Talking tankers – Industry executive talks about large air tankers in an era of record wildfire, budgetary uncertainties, and COVID-19

Interview with Dan Snyder of Neptune Aviation

Tanker 02, a BAe-146, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire
Neptune’s Tanker 02, a BAe-146, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by

By Paul Seidenman
for Fire Aviation

For aerial firefighters, 2020 is shaping up as a year of nonstop deployments as wildland fire events continue to shatter records for destruction, increasingly measured in square miles.  As those fires raged, large air tankers (LAT), as in years past, proved themselves as essential for the firefighting tool box.  To appreciate that, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services—an LAT operator—agreed to a wide-ranging interview with Fire Aviation.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fire Aviation – What changes have you seen with wildland fire events today, compared to a decade ago?

Dan Snyder – A decade ago, fire seasons were much more predictable.  Since then, we have seen many more fires yearly, particularly in California.  Along with that, wildland fires, today, have become much more destructive with respect to property and loss of life.

FA – At the same time, what changes have you seen with the fixed-wing air tanker fleet during that time?

DS – First, in 2010, there were three LAT service vendors—Aero Union, Minden Aviation, and Neptune Aviation Services. Neptune is the only one of those still in business.  Secondly, there has been a complete change in the LAT fleet mix.  The majority of the LAT fleet, prior to 2010, was propeller driven—mainly former military P-3s and P2Vs.  Today, it’s almost entirely jets, with just a few propeller driven LATs remaining.  And the number of companies offering LAT services has increased from three to at least seven.

Also, the contracting model has changed.  We have gone from 100% of the LATs under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts, to less than 50% under EU, with the remainder under Call When Needed (CWN) contracts.

FA – Neptune Aviation Services currently operates nine BAe-146 LATs.  How do LATs fit into today’s wildland aerial firefighting environment, given the proliferation of single engine air tankers (SEAT), the few very large air tankers (VLAT), and, of course helicopters?

DS – The LATs are the central pillar of USFS fixed wing aerial firefighting tactics, and the air tanker bases are built to support them.  The very large air tankers (VLAT) only fit into a handful of the tanker bases throughout the US.  Each aircraft in aerial firefighting—helicopters, SEATs, Scoopers, VLATs and LATs—are all tools in the toolbox and have roles that each does well. As an example the VLATs are great for building long fire retardant lines; scoopers work well when large bodies of water are near the fire.

Also, LATs are well suited for initial attack which requires rapid response time, and a high degree of maneuverability.  This allows them to operate over all North American terrain types.  For example, in mountainous areas, they are very effective in dropping retardant over a variable terrain profile.  With a retardant upload rate of at least 500 gallons per minute, they can get back in the air within 10 minutes.  Also, with 3,000-4,000 gallon capacity tanks, LATs carry roughly 3-5 times the retardant of a SEAT making one large airtanker more effective in most initial attack situations.  And, they can operate from more bases closer to the fires, and away from large airports where commercial traffic congestion can be a problem.

FA – Have you seen any changes that have made LAT and VLAT tankers more effective in wildland firefighting?

DS – Yes.  For example, this year (2020), those tankers were used to great advantage, even as the US Fire Service (USFS) had to react to the reality of firefighting fighting within COVID-19 restrictions.  Specifically, the USFS activated a large number of aircraft and placed them throughout the western US for initial attack purposes.  This resulted in less of a need to move people around, and led to more assets available at the outbreak of—and closer to—the fires, which I believe led to a higher success rate in initial attack.  It also made more aircraft available for large fire support.  In fact, this was the first time since the late 1990s, that there were 40 LAT/VLAT tankers, that this kind of deployment was done on such a large scale, and it was all COVID-driven.  We caught a lot of small fires and kept them from becoming large fires.

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Neptune’s Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire near Santa Barbara, California Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

FA – How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability of the industry to move people and assets to where needed?

DS – It has gotten better.  At the start of COVID in the US, airline schedules were severely reduced, and hotels and restaurants were closed.  Today, restrictions are not as bad, so moving people around is not as significant an issue as it had been.  Now, that’s just in the US.  With international operations, there are still significant issues.

