Forest Service has 30 large and very large air tankers currently working

The last two added were a DC-10 and a B-747

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 910, a DC-10, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

In the last week the U.S. Forest Service has added two air tankers to the roster of Call When Needed (CWN) activations, to bring the total up to 15. With the 13 air tankers on Exclusive Use (EU) arrangements, there are now 28 working on USFS contracts. Five of them are Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) — four DC-10s and one 747. With the two military C-130 MAFFS aircraft that have been mobilized, the grand total is 30.

The last two brought are VLATs — T-911 (a DC-10) and T-944 (a Boeing 747). They had both worked CWN with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for a short time until August 5 when they moved over to the USFS on a CWN contract.

Here is the list of CWN air tankers currently working for the USFS:

  1. DC-10, T-914
  2. MD-87, T-104
  3. MD-87, T-102
  4. MD-87, 103
  5. MD-87, 107
  6. B737, T-137
  7. BAe-146, T-12
  8. BAe-146, T-41
  9. BAe-146, T-02
  10. BAe-146, T-03
  11. BAe-146, T-01
  12. RJ85, T-164
  13. RJ85, T-163
  14. DC-10, T-911
  15. B747, T-944

On July 28 we posted the list of 13 air tankers on EU contracts.

Having access to 30 large air tankers (LAT) and VLATs enables more routine use of the concept of quickly attacking new fires with overwhelming force from both the ground and the air. This is an approach that can be useful anytime, except during strong winds, to reduce the number of new fires that grow to become large. But, firefighters on the ground have to be available to move in quickly to take advantage of the temporary slowing of the fire’s spread. With the federal agencies having firefighter recruitment and retention issues, this second part of the equation is not always a given.

This concept is especially valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic when fire personnel are adapting to the situation with new procedures that can reduce their threat of infection, but may also reduce to a certain extent their total daily production on the fireline. Fewer large fires can also mean less toxic smoke that can exacerbate respiratory issues suffered by COVID patients.

28 large air tankers are mobilized

The last time this many large air tankers were mobilized on long-term or medium length contracts was in 2003

large air tankers roster airtankers
Roster of large airtankers that have been mobilized, July 22, 2020. USFS.

The U.S. Forest Service has a total of 28 large air tankers actively working on their roster. The fire year started with 13 on 160-day Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. In May and June another 11 were added with 90-day contracts, then a few days ago two more came on with a “to be determined” end date. With the two National Guard C-130 MAFFS aircraft that were added today, the grand total is 28.

This is a breathtaking change from how the USFS has been managing the large air tanker program during the last 17 years. The last time there were this many available on medium to long term contracts to assist firefighters in the initial attack of new wildfires was in the early 2000s. In 2004 there were 27 on EU contracts. In 2003 there were 34, and 44 in 2002. It is common for the USFS to bring on additional Call When Needed aircraft for an unscheduled period lasting from days to weeks but most of these aircraft this year are working for a guaranteed 90 or 160 days.

Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised 2-24-2020. Fire Aviation.

Here is the breakdown with the number of aircraft by air tanker companies, as of July 22, 2020:

  • Nine; Neptune Aviation, BAe-146.
  • Six; Aero Flite, RJ85.
  • Six; Erickson Aero Air, MD-87.
  • Three; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, DC-10.
  • Two; Coulson Aviation, one C-130Q and one B-737.
  • Two; California National Guard, C-130 MAFFS. (not on USFS contract)

Most of the aircraft are certified to carry up to 3,000 gallons. The exceptions: Coulson’s two aircraft can carry 4,000, and the DC-10s are approved for 9,400.

When writing about the number of air tankers available, we often include the disclaimer that aircraft do not put out fires. But under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire long enough to allow firefighters on the ground enough time to move in and contain the spread of that section of the fire perimeter. If firefighters are not available to take advantage of the temporary slowing, fires can sometimes burn through or around the retardant or water that was dropped. During strong winds all bets are off. Nothing can stop a fire when the wind is howling and there is plenty of dry fuel available.

I have written before:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible can reduce the number of megafires.

If fires are suppressed while small, it can prevent the very large fires that can go on for weeks or months, requiring many more firefighters and aircraft to put themselves at risk for a much longer period of time than quickly hitting a fire hard during the first burning period.

