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.

Update on the CAL FIRE C-130 air tanker program

YouTuber Juan Browne, “blancolirio”, has an update on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s progress in converting seven former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into firefighting air tankers. It was filmed at Sacramento McClellan Airport and posted to YouTube June 28, 2020.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Photos of air tankers at JEFFCO airport used on the Chatridge 2 Fire near Denver

The fire burned 461 acres south of Denver June 29, 2020

Tankers 22 (a P-3, N922AU) and 02 (a BAe-146, NJ474NA)
Tankers 02 (left, a BAe-146, N474NA) and T-22 (a P-3, N922AU) at Jeffco 6-29-2020. Shane Hervey photo.

Shane Hervey shot these photos yesterday, June 29, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) near Denver while air tankers were working the Chatridge 2 Fire south of the city. The fire spread rapidly with strong winds and was stopped after burning 461 acres.

Tanker 22, a P-3 (N922AU), had just arrived in Colorado on June 27 to begin an exclusive use contract with the state. It was at Northern Colorado Regional Airport at Fort Collins when it was dispatched, then reloaded at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco).

Shane Hervey said he saw a total of six large air tankers and two single engine air tankers at JEFFCO yesterday.

Tanker 22 at JEFFCO
Tanker 22, A P-3 (N922AU), at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) June 29, 2020 while working on the Chatridge 2 Fire south of Denver. Photo by Shane Hervey.

Vince Welbaum, the Aviation Unit Chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said the tanker will be primarily based at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport but will move to other bases as needed. The airport has a BlazeTamer fire retardant loading system, rather than more commonly seen Phos-Chek retardant system. BlazeTamer appears white when dropped, as opposed to Phos-Chek which is red. Mr. Welbaum said they anticipate that when dispatched to a fire the tanker will take off with BlazeTamer and then reload with retardant at other bases. Videos shot at the Chatridge 2 Fire yesterday showed it dropping both types of retardant.

Mr. Welbaum explained that the U.S. Forest Service has not established a cooperative agreement with Colorado to enable the P-3 to be used on federal fires. Without the agreement in place, it can only be used by the feds if lives are threatened.

More information about the fire is at Wildfire Today.

Tanker 22 Jeffco 6-29-2020
Tanker 22, A P-3 (N922AU), reloads at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) June 29, 2020 while working on the Chatridge 2 Fire south of Denver. Photo by Shane Hervey.
Tanker 105 Jeffco wildfire
Tanker 105, an MD-87 (N296EA), taxiis at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) June 29, 2020 while working on the Chatridge 2 Fire south of Denver. Photo by Shane Hervey.
Tanker 22 Jeffco
Tanker 22, A P-3 (N922AU), lands at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) June 29, 2020 while working on the Chatridge 2 Fire south of Denver. Photo by Shane Hervey.
Tanker 101 (N291EA) at JEFFCO
Tanker 101 (an MD-87, N291EA) at JEFFCO, June 29, 2020. Photo by Steve Hervey.
Tanker 22, A P-3 (N922AU)
Tanker 22, A P-3 (N922AU), at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) June 29, 2020 while working on the Chatridge 2 Fire south of Denver. Photo by Shane Hervey.
Tanker 22 at JEFFCO
Tanker 22, A P-3 (N922AU), at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) June 29, 2020 while working on the Chatridge 2 Fire south of Denver. Photo by Shane Hervey.

Thanks Shane!

More photos of the C-119s

In-flight shots of Tankers 81, 82, and 87

Tanker 82 N13745
Tanker 82 (N13745) at Ontario, CA November, 1975. By JD Davis.

When JD Davis saw Steve Whitby’s photos of the three C-119 air tankers taken in 1981 as they were lined up at the Hemet-Ryan retardant pits, he was kind enough to send us individual photos of each of the tankers, all shot when they were airborne — tankers 81, 82, and 87. JD’s pictures were taken between 1975 and 1982 in southern California.

Thanks JD!

Tanker 87 N13746
Tanker 87 (N13746) at Hemet-Ryan July 21, 1982. By JD Davis.
Tanker 81 N13743
Tanker 81 (N13743) at Hemet-Ryan, CA July 20, 1980. By JD Davis.

Three flying boxcars at Hemet-Ryan tanker base

Looking back at 1981

Three C-119s Ryan 1981
Three C-119s at Hemet-Ryan Air Tanker Base in 1981. Front to back, Tanker 81 (N13743), T-87 (N13746), and T-82 (N13745). Photo by Steve Whitby.

Steve Whitby took this photo in 1981 at Hemet-Ryan Air Tanker Base in southern California. Three of Hemet Valley Flying Service’s Fairchild C-119s are lined up in the pits where they are loaded with fire retardant for assisting firefighters on wildfires.

Steve said he’s been scanning negatives he took 39 years ago. Keep up the good work, Steve!

The last C-119 in line is T-82 (N13745) which was advertised by GSA as scrap for sale. It apparently sold for $10,400 February 1, 2016.

Tanker 82 C-119
C-119. Tanker 82 (N13745). GSA photo, possibly in 2016.

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.

Wyoming hires two Single Engine Air Tankers

Adds two SEATs for suppressing wildfires

Single Engine Air Tanker contract Wyoming
Air Tractor AT-802 Single Engine Air Tanker under contract in Wyoming. N23WT. Photo via Wyoming State Forestry Division June 22, 2020.

The Wyoming State Forestry Division has hired two Single Engine Air Tankers. When last seen on June 17 they were at the Casper airport.

The agency made the announcement on Twitter June 22.

Wyoming has added two Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS) this summer to help keep fires as small as possible. We are grateful for the opportunity to utilize these resources. A big thanks to @BLMWyoming whose generosity provided the airport space for these planes.

Single Engine Air Tanker contract Wyoming
Single Engine Air Tanker under contract in Wyoming. Photo via Wyoming State Forestry Division June 22, 2020.

Air Tanker 914 drops on the Central Fire north of Phoenix

The fire is 4 miles east of Interstate 17 near New River

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.

John Hall of JDH Images took these excellent photos of Air Tanker 914, a DC-10, dropping retardant on the Central Fire at about 5 p.m. June 20, 2020.

Mr. Hall told me that he was a firefighter 18 years ago. You can see more of his photos on Instagram (@jdhimg).

The fire has burned about 2,000 acres east of New River, Arizona. Wildfire Today has more information about the Central Fire.

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

(UPDATE at 4:38 p.m. MDT June 2, 2020)

I asked Mr. Hall if the retardant line created by the DC-10 Saturday held the fire. He said:

I drove by on New River Road yesterday and it looked like that retardant line held.  It kept the fire from spreading laterally, but it *raced* up the steep slope vertically and then crested onto the New River Mesa.  They’ve been chasing it up top since then. I don’t recall seeing any fire burn through any of the retardant lines on Saturday.  Quite the opposite, actually.