Having a diverse air tanker fleet can reduce impact of grounding one model

P2V Redding
A P2V air tanker on final approach at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2012 the entire fleet of large air tankers in the United States was affected after a 24-inch crack was found by Neptune Aviation on a wing spar and skin on one of their 50+ year old P2Vs. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive requiring that all P2V airplanes be inspected within 24 hours of receiving the directive.

That applied to all of the large air tankers that were under a standard U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contract at the time, nine operated by Neptune and two by Minden.

The two companies did not find any similar cracks on the other aircraft during the inspections.

When your fleet is heavily weighted toward one model that can be affected by temporary or long term grounding, such as the current C-130 issue that has 123 Air Force aircraft grounded, or the 737-MAX problem, it can have a devastating effect on operations.

Currently there are only two C-130 air tankers under firefighting contracts in North America, T-131 and T-134. By Monday night both will have been inspected, looking for “atypical” cracking that was found in the lower center wing joint in some Air Force C-130s. T-131 was cleared over the weekend.

Today, instead of having the entire U.S. Forest Service fleet of air tankers comprised of just one model, there are six: RJ85, DC-10, MD-97, C-130Q, BAe-146, and B-737. The BAe-146 and RJ85 are essentially the same, but that still leaves a more diverse portfolio of aircraft than existed in 2012, a little insulated from shutting down one model.

There are 13 air tankers under exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and 8 have call when needed contracts, for a total of 21. Of that total, 8 are BAe-146s and 4 are RJ85s, or 57 percent of the fleet — if those were shut down, it would be devastating, leaving only 9 total, with only 5 on exclusive use.. The Forest Service can also request activation of up to 8 military C-130 aircraft outfitted temporarily with Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) — unless they are unavailable due to the “atypical” cracking in the lower center wing joint.

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McCLure.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.

Today when we asked Kaari Carpenter, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service, when the agency was going to offer air tanker contracts based on the call when needed solicitation issued May 30, 2018, she said, “We expect an award on this contract very soon.”

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