Federal government has 201 fire aircraft on exclusive use contract this year

Federal fire aircraft on contract, 2021
Federal fire aircraft on contract, 2021. Where there is no CWN entry, there ARE some on contract, but the number that could be activated is not clear.

The five federal land management agencies have 201 aircraft on exclusive use contract this year for assisting wildland firefighters, according to the information we received from spokespersons for the agencies.

In 2016 the FS hired 34 Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts but starting in 2017 reduced the number to 28. The fleet remained at that level until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 when they added an additional 22 ships for a total of 50. The agency felt the “surge” helicopters were necessary to mitigate a possible decrease in the effectiveness or numbers of their ground forces — engines and hand crews. In addition, the federal land management agencies said last year they were going to limit the number of less-than-full-suppression fires and attack new ignitions aggressively.

This year there will be 20 Type 1 helicopters on surge contracts, for a total of 48. These are the largest-capacity helicopters used for firefighting, capable of carrying 700 to 3,000 gallons of water.

Over the last 10 years the average number of large multi-engine air tankers (LAT) on exclusive use (EU) US Forest Service contracts was 14.0 for the United States. The average number on EU contracts from 2000 through 2009 was 28.3. This year there are 18, which is 5 more than last year.

Tanker 131 drops on the Cloud Fire
Tanker 131 drops on the Cloud Fire in Southern California June 12, 2021. USFS photo.

Due to the pandemic last year the FS gave about seven companies hybrid surge Call When Needed (CWN) LAT contracts that were basically EU, but for 90 days, rather than the typical 160-day EU Mandatory Availability Period. The rates they negotiated were generally less than the typically high CWN rates. For a while they also activated four additional LATs on a true CWN basis, with no guarantee of days worked.

This year there are 18 LATs on EU contracts and 8 more could come on later on surge contracts, with an additional 8 possible, the FS says, on CWN contracts.

Size of USFS Large Air Tanker Fleet
Number of USFS Large Air Tankers on Exclusive Use contracts.

As of June 9 there were 17 LATs actively working on EU contracts, one scheduled to begin its EU contract on June 20, and one CWN that was activated June 9.

All of the LATs and Very Large Air Tankers on EU contracts can hold up to 3,000 gallons of retardant, except for Coulson’s C-130 (4,000) and the 10 Tanker DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (9,400).

In addition to the LATs and Type 1 helicopters, this year the additional aircraft on EU contracts among all the Federal wildland firefighting agencies include:

  • 43 Type 2 helicopters (smaller than Type 1 helicopters)
  • 41 Single Engine Air Tankers
  • 0 Multi-engine scooping air tankers
  • 26 Air Tactical fixed wing
  • 27 Aerial Supervision fixed wing
  • 14 Smokejumper fixed wing
  • 2 Infrared mapping fixed wing
  • 1 Large passenger aircraft (typically a 737)

The Federal government also has the ability to activate up to eight military C-130 aircraft equipped with 3,000-gallon Modular FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) if additional LATs are needed. The Governors of the four states in which they are based may also activate the two within their state.

Medford tanker base receives new retardant tank

New transportable retardant tank at  Medford, OR
New transportable retardant base mixing tank at Medford, OR air tanker base. Photo by FORTRESS.

In February the U.S. Forest Service awarded a contract to design and build a 16,000-gallon, mobile, retardant mixing tank for the air tanker base at Medford, Oregon. The agency wanted the ability to relocate the tank during the off-season and needed one large enough to refill very large air tankers (VLAT).

The tank contract specified use of carbon steel, top and side access, an integrated axle, and a top walkway with folding railings. 

FORTRESS North America, the company that received the contract, delivered the tank/trailer in Medford on May 24 where it was inspected and accepted.

New transportable retardant tank at  Medford, OR
Justin Bohannan, Medford Airtanker Base Manager (left) receiving the VLAT Mobile Retardant Base mixing tank from Fortress Base Operations Manager Dennis Hulbert. Photo by FORTRESS.

