Tanker 260 at Wiley Post Airport

Tanker 260, at Wiley Post Airport

These photos of Aero-Flite’s brand new CL-415, Tanker 260, were taken May 7 by Chet Dodrill of Chloeta Fire. The aircraft was at Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City along with a King Air 200 air attack platform.

The word of mouth in the area is that the local firefighters were very pleased with the work T-260 did on the recent fires near Guthrie and Woodward, Oklahoma. One of the lakes it was scooping from on the Guthrie fire was five to ten miles away from the fire, which allowed quick turnarounds.

The registration number on the plane is N389AC.

Tanker 260, at Wiley Post Airport

UPDATED May 9, 2014: The photo below was posted on the Oklahoma Forestry Services Facebook page today, with this caption: “The aircraft, a CL415 Airtanker, a Single Engine Airtanker (SEAT) & an air attack platform lined up for the Media Day today.”

Media day, photo by Oklahoma Forestry Services

The video below features the CL-415.

News9.com – Oklahoma City, OK – News, Weather, Video and Sports |

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Below is the text of a press release issued by Bombardier in November when the sale of the aircraft was announced. It was posted on the Tenax website:

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“Today, Bombardier celebrated the sale and delivery of its 50th iconic Bombardier 415 superscooper aircraft assembled at its North Bay, Ontario facility. The aircraft, purchased by a partnership led by Tenax Aerospace, LLC of Ridgeland, Mississippi, will be used under contract to the United States Forest Service starting next month. Based on the list price, the Bombardier contract is valued at approximately $34.5 million USD.

The Bombardier 415 superscooper aircraft is a world-renowned firefighter and adapts to the roughest terrain and the only aircraft specifically built as an aerial firefighting airplane. It is able to land on unpaved runways, lakes, rivers and seas, enabling both rapid initial attacks to extinguish fires and sustained attacks to contain fires.

“Today, we are celebrating two milestones: the 50th Bombardier 415 aircraft assembled in North Bay, Ontario as well as the first United States Bombardier 415 aircraft sale and delivery,” said Michel Bourgeois, President, Specialized and Amphibious Aircraft, Bombardier Aerospace. “I want to congratulate the employees for this achievement and to welcome the Tenax team to the amphibious aircraft family. This is yet another testament to the true value of the expertise of our employees and of our superscooper aircraft that remains the top aerial firefighting choice around the world,” he continued.

While the 50th Bombardier 415 aircraft to roll out of North Bay, Ontario is the first to be sold to a United States customer, a total of five State and privately owned CL-215 aircraft, the predecessor to the Bombardier 415 aircraft, are currently operated in the United States.

Since the first Bombardier 415 amphibious aircraft was delivered in 1994, a total of 85 Bombardier 415 and four Bombardier 415 MP aircraft have been delivered to governments and firefighting agencies around the world. In addition, 80 CL-215 and CL-215T amphibious piston aircraft remain in service worldwide.

About the Bombardier 415 aircraft

The Bombardier 415 firefighter aircraft has a normal cruise speed of 180 KT (333 km/h) under certain conditions. In an average mission of six nautical miles (11 kilometres) distance from water to fire, it can complete nine drops within an hour and precisely deliver 14,589 US gallons (55,233 litres) of fire suppressant.”

Neptune Aviation’s five BAe-146 air tankers

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Neptune’s five BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo.

Neptune Aviation assembled their five BAe-146 air tankers on the tarmac at Missoula for picture day. It is a pretty remarkable photo — five jet-powered air tankers that meet the basic U.S. Forest Service criteria to qualify as “next-generation” air tankers, which require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons.

Only one of these five air tankers has a confirmed contract with the federal government, the USFS. It is on a “legacy” contract. Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now for the USFS are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.

A very unlikely option would be for the USFS to allow competitive bidding on an additional contract. All of the existing valid legacy and next-gen contracts allow for up to four additional aircraft to be added as “additional equipment” to each line item. The vendors that won the awards for those contracts are all hoping to add more aircraft down the road, and would most likely be very distressed if another company came in that lost competitive bidding previously, and basically took away their opportunity to supply more air tankers.

