Erickson Aero Tanker converting another MD87 into an air tanker

Lebec Fire MD87 air tanker
MD87 drops on a fire near Lebec, CA July 8, 2018. Photo by Tom Zimmerman.

(We found this press release today which is dated March 26, 2019)

AerSale®, a global supplier of mid-life aircraft, engines, used serviceable material, and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services, announced today it has signed a contract with Aero Air / Erickson Aero Tanker to build another firefighting air tanker for the company’s fleet at AerSale’s MRO facility in Goodyear, Arizona. Conversion of the 6th MD-87 aircraft, formally begins on April 1 and will mark the sixth such aircraft modification AerSale has completed at Goodyear.

“The Erickson Aero Tanker is a very versatile fire bomber and we are proud to continue our work to expand their fleet and add more aerial firefighting power to the skies,” said Charlie McDonald, Senior Vice President MRO Services at AerSale. “This modified aircraft will rank among the best air tankers available for fighting wildfires across the country for years to come.”

Once the modification is complete, the new Erickson Aero Tanker will cruise at 450 knots, carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant in all environments up to 40 degrees Celsius, boast a 900-mile loaded strike range, require only a 5,200-foot runway loaded, and both take off and land fully loaded.

In addition to converting the air tankers’ original MD-87 aircraft, AerSale also performs all heavy maintenance on the Erickson Aero Tanker fleet.

Forest Service currently has several advertisements posted for fire aviation services

Mobile Retardant Base fire wildfire firefighting
Screengrab from video of setting up a mobile retardant base on the Lolo National Forest in 2017.

The U.S. Forest Service, the lead federal agency for obtaining contracted fire aviation services, currently has four advertisements posted, but one has been folded into another, leaving three that are active. Two are typical solicitations and a third is a notice that the agency intends to issue blanket purchase agreements.

One of the notices was first posted 13 months ago.

  1. Mobile Retardant Bases, Blanket Purchase Agreement.
    Solicitation Number: 12024B19Q0002. The agency intends to establish multiple, five-year Blanket Purchase Agreements to provide the required services for a period of up to five years. This was first posted April 15, 2019 and has a response due date of June 14, 2019.
  2. Next Generation Large Airtanker Services 3.0,
    Solicitation Number: 12024B18R9013. It was first posted November 19, 2018 and had a response due date of February 14, 2019 (185 days ago). Both Large and Very Large Air Tanker vendors are submitting bids for this contract.  This will award only one base year of work, with four optional years at the discretion of the Forest Service.
  3. CWN Large Airtanker Services, Solicitation Number: 12-024B-18-R-9014. This was first posted 13 months ago on April 15, 2018 and after many changes and amendments had a final amended response due date of April 18, 2019 (35 days ago). After a protest, both Large and Very Large Air Tanker vendors were then allowed to submit bids for this contract.  Call When Needed (CWN) means the air tankers may or may not receive opportunities to work. The effective period of the agreements will be from the date of award to December 31, 2020.
  4. CWN Very Large Airtanker, Basic Ordering Agreements. (This solicitation was folded into #3 above.) Solicitation Number: 12-024B-18-R-9015. Originally posted May 30, 2018. Posted September 7, 2018 with a response due date of September 8, 2018. (257 days ago) “Aircraft with greater than 8000-gallon (72,000 pounds) dispensing capacity are preferred.” The effective period of the agreements will be from the date of award to December 31, 2020. Call When Needed (CWN) means the air tankers may or may not receive opportunities to work.

Video found of another engine failure on an MD87 air tanker

Chico, California, November 8, 2018

engine failure md87 air tanker chico california
Screengrab from the video of smoke coming from Tanker 107 as it was beginning to take off at Chico, California, November 8, 2018. Video by Robert Barnes.

Last week we received a video of an engine failing on an MD87 air tanker as it was taking off July 30, 2018 at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire. The fact that the engine failed that day was well known, especially since hot debris falling from the aircraft started seven fires within a five-mile radius of the airport. One of the firefighters was injured while suppressing the fires.

This week another video has surfaced about an engine failure on an MD87 that received little or no publicity. Tanker 107 was just beginning its takeoff as Robert Barnes shot the video near his hangar at Chico Metropolitan Airport on the first day of the Camp Fire which burned into Paradise, California, November 8, 2018. The smoke in the background is from the Camp Fire.