Remembering the two June 3, 2012 air tanker crashes

Tankers 11 and 55. Two fatalities.

T-55 after landing with malfunctioning landing gear
T-55 after landing with malfunctioning landing gear, June 3, 2012. Still image from video.

I can still hear it. I picked up the phone nine years ago and a voice said:

“Have you heard”?

It was Walt Darran June 3, 2012. Knowing that he had been a long-time air tanker pilot and advocate for aerial firefighting safety, my mind raced through any recent news I might have heard about firefighting aircraft.

I said, “What’s going on?”

“Two crashes.”

Walt went on to tell me that two P2V air tankers had crashed that day.

Tanker 11 operated by Neptune Aviation, was working on the White Rock fire which started in Nevada northeast of Caliente, but the fire burned across the state line into Iron County in Utah, which is where the aircraft went down. We learned later that the two pilots on board were killed, Capt. Todd Neal Topkins and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both from Boise.

May they rest in peace.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s probable cause report on Tanker 11 concluded that while preparing to drop retardant the flight crewmembers “did not properly compensate for the wind conditions while maneuvering”. The aircraft impacted the ground before it reached the location for the intended drop.

The second crash that day involved Minden’s Tanker 55 which had a problem with the landing gear. Only one main landing gear and the nose gear were able to be lowered and locked, leaving one main landing gear up or not locked. The pilots made a great landing at Minden, Nevada, considering the condition of the aircraft, on just two of the three landing gears as an Air-Crane orbited nearby ready to drop water if it caught fire. There were no reports of injuries to the flight crew. As far as I know Tanker 55 never flew again.

Two years later on June 15, 2014 Minden’s last remaining flyable air tanker, T-48, was involved in an incident at Fresno, California. While working on the Shirley Fire near Lake Isabella, the 53-year old P2V experienced a problem with the hydraulic system and diverted to the long runway at Fresno. According to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, the nose wheel collapsed upon landing. There were no injuries to the crew.

By the end of the day there were only nine large air tankers left on US Forest Service exclusive use contracts. They were all grounded temporarily in consideration of the crews flying and maintaining the remaining aircraft.

A few days later the Associated Press quoted Tom Harbour, the USFS National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, about the deteriorating fleet of air tankers:

They are aging, and we know we need to replace them,” said Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire and aviation operations director. “That’s why the chief (of the Forest Service) sent Congress an air tanker strategy a couple months ago that said we needed to modernize the fleet.”

Harbour said the agency has concluded that the nation needs up to 28 of the next generation of air tankers, those that can fly faster and carry more retardant.

This year there are 18 large air tankers on exclusive use USFS contracts, as each decade, the fires become larger.Average-size-of-US-wildfires-by-decade-A few weeks before the two June 3, 2012 crashes, Tanker 11 was featured on the cover of Wildfire magazine. Here is what we wrote June 6, 2012:

Wildfire cover, May-June, 2012The May/June issue of Wildfire magazine that arrived in mailboxes several weeks ago featured a cover photo of Tanker 11 dropping on a fire in Texas last year. This is the same air tanker that crashed on Sunday, killing the two-person crew.

I don’t believe in curses, fate, or jinxes, but this reminds me of the Sports Illustrated “cover jinx”, in which a person who appears on the cover of the magazine is supposed to be jinxed or will experience bad luck.

That issue of the magazine features an excellent article by Walt Darran, in which Mr. Darran, who has a great deal of experience in the aviation and air tanker industry, writes about the future of the air tanker program. You should read the article which is online at the IAWF website, but here are some of the points he makes.