FA – Since fire seasons are only projected to get worse, and fires more destructive, do we need even greater numbers of fixed wing tankers—both LAT and VLAT?  If so, by your estimate, about how many more does the country need?

DS – The number of large and very large air tankers operated by private industry today—about 38—is about the same as we had in the late 1990s.  The aircraft are faster, more reliable, and carry larger quantities of retardant, but costs have increased, putting even more strain on firefighting agencies’ budgets.  The Rand report–(Air Attack Against Wildfires — Understanding U.S. Forest Service Requirements for Large Aircraft)–which was released in 2012, indicated an optimal fleet under exclusive use contracts would be 18-28 LATs.  We have exceeded that, so there are enough aircraft for a normal or average fire season, as well as surge capacity for an above normal fire season.

FA – The USFS has moved more toward CWN and away from exclusive EU contracts, as you indicated earlier.  Could this ultimately impact the ability of the industry to invest in more aircraft, support staff, pilots and maintenance infrastructure, degrading the industry’s ability to respond to what could be a new normal with fire seasons?

DS – Yes. If we see several below average fire seasons, I believe we will see a negative impact on the air tanker industry under the current contacting model.  The Blue Ribbon Task Force report, which was published in 2004, suggested longer term contracts to assure vendor capability to maintain high standards in maintenance and training.  While the industry has made great strides–through significant financial investments in higher quality aircraft, better maintenance, and crew training–my concern is that going to CWN contacts, could begin to undermine the strides the industry has made.

FA – The USFS also wants to move toward one-year guaranteed contracts, with additional years as options at its discretion.  For now, what is the standard USFS EU contract length?  What are the potential consequences for LAT/VLAT operators should one year guaranteed contracts become standard?

DS – NextGen 1 and NextGen 2 contracts were 5-year contracts with five one-year options.  NextGen 3.0 is the one-year contract, with option years.  If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved.  It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.

FA – There has been talk about the need to conduct aerial firefighting at night.  In your opinion, are equipment vendors offering avionics which would make this possible for LAT/VLAT operators?  In fact, is it even practical and safe?

DS – The technology exists for aerial firefighting at night, but it’s expensive, and there is no cohesive package you can purchase and install on a fixed wing aircraft to make it practical and safe.  I think it is much lower risk for helicopters, but not ready for the fixed wing world just yet.  Will we get there?  Yes, but I’m not sure when.

FA – In recent years, the private aerial firefighting industry has been concerned about government becoming more involved in the business.  For example, CAL FIRE has configured ex-Coast Guard C-130s for tanker operations.  Is this still a concern today?  Do you see more State fire protection agencies getting into aerial firefighting?

DS – CAL FIRE has always had its own program, and it is increasing its aerial firefighting capacity.  However, I do not see other States following the CAL FIRE model.  The USFS has given up on it, because it has seen private industry creating the capacity, and it no longer sees a need for its own program.  Also, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is not interested.

FA – Air tanker operations demand special flying skills.  How has the industry done with respect to pilot recruitment and retention?

DS – The industry has done well with pilot retention and training  Turnover tends to be low, because it draws a very unique subset of individuals that get into the industry and stay long-term.

Tanker 02, a BAe-146
Tanker 02, a BAe-146, at Missoula during winter maintenance May 25, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

FA – Pilots and mechanics in aerial firefighting are constantly on the road and away from home during busy fire seasons.  Does that impact retention?

DS – Yes.  In fact, some 10 years ago, at Neptune, we addressed that by increasing the number of employees and instituting a rotating schedule, so that our people are not away for very long periods.  For example, we try to provide a work schedule for our mechanics of one month on, one month off.  For pilots, the goal is three weeks on and three off.  It has worked out well, and we have seen a lower turn-over rate as a result.

FA – LAT and VLAT operators have modernized their operations through acquisition and modification of former commercial jets.  In your opinion, will the next step be some type of purpose-built tanker?  What are the challenges and issues that might prevent that from happening anytime soon?