Mr. Barnes said that after the incident a City of Chico truck hauled away large chunks of metal that looked to him like they came from a jet engine. He heard the Tower caution other air tankers to land long on Runway 31 due to F.O.D on the approach end.

This is the third engine failure on MD87 air tankers that we are aware of. On September 13, 2015 debris from an engine landed in a residential area of Fresno, California. One piece of metal crashed through the rear window of a car, while other shrapnel was found in city streets.

On July 30, 2018 an engine on an MD87 air tanker failed while taking off at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire.

After the MD87 was first introduced as an air tanker, Erickson Aero Air made at least two modifications to the retardant delivery system in efforts to prevent retardant from entering the engines.

Safety Alert issued for low retardant drops

On May 20, 2019 officials within the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior released a Safety Alert regarding the safe height for retardant drops. This could be related to the fatality following a drop by the 747 Very Large Air Tanker  on the Ranch Fire in 2018 east of Ukiah, California, the drop by a DC-10 VLAT on the Liberty Fire in 2017 that damaged the roof and knocked out windows in a home and vehicle east of Murrieta, California, and perhaps also a drop by an MD87 in 2018 on the Boxcar Fire near Maupin, Oregon.


Retardant safety alert

Subject: Retardant Safe Drop Height
Area of Concern: Safety of Ground Personnel
Distribution: All Fire Aviation Operations

Discussion: The optimum release height or safe drop height for fire retardant can be defined as the distance below the airtanker at which the retardant begins to fall vertically (Figure 1). When the retardant is dropped, the velocity of the aircraft is imparted to the retardant. In other words, the retardant is traveling at the same speed as the aircraft. When the retardant has lost all of its forward momentum and is falling vertically as a heavy rain, the danger to firefighters is reduced and effectiveness is increased.

retardant drop heightIf a Very Large Airtanker (VLAT) is traveling at 150 knots and is well below the recommended safe drop altitude, the 8,000-19,000 gallons of retardant released will impact the earth at a similar velocity. If personnel are underneath the retardant pattern, they can be struck with the fast moving retardant, broken trees, other debris, or all of it. ¹Figure 2 shows a drop that was released below the safe drop height maintaining considerable velocity as it reached the ground. The force of the retardant dropped from too low of an altitude can topple trees up to 90 feet in height and a trunk a foot in diameter.

Page 2

Drop Safety Considerations

  •  Aerial drops are hazardous and caution should be used when working in areas with aircraft operations. Serious injury and/or property damage can occur from any excessively low tanker drop, including S2’s and SEATs.
  • The Red Book, Interagency Aerial Supervision Guide and the Interagency Incident Response Guide all have slightly different verbiage, but basically state that the Aerial Supervisor/ASM/Airtanker pilot and the identified ground contact/personnel must ensure all fireline personnel are notified of impending aerial drops (fixed wing and rotary wing).
  • Pilots must ensure that they have received confirmation that all people and moveable property have been cleared prior to commencing drops of any fire-fighting agent (water, foam, retardant or gel).
  • Pilots must ensure they do not drop below a safe drop height. This becomes more difficult in mountainous terrain or if the aircraft is not equipped with a radar altimeter so it’s imperative that pilots develop the site picture and practice proper technique for the appropriate drop height for their respective aircraft.
  • Pilots must remember that lower is not always better. Drops that are too low fail to provide retardant in an efficient manner with the desired coverage level. This is not only dangerous, but fails to provide the support ground crews require.
  • Fireline personnel must maintain situational awareness. Personnel who are using cell phones to video the aerial retardant drops can easily become distracted by recording the retardant drops which impairs their ability to recognize the hazards and take appropriate action should it be necessary (Figure 3).
  • Keep in mind that a pilot will, at any time, jettison the entire load quickly during an in-flight emergency.

Firefighting is not a spectator sport. Be alert, be ready, be safe.

(The document was signed by Keith Raley, Chief, Aviation Safety, Training, Program Evaluation, and Quality Management for the DOI Office of Aviation Services; and by Sean Aidukas, Acting Branch Chief, Aviation Safety Management Systems, US Forest Service.)

1. Firefighter Injuries and Fatality, CAL FIRE GREEN SHEET, August 13, 2018. 18-CA-MEU-008674, 18-CA-MEU-009504. References: Incident Response Pocket Guide, NWCG, April 2018. Greg Lovellette, Safe Drop Height for Fixed-Wing Airtankers, March 2000; PMS 505: Interagency Aerial Supervisors Guide, April 2017; Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book) January 2019.