  • In spite of what you may hear from the U.S. Forest Service and the still unreleased RAND Corporation report, we need a mix of various types of air tankers in our tool box, not just C-130Js.
  • Having enough air tankers for fast, effective initial attack while fires are small is important. Taking into account the increased fire activity, Mr. Darran says we should have “40 to 50 or more Type 1, 2, and 3 air tankers”.
  • The state of California’s air tanker program could be a model, with Government-Owned, Contractor-Operated air tankers working side by side with a fleet of helicopters that are Government-Owned, Government-Operated.
  • Since it is unrealistic to expect operators of expensive aircraft to maintain the availability of air tankers and crews on a Call When Needed contract, a retainer should be supplied to cover costs of maintaining the aircraft airworthiness and crew currency so it is available when we need it. “Imagine SEAL Team 6 on a CWN contract” Mr. Darran wrote.

(end of the 2012 article)

When you have time, read through the series of articles on Wildfire Today tagged Tanker 11. When we created in November, 2012, we picked it there under the tag T-11.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Darren.

Conair tests converted air tanker, still wearing Flybe livery

It will later be painted in Conair colors, and is one of eleven Q400’s being converted into air tankers

Conair-Flybe air tanker
One of the Q400’s recently purchased by Conair was photographed being tested with its new retardant delivery system, while still wearing Flybe livery. C-FFQG is the new registration. Photo by Kyle Clarkson.

Conair is moving swiftly in their efforts to convert the 11 Q400 aircraft recently purchased from Flybe Airlines. One of the ships was recently photographed by Kyle Clarkson as it made a test water drop with the retardant delivery system added to the belly of the aircraft. Notably, it was still sporting Flybe livery, resulting in a very unusual sight.

The first Flybe Q400 was delivered at Conair facilities in Abbotsford, British Columbia, February 21, 2021. After being converted to air tankers, called A400ATs (Air Tanker), they will eventually replace the L-188’s and CV-580’s currently operated by Conair.

The repurposed aircraft are being converted at Conair’s facilities in Abbotsford and will be capable of holding up to 2,640 gallons of retardant.

In 2017 the Conair Group secured a deal to sell six Q400MR (Multi-Role) air tankers to France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defense and Emergency Preparedness). These were new aircraft that Conair purchased from Bombardier which can be reconfigured in a few hours to carry passengers, hence the Multi-Role designation. The new aircraft are replacing France’s old S-2 air tankers.

Before purchasing the 11 Q400’s from Flybe, Conair had two A400ATs operational within their fleet that will be used this year for the first time in the North American fire season. They had one under contract in Australia during the 2020-2021 bushfire season.

Dustin Littler, Aircraft Conversion Manager at Conair, said, “It takes a solid eight weeks to install the tank, fairings, and perform avionics modifications, plus another two weeks to reassemble the cockpit, and perform operational tests, ground runs, and test flights.”

It is impressive how quickly companies like Conair and Coulson can convert a C-130 or Q400 into an air tanker. Meanwhile, the Air Force has been dragging their feet for almost eight years after being ordered by Congress to convert seven HC-130H aircraft into air tankers. The last we heard, none of the seven, which will be operated by CAL FIRE, are complete. The aircraft were originally going to the U.S. Forest Service, but the agency lost interest.

first Flybe Q400 arrives at Conair
The first Flybe Q400 arrives at Conair facilities in Abbotsford, British Columbia, February 21, 2021. It will replace one of the L-188 or CV-580 air tankers in the background. Conair photo.
converting Q400 into air tanker firefighting
Converting a Flybe airliner into an air tanker. Conair photo by Vaughn Leflar and Jeff Bough.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick.

US Forest Service awards CWN water scooper contracts

Tanker 281 Cedar Fire Nevada
Air Tanker 281, a CL-415EAF, completed over 60 water drops in support of firefighters at the Cedar Fire south of Elko Nevada on its first ever mission. Photo July 21, 2020 by K Mita, Bridger Aerospace.

Today the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for Call When Needed water-scooping air tankers. They went to three companies, Aero Flite Inc., Air Spray USA Inc., and Bridger Air Tanker LLC.

The estimated value of each of the contracts is about $25 million to $29 million.