But, it is painful to see four recently retrofitted, freshly painted, jet air tankers sitting on the tarmac — with a rather bleak future.

Erickson Aero Tanker to receive approval for their MD-87s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Erickson Aero Tanker expects to begin flying two of their MD-87 air tankers on contract next month. Kevin McCullough, President of the company, told Fire Aviation on Wednesday that they have received a supplemental type certificate for the aircraft from the FAA, they have passed the grid test of dropping retardant into hundreds of cups on the ground, and the Interagency AirTanker (IATB) board will soon issue an interim 18-month approval. The new policy of the IATB is to award 18-month interim approvals, basically two fire seasons, for new air tanker designs.

The mandatory availability periods for the two MD-87s that received next-generation air tanker contracts will begin June 5 and June 10. Mr. McCullough said the aircraft are in Arizona now and will fly up to their facility in Oregon next week. The following week they will go through the carding procedure.

The MD-87s have a retardant capacity of 4,000 gallons and will very rarely have to carry less than that due to density altitude, Mr. McCullough said.

The company bought seven MD-87s and so far three of them have been completely retrofitted as air tankers. Their next-gen contract allows for the U.S. Forest Service to add as “additional equipment” eight more MD-87s, for a total of ten. The decision to add more air tankers is totally up to the USFS, assuming of course that the vendor has the aircraft available. The USFS would, 1) determine that there is a need, and then, 2) come up with the money. Mr. McCullough told us they hope to have ten MD-87s in service somewhere down the road.

The air tanker numbers on the three completed MD-87s are 101, 103, and 105.

Erickson Aero Tanker was one of five companies that received contracts in May of 2013 for a total of seven next-gen air tankers:

Coulson and 10 Tanker had their aircraft flying soon after the awards became final last summer, following the resolution of the protest that was filed over the contract by Neptune Aviation. It is our understanding, after talking with USFS officials, that Aero Flite will very soon receive final IATB approval for their two RJ85s. That leaves Minden’s BAe-146, which has not yet attempted a formal grid test, but has passed a static test, releasing water from the tank while parked on the ground.

Here is the breakdown of Type 1 air tankers which are now, or may soon be active on USFS exclusive use contracts this year:

Air tankers available in 2014

Other air tankers

10 Tanker has a second DC-10 on a call when needed contract. It could either remain as call when needed, or the USFS could add it as additional equipment on the company’s next-gen contract.

As mentioned above, Erickson Aero Tanker has a third MD-87 that will ready to drop on fires in a couple of weeks, according to Mr. McCullough. It is not currently on contract but could be added as additional equipment. They have four more MD-87s that could be retrofitted.

Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. One of the five is on a “legacy” contract (as noted in the chart above), and the other four have no contract. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.

The Department of the Interior also has 33 single-engine air tankers (SEATs) on exclusive use contract that carry 800 gallons, and the USFS has a 1,600-gallon CL-415 water-scooping air tanker. The DOI usually has two CL-215s on contract that have a 1,400-gallon capacity.

Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260 used in Oklahoma

KOCO has an article and photos of Aero-Flite’s brand new CL-415 water scooping air tanker (Tanker 260) that relocated from Florida to Oklahoma City a few days ago to be used on the fires in the area. Michelle Self posted a video on her Facebook page of it scooping out of Lake Liberty (map) while it was working on the fire near Guthrie, OK. The lake was five to ten miles west of the fire which would have contributed to very fast turnaround times for the 1,600-gallon water drops.

Rotor Magazine writes about fighting fire with helicopters

Rotor Magazine’s current issue, Spring 2014, has a five-page article about the use of helicopters on wildfires. It is apparently written for the pilot with little knowledge about what helicopters do on a fire. You can view the issue online, and if you click the “+” at bottom-right, the text will continue to enlarge to the point where you can read it — then you will have to drag the text around as you scan the article.

They used one of my photos that I submitted for their photo contest. It did not win, but they liked it enough to use it in their magazine.

Rotor Magazine, Gabbert's photo
Rotor Magazine, Spring 2014, page 36.

