Deployment of two air tankers to Australia delayed by fog and a volcano

A C-17 from Australia hauled extra tires, an engine, and an APU from Arizona to Australia

DC-10 air tanker
Air Tankers 910, 911, and 914 at Albuquerque, May 3, 2019.

UPDATED at 1:30 p.m. MST January 17, 2020

As this is written, Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-102, an MD-87 (N292EA), just landed at Adelaide, Australia where it will be based. Their other MD-87 that will be working on a contract in Australia, Tanker 103 (N293EA), has left North America and is on a leg from Ketchikan, Alaska en route to refuel at Adak, Alaska. It is taking a slightly different route than its sister, T-102. T-103 will be based in Western Australia at Perth.

Tanker 912, a DC-10 (N522AX), departed from San Bernardino, California Thursday morning U.S. time and arrived in Honolulu that afternoon. It will be initially based either at Canberra or Sydney.


Originally published at 8:12 a.m. MST January 16, 2020

The departure of additional air tankers from the United States to assist with bushfires in Australia has been delayed for reasons not usually associated with firefighting.

The MD-87 air tanker that was scheduled to depart on January 13 had to be rescheduled due to the eruption of a volcano in the Philippines when the ash plume made a leg of the flight in the Western Pacific inadvisable. Erickson Aero Tanker went back to the drawing board to plan a different route and obtain permits but the delay allowed the ash to clear so they were able to use the original route for the first tanker to leave for Australia.

According to FlightAware, Tanker 102 (N292EA) departed from Portland, Washington on Tuesday January 14. The planned route for the MD-87 takes it through Alaska, Russia, Japan, Guam, and Papua New Guinea. It is expected to arrive in Australia at Cairns Friday afternoon U.S. time. As this is written Thursday morning U.S. time, the aircraft is in Narita, Japan.

The nine flight legs on FlightAware range from 783 to 1,565 miles. It is likely that they are taking the route along the western Pacific because the distance from California to Hawaii is about 2,450 miles, beyond the range of the MD-87s operated by Erickson Aero Tanker.

In 2015 a single-engine air tanker, an Air Tractor 802, flew from California to Australia via Honolulu, the Marshall Islands, Guadalcanal, and perhaps other refueling locations.  It is likely that it had a ferry kit that enables 800 gallons of fuel to be carried in the hopper (retardant tank).

The two DC-10s, Tankers 912 and 914, were expected to arrive in Australia on January 15 and 25 respectively, but weather in the southern U.S. required a change in the schedule for the first one. Both of the aircraft were at Mobile, Alabama undergoing C-Checks, which can take days or weeks depending on the age of the aircraft and the number of unexpected issues discovered that require maintenance.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said the work on T-912 was nearly complete when it needed a test flight during VFR conditions, but it was delayed for two days due to fog.

Tanker 912 (N522AX) departed from San Bernardino, California Thursday morning U.S. time, en route to a fuel stop in Honolulu.

The planned arrivals of the other DC-10 (T-914, N603AX) and MD-87 (T-103, N293EA) are next week, Mr. Alder said.

These four air tankers will be based initially at Canberra (DC-10), Sydney/Richmond (DC-10), Adelaide (MD-87), and Perth (MD-87) but they will continually review locations according to the bushfire risk across the country, Mr. Alder said.

While large air tankers have dropped on bushfires in Western Australia before, this will be the first time that one will be based there — Perth in this case.

These additional large air tankers will bring the Aussie fleet up to 11. In addition to the 737 they purchased in 2010, the contracted ships they will have available the rest of this bushfire season are: two MD-87s, three DC-10s, two RJ85s, two C-130Qs, and one more 737.

In 2018 and 2019 the United States Forest Service had 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.

Mr. Alder explained that the four additional tankers have been contracted for a minimum Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) of 50 days with options to extend.  They will monitor the conditions continually and manage the numbers according to prevailing bushfire risk.

On Tuesday and Wednesday 10 Tanker Air Carrier posted photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with the text:

“Huge thanks to the Royal Australian Air force For sending out crew and a C17 and our own United States Air Force for coming out! This has become a joint operation.”

Mr. Alder explained why the RAAF C-17 was sent to the U.S. to pick up equipment for the three DC-10s that will be operating in Australia:

“It was opportunistic” he said. “The RAAF was in a position to be able to shift some spares to Australia.  This meant that the first DC-10 didn’t have to go back to Albuquerque after the maintenance in Alabama and could head straight for Australia.  We understand that the spares included wheels and tires, as well as a spare engine and APU.”

The RAAF C-17 arrived in Albuquerque Tuesday night U.S. time.

DC-10 equipment Australia bushfires Albuquerque
Tires and other equipment being staged at Albuquerque for loading onto a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 to support the three DC-10 air tankers working on bushfires in Australia. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.
DC-10 equipment Australia bushfires Albuquerque
Tires and other equipment being staged at Albuquerque for loading onto a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 to support the three DC-10 air tankers working on bushfires in Australia. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.
DC-10 equipment Australia bushfires Albuquerque
Tires and other equipment being staged at Albuquerque for loading onto a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 to support the three DC-10 air tankers working on bushfires in Australia. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.

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