Video surfaces of engine failure on air tanker during takeoff

Coeur D’Alene, Idaho in 2018

Air Tanker 101 MD87 Rapid City
Air Tanker 101, an MD87, at Rapid City, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

On July 30, 2018 an engine on an MD87 air tanker failed while taking off at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire. The reports at the time was that it failed after takeoff, but in this video that just came to light filmed by Harold Komm, Jr. it appears that the incident occurred during takeoff while the aircraft was approximately half or two-thirds of the way down the runway. At 0:52 in the video below, smoke or debris can be seen in the vicinity of the tail of the aircraft. Then the engine noise decreases as the takeoff continued. When it finally became airborne dust is kicked up at the end of the runway.

The flight crew deserves high praise for getting the plane into the air and then landing safely. An engine failure at that point is one of the worst times for it to happen.

(The video can also be watched at YouTube)

The aircraft was Air Tanker 101, an MD87 operated by Erickson Aero Air. Mr. Komm said that after takeoff the plane flew out to the designated retardant jettison area about seven miles northeast of the airport so it would not have to land with a full load of retardant.

Seven fires were discovered after the incident within a five-mile radius of the airport. One of the firefighters was injured while suppressing the fires.

Mr. Komm said he just recently found a report of the incident on Fire Aviation and offered to allow us to publish his video. We had to edit the audio to remove some unwanted background noise unrelated to the aircraft, but other than that and adding titles at the beginning and the end we didn’t change the video. He told us, “I had talked to Erickson Aero Air HQ in Oregon to make sure it was ok for me to distribute and the only thing was that I had to forward a copy of the video to the lead mechanic. I got some cool swag from Erickson Aero Air for being in the right place and time doing the video.”

This was not the first time that an engine on an Erickson Aero Air MD87 failed and falling debris caused problems after hitting the ground. On September 13, 2015 debris from an 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 since at least 2014 about retardant being ingested into the engines when the MD87 is making a drop. 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” the company wrote.

Then in June, 2017 they 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 and flaps.

MD-87 retardant wing engine failure
Tanker 101, an MD87, with evidence of retardant stains on top of the wing and the flaps, December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

7 thoughts on “Video surfaces of engine failure on air tanker during takeoff”

    1. Roy, based on your valuable input, we will make changes at Fire Aviation:

      1. The word “Opinion” will be removed from the header at the top of every page.
      2. Before publishing an article we will obtain your approval as well as the approval of your employer (whoever that may be). Be sure and type in, below, your email address and phone number.
      3. We will also have every article reviewed before publication by any company, organization, or government agency that is mentioned. All of these entities will have veto power, able to kill any article to keep it off the web site.
      4. On second thought, here is what we will do. In order to ensure that no feelings are hurt in the future, we will stop covering fire aviation, and will only show cat videos. Everybody loves cat videos, right?

  1. At the Air Tanker Base Manager Workshop in November 2018 we covered this incident. The speakers who were speaking on this from the Forest Service went in depth with all of us in attendance. This is a normal type of failure on this particular make and model of engine. I’ve also worked with both 101 and 103 many time and since the new tank install the retardant ingestion has pretty much gone away. The main problem now is dropping with the gear down. When the nose gear is down it creates enough disturbance in the air behind it during the drop to cause retardant mist to drift up and and over the wing. Even with the gear up there would still be plenty of retardant all over the flaps. The same thing happens to the DC-10.

    1. If ANY retardant is on the upper surface of the wing or flaps, it IS getting into the engine. The billowing brown smoke at the end is from fine fuels ignition. The MD is one hell of a machine but it is not, nor has been, much of a fire bomber. Too many issues.

  2. We are all happy the flight crew managed to bring the aircraft back safely, no doubt. Just a few questions after seeing that harrowing takeoff: What’s up with the way the aircraft is kicking up dirt voticies at the end of the runway and then wallowing as it struggles to climb away from the ground? Shouldn’t FAR 25 takeoff performance requirements preclude such narrow margins? Why didn’t the flight crew jettison the load during this emergency? I’ve been told the MD-87 lacks longitudinal stability during drops due to CG shift (pitches up), so perhaps the pilots didn’t want to induce an abrupt nose-high attitude at such a slow airspeed. That entire takeoff sequence looks a hornet’s nest that would’ve turned out much worse than it did had it been in the hands of less skilled pilots.

    1. FAR 25 requires a V2 [safe takeoff speed] 20% above stall speed and 10% above minimum control airspeed.

      Wingtip vortices form when the aircraft rotates to takeoff angle of attack. The vortices kick up dust/dirt and if the aircraft is still at low altitude when it crosses over into unimproved ground, there is considerable dust observed.

      Jettison at high angles of attack might result in considerable retardant ingestion by the good engine … probably not good. Or as you suggest, due to longitudinal stability issues, maybe another reason to not jettison in this flight condition.

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