I took the photo June 29, 2012 a few hours after the White Draw Fire started northeast of Edgemont, South Dakota.  It was taken around sunset, in low light with smoke partially blocking the sun. As I panned to follow the helicopter I used a slow shutter speed of 1/40 sec., ISO of 320, and aperture of f/4. The result was a blurred background, and the helicopter is not extremely sharp either — probably the reasons the image did not win a prize in the contest.

You can see a larger version of the photo at Wildfire Today. Two days after the photo was taken MAFFS 7 crashed on the fire, killing four crewmembers and injuring two.

I did not see any large air tankers on the fire on the first day, but there was one Single Engine Air Tanker, plus two Type 3 Helicopters (one from the San Bernardino National Forest in California) and a National Guard Blackhawk. Sometimes I wonder if a more aggressive initial attack with overwhelming force from both the air and the ground would have made a difference, perhaps saving four lives two days later.

Update on next-gen air tankers

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 160 at the retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Five companies received contracts on May 6, 2013 for seven “next-generation” air tankers. Of those seven, only two have met all of the specifications in the contracts and received the required certifications from the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) for a supplemental type certificate, a static drop test on the ground, and an airborne test of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups. The two that have passed and have flown on fires are 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s 11,600-gallon DC-10, and Coulson Group’s 3,500-gallon C-130Q.

Here is what we learned this week while talking with aviation professionals at Cheyenne.

Minden Air Corp, who received a contract for one BAe-146, has passed the static test. They have not attempted a formal monitored grid test. The retardant system they are building has some impressive capabilities, including a high flow rate and a great amount of flexibility in the flow rate. It has the ability to select two different flow rates on one drop, for example, going from coverage level 5 to coverage level 8. (The numbers refer to the number of gallons of retardant that lands on 100 square feet of flat terrain.) That feature could be used when there is a change in vegetation or topography, moving, for example from grass to timber, or flat terrain to a steep slope. In each case it would be helpful to increase the coverage level.

Erickson Aero Tanker, received contracts for two MD-87s. One of the aircraft participated in a grid test in January, and the Interagency Air Tanker Board is still reviewing the results. Even though they added a fairing to modify how the air flow affected the performance of the aircraft and the retardant flow near the fuselage, the aircraft experienced some problems in qualifying at the higher coverage levels. The engineers may need to enlarge the retardant door openings to increase the flow rates.

Aero-Flite has two RJ-85s, an aircraft similar to the BAe-146. It has passed the grid test and the company is working on obtaining dual “citizenship”, supplemental type certificates for the retardant system from Transport Canada and the United States FAA . It is likely that the aircraft will be certified very soon by the IATB for an 18-month interim approval, which will be the new standard operating procedure for air tankers that receive an initial blessing from the IATB. The interim approval provides an opportunity for field trials, to determine if anything surfaces that was not apparent during the static, STC, and grid tests.

Bonus coverage:

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” was not part of the next-gen contract, but the company did have a couple of call when needed contracts (CWN), with the last one being issued June 14, 2013. After receiving the contract Evergreen scheduled a needed C check which would have started August 2, and depending on what was found during the process would have been ready to fly in mid- to late September — about the time the western wildfire season begins to wind down. The cost of the C check is over a million dollars. But a few weeks after receiving the contract, Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Evergreen Supertanker Services, told Fire Aviation they reconsidered and decided to postpone the C check since there was “insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades.”

A matter of weeks after Mr. Soelberg gave us that update the company filed for bankruptcy. The change in ownership made the CWN contract void. As of now, the 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker is not covered by an air tanker contract.