DS – Cost is a big factor.  If the wildland management agencies are interested in a purpose built aircraft, budgeting models will have to change significantly.  A brand new CL 415, which is a purpose-built scooper, is about $38 million.  A new C-130 is about-$50-60 million, but a used C-130 can be had for $10 million or less, depending on condition and number of flight hours.  The industry can tank a half-life commercial airliner for a fraction of a purpose-built aircraft cost.  So, while a purpose-built tanker would be great, I don’t know that it could do anything more for the industry than a repurposed commercial aircraft.

Tanker 02, a BAe-146
Neptune’s Tanker 02, a BAe-146, at Missoula during winter maintenance May 25, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Tanker 60 retires from aerial firefighting

air tanker 60 DC-7B retires
Tanker 60, a DC-7B, retires from firefighting. Photo by Tim Crippin October 14, 2020.

Last week Air Tanker 60, a DC-7B (N838D), completed its last season as an aerial firefighting machine. On October 14 it departed from Medford, Oregon when the contract with the state of Oregon ended. Tim Crippen, who took these photos as it left, said it gave a wing wave to the tanker base as it passed by en route to Madras, Oregon.

air tanker 60 DC-7B retires
Tanker 60, a DC-7B, retires from firefighting. Photo by Tim Crippin October 14, 2020.

The aircraft, serial number 45347, was manufactured in 1958. It is powered by four 18-cylinder Wright TC18EA radial engines, each weighing 3,700 pounds with a displacement of 3,350 cubic inches. A lot of people will miss the sound of those huge engines over a fire.

Wright Cyclone GR 3350 radial engine
A Wright Cyclone GR 3350 radial engine, similar to the ones on Tanker 60.
air tanker 60 DC-7B retires
Tanker 60, a DC-7B, retires from firefighting. Photo by Tim Crippin October 14, 2020.

Preliminary report released for fatal SEAT crash in Idaho

The pilot was killed September 22, 2020 southeast of Emmett, Idaho

October 16, 2020   |   3:56 p.m. MDT

NTSB preliminary report T-857
Image from the NTSB preliminary report on the September 22, 2020 crash of a SEAT in Idaho.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a preliminary report on the fatal crash of a single engine air tanker (SEAT) in Idaho.

The Air Tractor AT-802A crashed September 22, 2020 while working on the Schill Fire, approximately 2 miles southeast of Emmett.

The pilot, Ricky Fulton, perished. The aircraft, Tanker 857, was owned by Aero S.E.A.T. Incorporated and was on an on-call (CWN) contract with the Bureau of Land Management. The aircraft was first registered July 10, 2020, FAA registration number N836MM.

Typically it takes 8 to 16 months for the NTSB to issue their final, complete report with an analysis of the causes of a crash.

This was the sixth firefighting pilot and the third SEAT pilot to be killed in the United States this year. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia. In addition, one person was killed August 8 in the crash of a CL-215  based in Portugal while battling a fire in Spain.

Below is the complete text from the narrative section of the report about the September 22 crash.

On September 22, 2020, about 1830 mountain daylight time, an Air Tractor AT-802A, N836MM, was substantially damaged when it was involved in an accident near Emmett, Idaho. The pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 aerial firefighting flight.

Witness conducting firefighting operations, adjacent the accident site, reported that the accident airplane, a single engine air tanker (SEAT), descended and made an approach similar to the previous SEATs that were dropping fire retardant. The witnesses said the airplane passed over the top of the ridge and descended into the valley, however, the pilot did not drop the fire retardant as previous SEATs did. The witnesses stated he heard a brief application of engine power as the airplane began to ascend over rising terrain at the pilot’s 12’oclock position. The airplane subsequently impacted rising terrain near the peak of the ridgeline.

A video provided by a witness captured the accident sequence. The recording showed the airplane descend over an intermediate ridgeline and into a valley (see figure 1). About 3 seconds later, the airplane momentarily returned to level flight before it pitched to a nose-high attitude. The airplane subsequently impacted rising terrain approximately 80 feet below the ridgeline.

