some disclosure from Bill about the tanker companies that sponsor him before he calls for the card removal of a company that doesn’t.


  10. Pretending that engine failures of this nature are normal is irresponsible at best. The New York Times reported back in 1985 about problems with the JT8D engine. In the 12 month period prior to the article there were 121 failures, most of which were not even catastrophic, rather considered “turnbacks.” One may think that’s a lot of failures, but the numerator is only half of the story. Those 121 failures were during 7.4 million flights, or one for every 60,000 or so. Seeing how the airframe in question was grounded for a significant period over the last couple years due to retardant ingestion, it safe to say that those aircraft have substantially less than 120,000 hours on them. In fact, it’s likely only 1,000. Maybe 2,000.
    It’s a known fact that these engines are ingesting retardant. Basic knowledge in gas turbine theory supports the position that this is less than an ideal operating environment.
    The cause of failure needs to be determined, I agree. But we cannot overlook the serious problem of retardant in the engine or the significant concern about catastrophic engine failures.
    It is simply unacceptable to chalk this up to being “the cost of doing business.”
    Kudos to the crew for an outstanding performance during an emergency and for safely landing their aircraft.

    1. It is not a “know fact that these engines are ingesting retardant.”

      This did occur prior to changes and carding. At this time, there is no evidence that this is is occurring, or that it did occur in the case of the engine failure in question, and on point, there is no evidence (inferred or otherwise beyond baseless assumptions) that such ingestion caused this failure. While investigation may lead to that end, there is no reason to jump to that conclusion now.

      Guesswork and assumption is unprofessional. Likewise, calling for action based on guesswork and assumption is unwarranted, and unprofessional. We do not know why the engine failed.

      I flew the PB4Y. We lost an untold number of short stacks off that airplane, on runways, over fires; most we never found, but we carried a number of spares and checked them every time we shut down. Like most other radial powered airplanes, we also lost a number of engines.

      I flew the C-130. From fire warnings to flame-outs to cracked wings, we experienced the gamut.

      I flew the P2V. From stack fires to carburetor fires to engine failures, partial and complete shutdowns, lifted heads to PRT issues, to jet and jet door issues…it happens. Mechanical aircraft, and mechanical things break, fail, malfunction. It happens.

      I flew various SEATS, three types, five different engine types, and radial. I’ve experienced power surge, rollback, faiure and fires. In large air tankers, I’ve had gear malfunctions, brake malfunctions, electrical failures, cabin/cockpit fires, engine fires, engine failures, hydraulic failures, drop system failures, structural failures (two cracked wings), bleed failures and leaks, one on-board explosion, and a host of other experiences over the years that have kept it interesting.

      I have two degrees in aviation as well, including aviation maintenance technology and aviation science. Neither mean a thing.

      It’s not a pedigree thing, and it’s not a time for conjecture. The crew experienced a power loss and returned safely to land; a successful flight by any measure. The reason for the engine failure is not known. Attempting to drag other events into this one, to pin causality, or to relate one to the other, is unwarranted.

      I’m sitting in a foreign country right now, flying a turbojet aircraft in a combat area. I get the need for things to work, for safety, and for reliability. I’ve flown fire for a lot of years now in every capacity but smoke jumpers, and I’ve flown a lot of jumpers outside of fire. I get the need for safety. I’ve known a lot of names that are no longer with us, as have we all. I get it. I really do, and when it comes to a fire dispatch or an assignment that’s unsafe, I’m really, really good at saying “no.” No doubt those on the MD-87 understand these concepts, too. We all want to make money, but we all share the common trait of loving life and doing everything to protect it. We are professionals.

      Let’s act like such and refrain from guesswork and jumping to conclusions, making accusations, or invoking unknowns. We simply don’t know yet. Yes, the MD-87 does have a history of retardant ingestion, prior to its current status and carding. No, there is no evidence that retardant ingestion occurred here, on takeoff, or that it had occurred prior to this occasion to cause this engine failure. Evidence may point either way, or another entirely different way; until that time, allow the investigation to proceed without making the matter worse with speculation.

        1. I’ve read through this and the discussion has been good so far until now AlexRed…..your sarcasm is not needed however….What are your experiences and qualification if I may ask?

      1. I’ve seen them ingest retardant with my own eyes, even with the mod, therefore it is a fact.

        I won’t respond to the rest of your post, as much as I want to, because it’s not relevant.

        1. You won’t respond, because you can’t. At this point there is no evidence that this engine failure has been caused by retardant ingestion. That may prove to be the case, but your speculation is unwarranted, and is unprofessional.

          You may have got the point. It’s not relevant, just as your degree (and mine) is irrelevant.

          What is relevant are facts not yet in evidence. Wait for the facts.

          1. No. I could respond but I refuse to get pulled down to that level. This is not a forum for that type of discussion.

            It is not unprofessional to have an opinion. I merely stated a few main points. Catastrophic engine failures are not the norm. Retardant is not healthy for a turbine engine. You won’t convince me otherwise.