Neptune has one BAe-146 working on the “legacy” air tanker contract, even though it now meets the criteria for a next-gen, including the required air speed and a 3,000-gallon retardant capacity. Before they modified the tanking system for the third time last fall, the tank held about 2,900 gallons and there was a problem in coverage level of the last 400 gallons exiting the tank, so the Forest Service restricted it to only carrying 2,500 gallons. The modifications increased the tank size to 3,000 gallons and made other changes in the system. At another grid test last fall it showed improved consistency for all 3,000 gallons, and in the flow rate at all coverage levels. As a result the Forest Service has now certified the tank system to carry 3,000 gallon of retardant. Their new design is innovative in that it uses GPS to measure the aircraft speed and then can automatically modulate the retardant flow rate to maintain the desired coverage level. They also have a sensor on the drop tubes which measures the actual flow rate. They system can then direct the valves or doors to change the size of the opening in order to maintain the coverage level as other factors change, such as the head pressure in the tank or if the aircraft encounters turbulence. Neptune expects to have a total of five BAe-146 air tankers available by later this summer.

Status of C-23B Sherpas transferred to USFS from the Army

C-23B
C-23B. Department of Defense photo.

There is not a great deal of new information to report about the 15 Sherpa C-23B aircraft that were transferred from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Forest Service. The expectation is that they will be used by smokejumpers and for transporting cargo, paracargo, and possibly firefighters. The aircraft are still at Fort Sill, Oklahoma after being transferred in February, but some of them will be moved to Tucson in the next month or two where they will be evaluated and tested by the Smokejumper Aircraft Screening and Evaluation Board (SASEB), an organization much like the Interagency AirTanker Board. The SASEB is the “focal point for all interagency smokejumper/paracargo aircraft and related aircraft accessories, initiatives, proposals and issues. SASEB will provide guidance for standardization, when evaluating new interagency smokejumper/paracargo aircraft and related aircraft accessories.”

Smokejumpers have used Army surplus C-23A Sherpas for years, but one of the main differences between the older C-23A and the newer C-23B is that while both have a rear cargo ramp, like a C-130, the ramp on the C-23A will not open in flight. The SASEB will evaluate and test the use of the rear ramp for paracargo and jumpers while in flght. Typically they will begin by tossing out small cargo items, moving up to human-sized dummies, and ultimately live human smokejumpers.

The Board will also evaluate the need for painting, avionics, and removal of any unneeded military equipment, but since they will not be used as air tankers, retardant tank systems will not have to be installed.

Update on Forest Service C-130 air tankers

USFS https://fireaviation.com/2014/03/20/tom-harbour-talks-about-air-tankers/
The paint design that has been approved by the Forest Service for the seven C-130s that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service.

It will probably be a year before any of the seven C-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard, to the Air Force, and finally to the Forest Service will be seen dropping retardant on a fire. Tom Harbour told us last month that he expects at least one to be flying by 2015.

The aircraft all need various levels of maintenance and it is thought that at least five will have to have the wing boxes replaced, a 10-month project that costs around $7 million each. Then the retardant systems will be installed. The Air Force, the agency overseeing the work on the aircraft, is expected to issue a solicitation for bids on the retardant system within the next two to three months. The Forest Service is working with the Air Force to write the specifications, which will reflect some of the language in the existing air tanker contracts, and information that the agencies have learned about retardant systems over the last 50 years.

The Forest Service is partnering with the Coast Guard for training and higher level, or Depot level, maintenance for the C-130s. The discussions within the Forest Service have been that the logistics, support, routine maintenance, and pilots for the C-130s would be provided by contractors, making it a government-owned/contractor-operated (GO/CO) program.

But no solicitations have been issued for these services. The Forest Service’s recent track record for awarding aerial firefighting contracts can lead one to an assumption that contracts for a GO/CO operation will not be awarded any time soon. Three USFS air tanker contracts have been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO — the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.

It could take longer to award the contracts than to refurbish and retrofit the C-130s. We would be very surprised if it happens by the end of this year.

After the contracts are signed, it could take quite some time for the contractors to ramp up to procure equipment, and to hire pilots, mechanics, and other employees to provide the services. If the pilots have no air tanker experience or qualifications, that will be another issue that has to be overcome. However, there is probably a large pool of ex-Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve C-130 pilots. Some of them may even have prior Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) experience. In fact, Coulson has hired several pilots with MAFFS experience to fly their recently converted C-130Q air tanker.

The good news is that it is much easier to find and hire a C-130 pilot with recent experience than it is to find a P2V pilot that has flown the aircraft recently.