Kudos to the U.S. Forest Service and the other agencies that employ firefighters for their emphasis this year on aggressively attacking new fires. The expressed reason is the conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Firefighters, to a certain extent, are slowed by some of the new safety precautions necessary to deal with the virus. In addition, reducing the amount of wood smoke in the air can cut down on the adverse impacts to patients with breathing difficulties. Preliminary evidence suggests exposure to wildfire smoke may increase susceptibility to COVID-19.

We can hope that after the United States finally gets a handle on COVID, the agencies will have developed some muscle memory about how to reduce the number of new fires that turn into megafires.

Attack aggressively with overwhelming force.

Eleven additional “CWN” air tankers are now working

Plus 13 on exclusive use contracts, to bring the total up to 24

Air Tanker 914 DC-10 drops retardant Central Fire Arizona Phoenix
Air Tanker 914, a DC-10, drops retardant on the Central Fire, June 20, 2020. Photo by JDH Images.

The U.S. Forest Service has activated a total of 11 additional large fixed wing air tankers since May 30, 2020. Formerly on call when needed contracts, they are currently operating on 90-day “CWN Activation” exclusive use (EU) contracts that are scheduled to expire between September 10 and October 5, 2020.

The 90-day contracts were awarded to:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, for one DC-10 aircraft, T-914;
  • Erickson Aero Air, for four MD-87 aircraft, Tankers 104, 102, 103, & 107;
  • Neptune Aviation, for five BAe-146 aircraft, Tankers 12, 41, 02, 03, & 01;
  • Coulson Aviation, for one B-737 aircraft, T-137.

It is unknown if additional tankers will be brought on using this 90-day EU system.

The Forest Service will not release any information about this unusual procurement procedure. Part of the reason for beefing up the air tanker fleet could be related to the protests filed by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Neptune Aviation over awards for the Next-Generation EU 3.0 solicitation. The FS attempted to give five line item awards. Erickson Aero Air and Aero Flite were each selected for two and Coulson Aviation would have received one. This would have added five tankers to the 13 that are currently on Next Gen 1.0 and 2.0 EU contracts, to bring the total up to 18.

The protests were marked by the Government Accountability Office as “dismissed” on June 19. The Forest Service is expected to come to a new understanding with the affected air tanker companies, but to our knowledge that step has not been completed. Next-Gen 3.0 has still not been finally awarded or activated.

Since the protest prevented any activations on that new 3.0 contract, the FS apparently wanted to find a different way to at least temporarily bring on additional large air tankers. So now they have a total of 24 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts at least through mid-September. If needed, the agency could probably find a way to extend the contracts.

Another factor that may have spurred the FS into increasing the fleet was one of the mitigation concepts for dealing with COVID-19. Most wildfire agencies have committed to aggressive initial attack on new fires, with the goal of keeping fires small, since the effectiveness of wildland fire crews may be adversely affected by COVID-19 effects and protocols.

The FS is doing the best they can to minimize exposure to the virus by reducing the need for air crews to stay overnight in multiple locations. More so than in the past, when a tanker takes off they will attempt to be back at the same base by the end of the day. The aircraft can still reload at remote locations but they will try to be “home” by nightfall. In the last 10 to 15 years, there have been so few tankers on contract, down to nine at one point, that they had to constantly move around and rarely had a home base.

This new policy could have some unintended but positive consequences. Less moving around from day to day and dragging bags in and out of hotels on a daily basis might reduce the physical and mental stress of the flight crews. It also makes personnel changes and maintenance easier. The families of the crews might even get to spend more time together in the evenings since their locations could be more predictable.

If this “home base” concept is continued even after COVID-19, it could make it easier to recruit and hire air tanker pilots and ground crews. But, and this is a big BUT, it can only work if there is an adequate number of air tankers on contract, both single engine and large. With 40 large air tankers, there could be enough stationed at semi-permanent bases that initial attack with multiple Forest Service air tankers within the first 20 to 60 minutes could be a reality throughout the west — keeping fires as small as possible. Some will get away of course, but many could be stopped early by employing an aggressive attack with overwhelming force.

The Angeles National Forest developed a graphic showing their standard aggressive initial attack response.

Angeles National Forest, first alarm response wildfire
Angeles National Forest, first alarm response. USFS.