            You can attempt to demean my opinion and I all you want. It just lessens your credibility as far as I’m concerned.

          2. I do agree with you doug. Waiting for All of the facts is the proper way to handle any investigation.

      2. How many Bae146/RJ85 tankers are there? 10-11?
        With 4 engines apiece = 40-44 engines.
        How many engine failures for 146/85s during their years in tanker world?

        1. There are 15 RJ/146 series out there on fed contracts currently. Not aware of any catastrophic failures.

  11. This article has generated quite a bit of discussion. It’s always good for us to talk, or write, about the current issues in wildland fire and fire aviation. It can bring about positive change.

    It can also bring out strong and very strong statements and opinions. At the top of this website the subtitle is “News and Opinion”. I have opinions. You have opinions. I hope most of us can be tolerant enough to allow others to HAVE an opinion even if it is different from their own. Flaming others, personal attacks, or questioning their ethics, which some have done here, is beyond the pale. And when those very degrading statements are directed at me or anyone else it is very unpalatable. If someone can’t handle, with dignity, another person having an opinion, then perhaps they would be happier somewhere else.

    This is not the comment section of YouTube. Our rules have changed very little since I wrote them in 2013. Rule number 1 is,

    “Be civil. ‘Flaming’ of other writers is not allowed. Neither are crude, rude, profane, mean-spirited comments, hate, or personal attacks that fail to add to the overall discourse.”

    Back then I also wrote:

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  12. Not being a pilot, but ground pounder with lots of tanker use and aviation interest, the one thing that strikes me as unique with the MD tanker is its the only tanker in use ( I can recall) with the engines mounted aft of the retardant doors – as indicated by many , engine failures occur and it is premature to judge cause until there is proper evidence, but perhaps this style of fuselage engine mount may not be optimal for tanker conversions? I would enjoy reading pilot perspective on this- what is the advantage of this design over wing mount engines in general out of curiosity? Thanks for your time

    1. That is an excellent question, but complicated. There are many pros and cons to the different designs. I have an aviation degree and many thousands of hours flying in tankers and other high performance aircraft so I’ll do my best to hit the high points. In general, here are the pros:

      -The engines are higher off the ground. This airplane was designed as an airliner. It reduces the chances of them ingesting debris from the ramp, taxiway, and runway. It also moves them further away from ramp crews. These engines, particularly at high power settings, create a strong low pressure in from of them and can suck surprisingly large items in. Turbine engines are sensitive to this FOD (Foreign Object Debris) ingestion. In 1977 a DC-9 with these JT8D engines crashed killing 63 onboard and 9 on the ground due to a power loss after ingesting massive amounts of water and hail.
      -Having the engines on the tail cleans up the wing and makes the wing more aerodynamically efficient. Keep in mind that this creates a lot of other aerodynamic problems like the wing disturbing airflow into the engine at high angles of attack.
      -It also reduces the amount of structure needed in the wing to support the engine. But, also creates the need to beef the structure up on the fuselage however.
      -Shorter, less complicated landing gear.
      -Better control with one engine inoperative. The closer the engines are to the centerline of the aircraft, the less yawing moment with one inop. This creates a lower minimum control airspeed Vmca and is generally easier to fly, other factors being equal.
      -Weight in the rear allows for a smaller tail, which reduces drag. It requires a T-tail, however, which creates some aerodynamic problems.

      There are many cons as well, but that was not your question.

      Most multi engine jets have them under the wing these days, unless it’s too small for them to fit there. Corporate jets and small regional jets like the CRJ still mount them up on the tail.

  13. One can’t deny that there is retardant being ingested. Look at the spinners and top of the wing. Whether or not the engine failed due to retardant ingestion though, is yet to be answered.

  14. Just curious…if the engine ingests retardant would not simply a post drop compressor wash help? Short term perhaps not an issue, long term I’m not familiar.
    Worked at P&W and am fairly familiar with the baby 8 and the dash 200.

  15. I just watched the 8/8 CBS Evening News with Jeff Glore. There was a very clear video of the MD 87 making a drop on ( I think) the holy fire. The LH engine appeared to be completely engulfed with retardant as the aircraft was dropping down a ridge and it appeared to be descending into its own retardant stream as the drop is fully developed. Perhaps this is a flight profile that exposes it to an unusual airflow? Check it out for yourself. Sure looks like the red stuff is above the intakes and then streaming out above the exhaust and that in the middle there is an engine. I really like the MD87 and want it to be on fires, but this may need to be looked into.

  16. “would not simply a post drop compressor wash help”
    Turbine nozzle guide vanes and some stages of turbine blades have minute cooling air passages cast into them. Not saying it happened but accumulated residue in any of those passages is not a good thing. I would think it could result in bowed NGV’s/ turbine blades, high egt, degraded performance, reduced service life, etc. Typical of any fan engine, not just the JT8D. Compressor washes would not clear those passages in my humble opinion. Ingestion of any type such as ash, smoke debris, etc, is not a friend of any jet engine.

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