Video surfaces of engine failure on air tanker during takeoff

Coeur D’Alene, Idaho in 2018

Air Tanker 101 MD87 Rapid City
Air Tanker 101, an MD87, at Rapid City, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

On July 30, 2018 an engine on an MD87 air tanker failed while taking off at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire. The reports at the time was that it failed after takeoff, but in this video that just came to light filmed by Harold Komm, Jr. it appears that the incident occurred during takeoff while the aircraft was approximately half or two-thirds of the way down the runway. At 0:52 in the video below, smoke or debris can be seen in the vicinity of the tail of the aircraft. Then the engine noise decreases as the takeoff continued. When it finally became airborne dust is kicked up at the end of the runway.

The flight crew deserves high praise for getting the plane into the air and then landing safely. An engine failure at that point is one of the worst times for it to happen.

(The video can also be watched at YouTube)

The aircraft was Air Tanker 101, an MD87 operated by Erickson Aero Air. Mr. Komm said that after takeoff the plane flew out to the designated retardant jettison area about seven miles northeast of the airport so it would not have to land with a full load of retardant.

Seven fires were discovered after the incident within a five-mile radius of the airport. One of the firefighters was injured while suppressing the fires.

Mr. Komm said he just recently found a report of the incident on Fire Aviation and offered to allow us to publish his video. We had to edit the audio to remove some unwanted background noise unrelated to the aircraft, but other than that and adding titles at the beginning and the end we didn’t change the video. He told us, “I had talked to Erickson Aero Air HQ in Oregon to make sure it was ok for me to distribute and the only thing was that I had to forward a copy of the video to the lead mechanic. I got some cool swag from Erickson Aero Air for being in the right place and time doing the video.”

This was not the first time that an engine on an Erickson Aero Air MD87 failed and falling debris caused problems after hitting the ground. On September 13, 2015 debris from an engine landed in a residential area of Fresno, California. One chunk of metal crashed through the rear window of a car, while other shrapnel was found in city streets.

There has been concern since at least 2014 about retardant being ingested into the engines when the MD87 is making a drop. A SAFECOM filed back then considered the possibility after engine surges or intermittent power was a problem for one aircraft after making a drop. Photos were taken of retardant stains on the fuselage caused by retardant flowing over the wing.

The first fix that Erickson Aero Air implemented was in 2014, “a new spade profile that has proved to eliminate this problem by keeping the fluid column much more vertical” the company wrote.

Then in June, 2017 they took a much more radical step. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowered the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations, said at the time.

On December 12, 2017 I was given a tour of Tanker 101 by the flight crew while it was in Rapid City, and noticed there was evidence of retardant flowing over the top of the wing and flaps.

MD-87 retardant wing engine failure
Tanker 101, an MD87, with evidence of retardant stains on top of the wing and the flaps, December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Restored Mann Gulch DC-3 test flown before leaving for Normandy

Volunteers hope to fly the aircraft to Europe to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day June 5-6

Miss Montana takes off on its first flight in 18 years. Screen grab from a shaky video shot in a helicopter.

The restoration of the DC-3 that dropped smokejumpers on the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 is nearly complete as the departure date for its flight to Normandy looms. Named Miss Montana, the plane had not been flown since 2001, meaning the volunteers working on the project for the last year or so have had plenty on their to-do list.

Sunday’s test flight, the first time it has left the ground in 18 years, went better than expected said Jeff Whitesell, who will be the chief pilot when it leaves Montana later this week for Normandy to help commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 5-6 along with many other DC-3s that are being flown in from around the world. A group of 15 men and women will parachute from Miss Montana during planned events in England and France.

Later in the week, after the test flights, Miss Montana took to the air again and dropped jumpers. That video is below.

Another DC-3 that hopefully completes its restoration in time to fly to Normandy is a project being conducted by Mikey McBryan of Buffalo Airways. Buffalo, based in the northern part of the Northwest Territories, operates several air tankers, including a P3 undergoing major maintenance at Sacramento McClellan Airport. (UPDATE May 16, 2019: Darryl tells us the Buffalo DC-3 will not go to Normandy, but they hope to have it finished by D-Day.)

 

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Beautiful day in CYHU. Forecast was rain. 😉 Going to put fuel in for the first time!