Colorado signs a P-3 Orion air tanker on an exclusive use contract

air tanker 23 p-3
Air Tanker 23, a P-3, drops retardant on the Swedes Fire southeast of Oroville, California. Photo by John Kerpa and Gary Thomas, 2019.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) has made it official — they have signed Air Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion operated by Airstrike, to a 75-day exclusive use (EU) contract. The choice of the aircraft came as no surprise since it was already under a call when needed arrangement with the state.

The agency announced in early June that they were going to contract for an EU air tanker, but were cagey about which one. This is the first time the state has hired an EU large air tanker.

Colorado has not specified where it will spend the majority of its time, but it may move around as needed. There are five air tanker bases in Colorado that can support large air tankers: Durango, Grand Junction, Jeffco, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs which was just converted to a permanent base. The grand opening for the facility was June 15, 2020. Colorado Springs is the only permanent base in Colorado that can officially support very large air tankers. DC-10s worked out of Pueblo for at least 2013 through 2016, perhaps longer, but the 2019 Air Tanker Base Directory does not list Pueblo as a VLAT base.

Below is an excerpt from a press release issued by the DFPC:


“We have activated the P-3 airtanker for 75 days of dedicated availability. This will provide another highly capable initial attack resource to be utilized in the State and the region,” said Vince Welbaum, Aviation Unit Chief for the State of Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “The P-3 is a proven aerial asset that can operate efficiently in our high-altitude and high-temperature conditions, and is also an excellent value for the Colorado taxpayer.”

“The design of the aircraft including four engine turbo-prop, ability to safely fly low and slow, carry full loads of retardant and ample fuel are distinct features that the State of Colorado requires to be effective for wildland firefighting,” said Welbaum. “We are excited to include the Airstrike P-3 in our arsenal of resources when large dangerous wildfires threaten life and property in the State.” One additional airtanker is also being made available to the State on a call-when-needed (CWN) basis to ensure the State has adequate access to emergency resources when they are needed most.

Scott Schorzman, Vice President of Airstrike Firefighters is quoted as saying “We are excited to bring the P-3 airtanker to the State of Colorado and do what we do best, fight fire from the air. The P-3 is the perfect aerial firefighting platform for the State of Colorado, and we intend to demonstrate its efficiency and cost effectiveness. This is another step forward in strengthening our long-term partnership with the State and to participate in its growing fleet of aerial wildfire assets.”

Airstrike is an Anchorage, AK-headquartered company with operations in Sacramento, CA.  Airstrike has 30 employees that are refurbishing a fleet of seven P-3 firefighting airtankers for use on State and Federal contracts.

Colorado to hire an exclusive use large air tanker for the first time

This would be an upgrade over the existing CWN contract. One aircraft that might be considered is a P3 Orion.

air tanker 23 P3 orion dropping
File photo of one aircraft that might be considered for an EU contract for the state of Colorado, a P3 Orion, which made a demonstration drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport June 28, 2019. It has been under a CWN contract with Colorado. Screengrab from Nine News video.

The state of Colorado intends to contract for an exclusive use (EU) large air tanker. In 2018 they signed a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for a P3 operated by Air Strike Firefighters, but the deal they are negotiating now would be the first time the Division of Fire Prevention and Control has hired an EU large air tanker.

“We are currently working with a vendor to contract one of their large air tankers,” Phillip Daniels said on June 11. He is the agency’s Deputy Chief of the Wildland Fire Management Section.  “It is our desire for the contract to begin soon for 75 days exclusive use, however, we are still in the contracting and inspecting phase of the procurement process. This would be the first occurrence of Colorado contracting [an EU] large air tanker and are ensuring that we are doing it right!  Previously we have only contracted Single Engine Air Tankers and Helicopters.”

This year, as usual, Colorado has EU contracts for two Single Engine Air Tankers and two Type 2 helicopters. The state also owns two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-Mission” (MMA) fixed wing aircraft used for detection, mapping, and coordination.

Mr. Daniels said his understanding is one of the pilots is initial attack qualified, which means a lead plane will not be required unless there are multiple air tankers working the fire. He said if a lead plane is needed, they will order one through the interagency process.

“And while we occasionally have an ATGS [Air Tactical Group Supervisor] on board the MMA, it’s primary mission is recon,” he explained. “We try not to assign it to missions where it can’t easily be reassigned for detection.”