Examination of the accident site by a Federal Aviation Administration inspector revealed that the airplane impacted rising terrain. The wreckage debris path continued from the initial impact point over the top of a ridgeline, and extended into a small ravine. The airplane came to rest approximately 100 yards from the initial impact pointe on a heading of 040 degrees. All major structural components of the airplane were located throughout the wreckage debris path. The wreckage was recovered for further examination.

(end of report)

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

Australia to have six large air tankers during the 2020-2021 bushfire season

The list includes: B737, Q400, RJ 85, and C-130

Air Tanker 141, C-FFQEQ, Q400
T-141 (C-FFQEQ) Q400AT – Refueling at Majuro, Marshall Islands in August , 2020 while en route to Bundaberg, Queensland for the 2020-2021 bushfire season in Australia. Photo Credit Brendon Sutton.

Wildland fire authorities in Australia expect to have at least six large air tankers working on exclusive use arrangements during the 2020-2021 fire season which is already underway down under. Five will be under contract and one, a B737, is owned by the New South Wales government.

Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) said on October 13, “We will continue to monitor how the season develops and consider the need for additional large airtankers if required.”

A year ago Australia started the 2019-2020 fire season with a plan to have five large air tankers, but when the fire activity grew to unprecedented levels, NAFC added two in November, 2019 (a DC-10 and a C-130Q) then in January, 2020 added four more (two DC-10s and two MD-87s).

Currently active:

  • B737, Bomber 210  (formerly Tanker 138), N138CG, purchased from Coulson and now owned by New South Wales Rural Fire Service, at Richmond, NSW. Year round.
  • Q400AT, Bomber 141, C-FFQE, supplied by  FieldAir/Conair, at Bundaberg, Queensland. Started September 1, 2020.
  • RJ85, Bomber 166 (Tanker 166), C-GVFT, supplied by FieldAir/Conair, at Dubbo, New South Wales. Started October 1, 2020.

Due to start November 1, 2020:

  • B737, Tanker 137, N137CG, supplied by Coulson, at Richmond, NSW. The contract allows Coulson to substitute another aircraft, their “new” Tanker 132, a C130H, depending on the status of the overlapping fire seasons in Australia and the US.

Due to start December 2, 2020.

  • RJ 85, Bomber 391, C-GVFK (?), supplied by FieldAir/Conair, at Avalon Victoria.

Due to start December 16, 2020

  • C130Q, Bomber 390 (Tanker 131), N130FF, supplied by Coulson, at Avalon Victoria.

According according to a September through November outlook from the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre much of Australia may be looking at a slower than average fire season for the next two months.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) was formed by the Australian States and Territories in July, 2003 to provide a cooperative national arrangement for combating bushfires. It facilitates the coordination and procurement of a fleet of firefighting aircraft that are readily available for use by State and Territory emergency service and land management agencies across Australia.

Tanker 138 becomes Bomber 210 in Australia and gets new livery

NSW RFS' B-210 737 air tanker
NSW RFS’ B-210, formerly known as Air Tanker 138. October 9, 2020. Matthew Tregear photo.

The 737 air tanker that New South Wales Rural Fire Service purchased from Coulson received a new paint job over the Australian winter. Besides needing to be identified as Bomber 210, there is a report that flying through ash during the incredibly busy 2019-2020 bushfire season stripped away enough paint to justify the new livery.

After a career of hauling passengers for Southwest Airlines, the aircraft made its first drop on a fire in August, 2019.

It was repainted by Flying Colors Aviation in Townsville, Queensland and made its first drop of the 2020/2021 bushfire season a few days ago.

Flying Colors Aviation Facebook postThe design of the livery on the aircraft when it was converted into an air tanker by Coulson was based on a Boeing concept seen on some of their new aircraft.

Boeing 777-8X
Boeing 777-8X. Boeing image.

Videos and photos of firefighting air tankers

SM-100AT Air Tanker
Stavatti introduces the SM-100AT air tanker. A clean-sheet-of-paper, new design, the SM-100AT will deliver 4,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The video below shows the effects of air tanker drops in timber. The first part shows a dozer line or road on the edge of the Glass Fire in Northern California. Then you will see where red fire retardant dropped by air tankers has slowed the advance of the fire. When it can be done safely, firefighters on the ground or on dozers will need to construct a bare-earth fireline where the fire has burned into or through the retardant. Aircraft dropping water or retardant do not put out a fire, they can only slow the spread, and only if the wind is not very strong.