A post shared by Mikey McBryan (@mikeymcbryan) on

New South Wales purchases 737 air tanker

NSW will also buy two Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence Aircraft

tanker 137 Boeing 737 drop first wildfire bushfire
On November 22, 2018 Air Tanker 137 made the first drop by a Boeing 737 on an active fire. It occurred on a bushfire in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Australia. Screenshot from NSW RFS video.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service obviously was satisfied with the performance of a Boeing 737-300 that was under contract during their 2018-2019 summer fire season since they just signed a contract to purchase one of the converted airliners.

The NSW government announced the acquisition May 15, 2019 saying it is part of a $26.3 million investment to enhance the aerial firefighting capacity in the Australian State.

“This type of aircraft can deliver 15,000 liters (3,960 gallons) of fire suppressants, transport about 70 firefighters and operate from a number of regional airports,” Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said.

NSW RFS Acting Commissioner Rob Rogers said the Service had evaluated a number of different Large and Very Large Air Tankers over recent fire seasons and had settled on the 737 as the preferred option, operated by Canadian company Coulson Aviation.

NSW will purchase one Boeing 737 Fireliner and two Cessna Citation V Lead/Intelligence Aircraft. They are accompanied by a ten-year operational contract where Coulson will provide all flight and maintenance personal. The 737 is scheduled to be delivered in July of this year.

Britt Coulson, Vice President of Coulson Aircrane, said the company is acquiring two Cessna Citation V/560 aircraft now.

“They will be equipped with brand new Garmin EFIS cockpits complete with Synthetic Vision and linescan/gimbal systems designed and integrated by us”, Mr. Coulson said. “These aircraft are required to be multi-role so like the B737 Fireliner, we will integrate the tech package to not limit the airplane’s performance or ability to move passengers. We saw great success with the Citation Jet/525 that was operated in the USA and wanted to build on that program with a slightly larger, more capable airframe. With the B737 Fireliner being the fastest Large Airtanker, it really needs the fastest support platform.”

Britt said a technician in the back of the Citation will operate the video equipment and other sensors. Their goal is to retain seven passenger seats.

The NSW contracting office works much more quickly than what we have been seeing in recent years from their U.S. Forest Service counterparts. The initiative to purchase a large air tanker was announced in mid-December 2018 and now five months later the procurement has been consummated, with delivery of the air tankers expected in another two months. It has taken multiple years in some cases to contract for air tanker services in the Forest Service that are guaranteed for only one year. The NSW contract for operation and maintenance is for ten years. The Canadian province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

Coulson Aviation CEO Wayne Coulson said he looked forward to being able to work with the RFS on this new venture and would be expanding its NSW base in the coming months. The company will be looking to hire Australian pilots and ground crew.

In recent years NSW and Victoria have hired large air tankers, primarily from Canada, for their summer bushfire season. During the 2018-2019 summer the two governments employed six, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters. The last of the contracted Large Air Tankers left NSW to return to the United States late last week.

Coulson Aviation began their 737 project in 2017 when they purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines which had decided to replace them with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two  737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they had a relatively low number of hours in the sky. With the 737-MAX being grounded after two crashes, Southwest may be regretting the decision to part with the aircraft.

The 737 air tanker was designed as a multi-use aircraft with the ability to haul passengers. In 2017 Britt Coulson said “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

air tanker 137 737 wildfire
This is not a video, but a screengrab from a video of Air Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the Bruxner Highway Fire (Tenterfield LGA) in New South Wales, Australia, February, 2019. Usually it is not obvious when an air tankers drops simultaneously from more than one tank, but on the 737 the two tanks are not adjacent to each other, making it possible to see the separation when the drop begins. The video can be seen here.

The 737 made its first drop on an active fire November 22, 2018 on a bushfire in New South Wales.

737 air tanker T-137 grid test retardant
Air tanker 137, a 737-300, at the grid test near Lancaster, California, September 3, 2018. Coulson photo.

Video featuring annual training for MAFFS personnel

MAFFS retardant drop
Screengrab from the video below of a MAFFS retardant drop.

About 300 aviation personnel from the Air National Guard, U.S. Forest Service, and other firefighting agencies are participating this week in aerial wildland firefighting training and certification for Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) personnel at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The MAFFS units, which can be slipped into a military C-130, are capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant or water on a wildland fire.

This video produced May 9, 2019 includes footage from this weeks’ training plus shots from previous fire seasons.


Video by Tech. Sgt. Garrett Wake, 152nd Airlift Wing, Nevada Air National Guard.