PC-12 Colorado aircraft MMA
File photo of one of Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” at Sacramento McClellan Airport March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

This is why the United States only has 13 large air tankers

The Forest Service Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry misled Senators during a hearing today

John Phipps, Forest Service
John Phipps, Forest Service, Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry

I was out of town when today’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources started this morning about the current wildland fire season. After I was able to access a computer to see the live broadcast at 02:05:00 into the testimony, the Forest Service’s strategy for keeping the air tanker fleet at a minuscule level was on display — again. (Link to the archived video of the hearing)  I have not watched the entire hearing, but here is what struck me about the exchange at 02:05:00.

How would the average person or average Senator interpret what John Phipps, Forest Service Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, said in response to a question from the Senator from Nevada?

Senator Catherine Masto: (partly unintelligible) …What do you anticipate as the need from the federal partners to increase air tanker support? I know how crucial that is.

John Phipps: We have up to 35 large air tankers. I think it’s important to understand that we have access to in the interagency environment for example the Department of the Interior has 100 Single Engine Aircraft, air tankers, under contract and depending on the situation and the need we have access to that and we are well under way for our planning and preparedness for the upcoming western fire season.

Senator Catherine Masto: Is there anything we can do at the federal level to assist you in that?

John Phipps: Not at this time.

Senator Catherine Masto: That’s good to hear. Thank you.

In other words, there is nothing to see here. Move along.

The average person or average Senator might think, “Holy crap, there are 135 air tankers ready to fight fires today? How could anyone ask for more? This is great!”

And that is why the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts has been stuck at 9 to 21 for the last 15 years. The Forest Service says they have three times the air tankers they actually have, they do not need more, Congress accepts their testimony without question, then moves on to another topic.

The truth is far different. And Mr. Phipps knew it. At best he was intentionally misleading the United States Senators. Some may call it lying. Saying “up to 35” could mean anywhere from zero to 35, and is meaningless. The Senators should have called him on this.

Today there are 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. If protests that have been filed do not change anything, after the GAO makes their ruling due by July 15, 2020 there could be 5 more, to bring the total to 18.

A study completed for the Forest Service in 1996 (on page 61) recommended there be 41 large turbine-powered air tankers with a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons, essentially standards that are now the “next-generation” air tankers used today:

"Twenty P-3A, aircraft, ten C-130B aircraft, and 11 C-130E aircraft. This would provide for a [turbine-powered] fleet that is essentially 75% 3,000 gallon capacity and 25% 5,000 gallon capacity."

Single engine air tankers have their place in the firefighter’s tool box, but 700 to 800 gallons per load is far different from the 3,000 to 19,000 gallons carried by large and very large air tankers.

There are additional large air tankers on Call When Needed contracts signed in December with six companies for a total of 35 aircraft. The number “35” is misleading because most if not all of the 13 to 18 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts also have CWN contracts, meaning they would be removed from the CWN list. So there might only be 17 to 22 on CWN.  And that assumes all could pass the inspections required by this month. In December some of them did not exist as a complete air tanker.

CWN aircraft may or may not be immediately ready during the fire season, with mechanics and crew members available to suddenly drop what they were doing and start flying fires. In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts. But CWN costs are charged to the virtually unlimited fire suppression accounts, so the Forest Service does not care about using taxpayer’s dollars in that manner. And they are not held accountable.

No-shows at the hearing were Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen and Director of Fire and Aviation Shawna Legarza.

I did not see in the hearing any mention of the delays in releasing the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Study that has been going on for eight years, but maybe I missed it. (Update: the topic was not discussed.) Chief Christiansen has been testifying for the last two years before this committee saying it would be released “soon”. When pressed in February by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who last year made his opinion about the delay very clear, she said it would be released “this Spring”. Senator Gardner said, “Before June?” She said, “Yes”. I did not see the Senator in today’s hearing. (Update: Senator Gardner was not at the hearing.)

The announced topic of the hearing was “Wildfire management in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Wildfire Today has coverage of that portion, in which Senators expressed strong opinions about testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) being available for all firefighters.

Forest Service needs to be more transparent while spending hundreds of millions contracting for firefighting aircraft

Fifteen large federal air tankers is not enough for the United States

CAL Fire air tanker 118 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. The Forest Service was given seven of these HC-130Hs formerly owned by the Coast Guard in order to convert them to air tankers, but lost interest and regifted them to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Photo by John Vogel March 4, 2020. CAL FIRE will be getting them in the air over the next couple of years.

