As we move into national Preparedness Level 5 today for the first time since 2008, and we have more than 48 uncontained large fires, it’s a good time to see what air tankers are available. These numbers are provided by Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.
Today, not counting 2 air tankers that are on their days off and five that are down for maintenance, there are 13 in service.
Overall, if none were on days off or down for maintenance, we would have:
7 P2Vs on Exclusive Use Contract
2 BAe-146s on Exclusive Use Contract
2 DC-10s on Exclusive Use Contract
4 CV-580s borrowed from Canada and Alaska
5 MAFFS borrowed from the military
This amounts to 11 that are on federal contract and 9 that are borrowed, for a total of 20.
Six of the seven air tankers that received “next generation” contracts, and the 747 that will be under a CWN contract, are weeks or months away from being physically ready and fully certified. However, these are counted when the USFS distributes misleading stats claiming, “Overall, we could have up to 26 airtankers available for wildfire suppression.”
This is a video of MAFFS 4 from the 146 Air Wing of the California Air National Guard making a drop on the American Fire, August 17, 2013 in northern California. The audible gear and altitude warnings are normal for MAFFS drops. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a fix so that they can disable them while dropping retardant.
Tanker 910, a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, experienced an engine failure coming off of a drop on the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho on Thursday, August 15. The pilots flew the tanker back to their reload base at Pocotello, Idaho, making a non-emergency landing, said Rick Hatton, CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier. The engine, the number two engine which is in the tail, is being replaced and the aircraft should be back in service today or Monday.
Losing an engine is not unheard of, especially in the P2Vs air tankers which have 16 18-cylinder radial engines with many moving parts. For example in 2012 there were two engine failures in a two day period. One occurred in a P2V just after takeoff from Rapid City. Tanker 43 had to jettison their retardant onto the runway, which required its’ closure, diverting at least one commercial flight to another airport.
10 Tanker’s two DC-10s have both been very busy on fires for the last couple of months. Tanker 911 received a multi-year exclusive use contract on June 7 during the next generation award process. Mr. Hatton told us that on June 14 their other DC-10, Tanker 910, received a 60-day exclusive use contract. We had been told by a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service that it was a Call When Needed contract like the one awarded to Evergreen’s 747 on June 14. Mr. Hatton said that at the end of the 60 day period the contract will revert to CWN for Tanker 910. He, of course, is bullish on the capability of the DC-10s, and said:
Any future national fleet composition would be significantly enhanced across all the relevant metrics by having six to nine Next Gen DC-10s on long term exclusive use contracts.
An Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) has completed a detailed comparison of the use of a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) and P2V Large Air Tankers to complete the same task of creating 4.6 miles of retardant line on the Colockum Tarps Fire, which is what Tanker 911, a DC-10, accomplished during 3.12 flight hours on July 30, 2013.
The DC-10 made eleven drops from five-11,600 gallon loads of retardant. The writer figured it would take 41 drops from P2Vs to construct the same amount of retardant line. Two P2Vs could do it in two days, or four P2Vs could do it one day. Depending on which scenario was used, a DC-10 would result in a cost savings of $122,078 or $136,578.
Other advantages pointed out were that the VLAT could accomplish the objective much more quickly with a wider and more consistent retardant line, and “the eleven individual drops with the VLAT significantly reduced the number of ‘pilot drop exposures’ as compared to the number of drops/passes that would have been required with heavy airtankers”.
The DC-10 was tied up for just over three hours, but it would have taken four aircraft-days if P2Vs were used. The VLAT freed up air tankers, ASM/Bravos, and lead planes for other fires. If we had 44 air tankers like we did in 2002, that would not be as critical as the present situation, where we only have about 10 large air tankers plus one VLAT on exclusive use contracts, and one VLAT on a call when needed contract.
The 747 VLAT may become available by the end of September on a call when needed contract and we may have one or two “next generation” large air tankers in the fleet within the next few weeks.
The U.S. Forest Service intends to contract for 7 and later up to 15 aircraft outfitted with high-tech sensors to serve as platforms for aerial supervision on wildfires. Today the agency issued a Request for Information to find out what is available and which companies may be interested. The aircraft would not only be able to conduct aerial supervision of other firefighting assets, but would also provide a platform for training of aerial supervision personnel. This will require an aft crew station that provides the capability to manage aerial supervision operations in its entirety. The airplanes would be able to carry one pilot, an aerial supervisor, a trainee aerial supervisor, and an instructor.
Two of the seven aircraft would be able to support day and night operations and would be located at Lancaster, California, and McCall Idaho.
Some of the hardware the aircraft must have would include:
Infrared/Electro-Optical sensing systems with color camera and FLIR systems. The ability to manually “select” an area of interest upon which the system will autonomously (without user input) remain pointed at that area as the aircraft maneuvers.
The ability of the system to provide and display target location (latitude, longitude, altitude). If laser is used, it must be eye safe. The ability to provide a visible (within the visible light spectrum, with and without the aid of NVG’s) marking capability of a target that can be viewed by other aircraft within 1 mile and at off-axis viewing angles at night.
The ability to auto-detect non-participant aircraft.
Data link dissemination for near or near real-time video image viewing and analysis.
Track ground force and air force position location. Data entry to assign naming/labeling/text convention to ground and air forces engaged on the fire.