Continue reading “Videos and photos of firefighting air tankers”

Two new single engine air tankers are being designed

One version is expected to be available in 2021

October 3, 2020   |   1:45 p.m. MDT

Firecatcher F-45 air tanker
Firecatcher F-45. Firecatcher photo.

Three companies are collaborating to design and manufacture two new versions of single engine air tankers (SEAT).

A UK company, Arcus Fire, is coordinating the projects which are designed and built by two New Zealand companies, Flight Structures Ltd and Pacific Aerospace.

Firecatcher F-25 air tanker
Firecatcher F-25. Firecatcher photo.

Flight testing is scheduled to begin soon of the smaller of the two aircraft, the F-25, which is capable of carrying up to 660 gallons. It is a modification of Pacific Aerospace’s Super-Pac XL utility aircraft. The companies are working on CAA/CASA/FAA Certification and expect the air tanker will be available in 2021. It will be powered by a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-140A engine.

Construction is in progress of a clean-sheet larger SEAT, the F-45, with a 1,188-gallon water or retardant tank. It will have a high wing and a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F engine. Initially it will be a Restricted Category aircraft, but eventually will be certified in the Standard Category with both cargo and passenger variants. The first flight is expected in 2023 with deliveries planned to start in 2024.

fuselage Firecatcher F-45 air tanker
A portion of the fuselage of the Firecatcher F-45. Firecatcher photo.

The cargo version will have a large cargo door with a flat floor cabin that can take three LD3 shipping containers with a 5,500 lb maximum payload capability. The aircraft will have a cruise speed of up to 190 knots (218 mph) and a 1,000 nautical-mile maximum range. The 19-passenger cabin will have full stand-up headroom and double abreast single-aisle seating.

FlightGlobal reported the pricing will be $4.2 million for the F-45 and $2.2 million for the F-25.

Firecatcher F-45 air tanker
Firecatcher F-45. Firecatcher photo.

Neither the F-25 or the F-45 are amphibious, but they can be outfitted with a scooping tube, or as Erickson describes it on their Air-Crane helicopter, a  “scoop hydrofoil attachment”. A Blackhawk operated by HP Helicopters also has one of these devices.

Erickson Air-Crane scooping
SDG&E’s Sunbird Air-crane helicopter, scooping water at Lake Hodges, shortly after it was delivered in August, 2010. SDG&E photo.

Another C-130 is almost ready to join the Coulson fleet

October 2, 2020   |   4:46 p.m. MDT

Coulson air tanker C-130 T-132 (N132CG)
Coulson Air Tanker 132, a C-130H (N132CG) with its fancy black props. Coulson photo.

The first of five C-130H planes that Coulson Aviation purchased from the Norwegian military completed its heavy maintenance in Crestview, Florida October 1 and was ferried to Spokane, Washington for new paint and an inspection.

The aircraft has already been converted to an air tanker, Tanker 132, with the installation of a 4,000-gallon internal gravity-powered retardant tank. As recently as 2017 Coulson operated another C-130 known as Tanker 132. It was leased and was returned to its owner.

Coulson air tanker C-130 T-132 (N132CG)
Coulson Air Tanker 132, a C-130H (N132CG) fueling up before ferrying to Spokane, WA for new paint and inspection. Coulson photo.

A second C-130 was pulled out of mothballs at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona at the same time as this aircraft. It will also be outfitted as an air tanker and is going through heavy maintenance at Crestview.

Tanker 132 Coulson
After being delayed by Hurricane Sally, Tanker 132 was back outside completing is final ground runs and ops checks.”TY” is sporting its overhauled black propellers and painted rudder.
Coulson air tanker C-130 T-132 (N132CG)
Coulson Air Tanker 132, a C-130H (N132CG), completing its Functional Check Flight after maintenance. Coulson photo.