–Opinion–

Now that the U.S. Forest Service has activated two Call When Needed air tankers, there will be 15 large and very large federal air tankers on duty.

For the United States.

In 2002 there were 44 on exclusive use contracts. After two air tankers crashed that year killing the five that were on board, the Forest Service weeded out the World War II aircraft and beefed up the safety standards. During the next three years the numbers dropped from 44 to 18, and kept falling until the fleet barely existed in 2013, leaving only 9.  The air tanker fleet has not been rebuilt — 18 years should have been sufficient time.

Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised 2-24-2020. Fire Aviation.

It is possible that the Forest Service will bring on more CWN tankers in the next month, but this year the agency will not disclose any information publicly about their aerial firefighting contracts that consume hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Fire Director Shawna Legarza (during her last month in the job) and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen need to shift out of their secret mode and be far more transparent. If they were proud of what they were doing it would be logical to make their decisions public. I would recommend an investigation by the Department’s Inspector General, but recently five IGs in the federal government have been fired and replaced with political lap dogs.

There needs to be accountability for how these huge decisions are made and how taxpayers’ dollars are being used. Are they being spent wisely? When will they release the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Study that has been going on for eight years? Launched in 2012 at a cost of about $1.3 million annually, the study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft used on wildfires. In FY 2017 for example, the most recent year with exact numbers available, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If ever completed the AFUE study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient, and effective tools for the job.

In hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in both 2018 and 2019 the Forest Service told the Senators the results of the study would be released “soon”. In another hearing in February of this year after Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, asked when it would be made public, Chief Christiansen at first said “soon”, and when pressed by the Senator said it would be released before June, 2020.

This week I asked Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea when it would be released, and he said “soon”.  When I asked him again for a date, he said, “We expect to have it available soon, Bill.” They have learned they can get away with stonewalling Congress and taxpayers –and don’t care.

One knowledgeable person I talked with in D.C. thinks AFUE may never be released, which would not be without precedent. When the Forest Service did not like the recommendations in an air tanker study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2012, they refused to release it, even after Wildfire Today filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Eventually the Rand Corporation made it public. If it is not released, Chief Christiansen and Director Legarza would be following the example set by former Fire and Aviation Director Tom Harbour about refusing to make taxpayer-funded air tanker studies public.

The leaders in the Forest Service, Senators, Representatives, and the personnel in the White House need to accept responsibility for the sorry state of our fixed wing air tanker fleet. They are the ones that introduce and pass legislation, or allow it to be introduced, that determines the amount of funding allocated for fire aviation. When they write letters, little is accomplished. Actions speak louder than a written word.

You can't fight wildfires on the cheap.

During the COVID-19 pandemic while our firefighters have one hand tied behind their backs, it is important to spend our money wisely and support our firefighters on the ground with rapid attacks on emerging wildfires using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground. (see Dr. Gabbert’s Prescription , June 26, 2012)

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote March 19, 2020 in an article titled, “Fighting wildfires during a pandemic.”


In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on federal exclusive use (EU) contracts. Last year and at the beginning of this year there are only 13. That is a ridiculous number even in a slow fire season like last year when 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled. The number of acres burned in the lower 48 states in 2019 was the least since 2004.

There are so few large airtankers on EU contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole.

The U.S. Forest Service says they can have “up to” 18 large air tankers on EU contract, but that will only be possible if and when they finally make awards based on the Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018. There are an additional 17 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU.

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer large fires.

40 Large Air Tankers

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

50 Type 1 Helicopters

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 additional CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. Under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air.  It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and the ground support each other.

Two CWN large airtankers to be activated

An MD-87 and a 737

Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Jeffco
Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Jeffco, May, 2020; a sister ship to the one activated on CWN. Photo by @skippyscage

The Forest Service has activated two Call When Needed large air tankers for a 90-day Mandatory Availability Period. This is a guaranteed 90-day contract, not the typical CWN arrangement when they can work a few days and then be sent home.

Tanker 104 (an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87) is scheduled to start today, May 30, and Tanker 137 (a Coulson B-737) will start June 1. Their administrative bases will be Porterville and McCall, respectively.

After these are on board, there will be 15 large and very large federal air tankers on duty. For the United States. In 2002 there were 44 on exclusive use contracts.