Video from military MAFFS aerial firefighting training

MAFFS training
Still image from AIRAILIMAGES video.

Frederick Johnsen sent us this video he shot at the Modular Airborne Firefighting System training and certification that was held last week. The military C-130s and lead planes were flying out of Jeffco Air Tanker Base in Colorado. The event was sponsored by the US Forest Service and included classroom sessions, flying and ground operations for Air Force aircrews, civilian lead plane pilots, and support personnel from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other state and federal firefighting agencies.

A story about one drop from the 747 Supertanker

“Made the difference between success and failure on a devastating wildfire”

The 747, T-944, drops near Santiago Peak
The 747, T-944, drops near Santiago Peak August 8, 2018 on the Holy Fire in Southern California. Credit: Evver G. Photography

The article below is written by Jim Barnes, a former pilot of CAL FIRE S-2T air tankers.

It is a low-down dirty shame that the decision was made to cancel the 747 Super Tanker this fire season. Especially in the light of another potentially catastrophic fire season for our western states ahead of us. Some-how we never seem to heed the hard learned lessons of the past. The failure to be prepared is to prepare to fail. The 747 is not cheep for sure but the great work and many great saves it has made cannot be measured merely in dollars but potentially in the lives and property that might be lost by not having that capability.

In the week before I retired from tanker flying, I was relieving in Grass Valley. I woke up in a motel room just before daylight and flicked on the television on the way to the bathroom. I was shocked to learn that several fires were burning in the Grass Valley and Nevada City area. It was hot and it was windy so I got dressed, threw my s*** into my car and headed for the base with a short stop at Jack in the Box for of one of their delicious breakfasts.

When I got to the base it was still dark and I was the only one there.  Looking out toward the city you could see the orange glow. I started pre-flighting with my flashlight when the base pilot, Colin Rogers showed up. He was soon followed by the Chief and his Air Attack Pilot who ran out to the OV-10, kicked the tires and blasted off toward the fire. Within minutes he called for both tankers to respond. Colon took the lead and I taxied into position to do a section go. Colon started his roll and within seconds aborted takeoff because of a mechanical problem. That put me first in.

The Chief wanted me to start a protective line in front of a house at the top of a steep hillside. The wind was terrible so I used two wingspans for correction. That wasn’t enough and the entire load was blown down into the canyon. On the way back to base I heard tanker 88 checking in with Air Attack.  His mechanical problem was fixed and Colon was back in the hunt.  I briefed him on the effect of the wind as we crossed paths. On my way back out I heard Colon in tanker 88 calling the tanker base.

“We better get prepared to operate eight tankers out of Grass Valley all day long.”

But we never saw any more S-2s at our fire. They were already committed to project fires all over the state like the one that was devastating Santa Rosa. We did get one C-130 out of Chico and he did a great job but because he was in Chico his longer turn arounds gave us about two drops an hour.

So, we had two S-2Ts hot lapping making about 13-minute turnarounds, all the helicopters and ground forces that they could muster and the fire was still outproducing us badly. The fire now posed an imminent threat to several communities, including Grass Valley and Nevada City. One residential area was about to be over burned which would have resulted in catastrophic losses.

Somehow CAL FIRE got a hold of the 747 Very Large Air Tanker.  Air Attack assigned him the job of picking up an entire flank that was about to impinge on homes, a school and businesses. Without the aid of a lead plane the 747 lined up on the target, made a perfect drop and covered the entire flank with a massive load of retardant. We never saw him again for the rest of the day but that one drop made the difference between success and failure on a devastating wildfire. We will never know what would have happened had he not been there. Unfortunately for our Citizens and Firefighters we may find out this year. My prediction is that when the s*** hits the fan the powers that are will be scrambling to get the 747 back on contract. I have seen this story play out many times in my thirty-five years of aerial firefighting.  Damn, I’m sure tired of being right.

To see all articles on Fire Aviation written by Jim Barnes, click here.