For a decade or two CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service aviation managers been talking off and on with officials at the Castle Airport (MER), 8 miles northwest of Merced, California, about using it as an air tanker base. As a former Air Force base with an 11,802-foot runway, and its location in central California near the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it could be a valuable resource for any fire aviation asset, but especially for Very Large Air Tankers like the DC-10 or 747.
Finally, prompted in part by the nearby Rim Fire, 40 miles from the airport, the U.S. Forest Service recently signed an agreement with Merced County to allow the airport to be used as an air tanker base. Tuesday of this week both DC-10 air tankers began using it to reload with retardant, making the round trip to and from the Rim Fire every 30 to 40 minutes, dropping 11,600 gallons with every trip.
According to the Modesto Bee:
Under the agreement, Merced County will charge the Forest Service through a series of fees: $225 per month for the 5,200-square-foot building lease, $450 per day for the 551,600-square-foot ramp and 50 cents per 1,000 pounds a plane weighs upon landing, according to county staff.
With a DC-10 air tanker weighing about 368,000 pounds, it will cost around $184 for each landing. The fee for landing a 6,505-pound single-engine Air Tractor AT-802 with an 820-gallon retardant capacity would be about $3.
For now, at least, the Tanker Base will be on call when needed status, staffed only if there is a specific need.
The video below has information about this new use for the Castle Airport.
The California National Guard is operating a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle over the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. The MQ-1 Predator is streaming real-time video down to the Incident Command Post and reportedly alerted firefighters to a flare-up they otherwise would not have immediately seen.
This is not the first time that a large Predator-type drone has been used to collect real-time imagery of wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.
Here is an excerpt from the StarTribune with more information about the current use of the National Guard’s Predator:
…While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.
The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.
The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.
Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.
Coulson’s C-130Q, Tanker 131, can see light at the end of the tunnel. The aircraft has the new wrap applied and looks pretty spiffy. Today they flew it from San Bernardino up to McClellan to get approval for FAA Part 137, which is for “Agricultural Aircraft Operators”, for “dispensing of any chemical designed to treat the soil or crops”.
Britt Coulson told us they are still working out a few certification details with the U.S. Forest Service, but their goal is to have the aircraft ready to drop retardant over fires as early as the end of this week, or at the latest, next week. The tank holds 3,500 gallons and very seldom will they have to reduce that load due to density altitude. Eventually they may install a larger tank.
The new reload base for Single Engine Air Tankers in Valentine, Nebraska is nearing completion. Thanks to the Nebraska legislature’s passage this year of the Wildfire Control Act, a single-engine airtanker (SEAT) and three airtanker bases are now available in the northwest part of the state. The contracted SEAT came on duty July 15 and SEAT bases will be managed by the Nebraska Forest Service (NFS) at Valentine, Chadron, and Alliance.
These videos were shot by crews on MAFFS 4 and MAFFS 6 while dropping on the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in California August 18, 19, and 22. The first one has spectacular views of the fire from a vantage point seen by very few people. If you only watch one, watch the first one.
If you’re not familiar with the “Landing Gear” audio warning, it comes on automatically when the lady in the dashboard senses the terrain and thinks the crew is landing without lowering the gear. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a way to disable it while dropping retardant, but it will not be available until 2014 at the earliest.
After initially thinking their 747 Supertanker would be available in mid- to late September, Evergreen has reconsidered and expects to have it ready for the 2014 wildfire season.
The U.S. Forest Service awarded the company a Call When Needed contract on June 14, but the aircraft was sitting in Marana, Arizona with the engines removed and safely in storage. After receiving the contract Evergreen scheduled a needed C check which would have started August 2 and depending on what was found during the process would have been ready to fly in mid- to late September — about the time the western wildfire season begins to wind down. The cost of the C check is over a million dollars.
Today Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Supertanker Services, said they have reconsidered, and…
…concluded there was insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades. The availability of a facility certified to complete the inspection and the unknown return on investment implied in a CALL WHEN NEEDED contract only complicated the decision.
Evergreen is going to defer the required airline level maintenance until later this year or early in 2014. Mr. Soelberg said they expect to have the 747 Supertanker in a position to be fully operational with all checks, inspections and carding complete before the 2014 season begins.
In a perfect world the U.S. Forest Service would get their shit together and issue all aerial firefighting contracts no later than December, to begin in the following spring or summer, instead of procrastinating as they have been doing issuing them in mid-summer. Giving a vendor zero time to get a multi-million dollar aircraft up and running is not realistic. The companies that received the next generation air tanker contracts and those that will be competing in the next few weeks for a scooper contract would no doubt agree.
The GAO report was in response to a March, 2012 request by four U.S. Senators asking for a review of “the nation’s depleted fleet of firefighting aircraft and the remedies needed in the face of increasingly severe fire seasons.” The Senators were Ron Wyden, Lisa Murkowski, Dianne Feinstein, and Mark Udall.
The GAO conducted an “audit”, between August 2012 and August 2013. Their product assembled a great deal of information about the current state of the aerial firefighting fleet which has dwindled from 44 in 2002 down to 8 to 11 this year. But it does not have a lot of new, specific, and practical “remedies”, other than collect data and develop a coherent plan. It concluded:
None of the agencies’ studies and strategy documents contained information on aircraft performance and effectiveness in supporting firefighting operations, which limits the agencies’ understanding of the strengths and limitations of each type of firefighting aircraft and their abilities to identify the number and type of aircraft they need.
The GAO had three recommendations:
Expand efforts to collect information on aircraft performance and effectiveness to include all types of firefighting aircraft in the federal fleet;
Enhance collaboration between the agencies and with stakeholders in the fire aviation community to help ensure that agency efforts to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need reflect the input of all stakeholders in the fire aviation community; and
Subsequent to the completion of the first two recommendations, update the agencies’ strategy documents for providing a national firefighting aircraft fleet to include analysis based on information on aircraft performance and effectiveness and to reflect input from stakeholders throughout the fire aviation community.
The report included some information that is not widely known about Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers. The Interagency AirTanker Board refused to extend the interim approval of the drop system in December, 2012 due to problems with the retardant delivery system and deficient performance. However, in February 2013, the National Interagency Aviation Committee overrode the IATB decision citing a shortage of air tankers. The committee granted an extension of the interim approval of the retardant delivery system through December 15, 2013. Neptune has recognized the problem and said a redesigned system is being installed in its’ third and fourth BAe-146s and next winter the problematic design in the first two will be upgraded.
The USFS’s recent Request for Information to possibly lease 7 to 15 aircraft outfitted with high-tech sensors to serve as platforms for aerial supervision could be partially in response to the GAO’s criticism about the lack of aircraft effectiveness data. These aircraft would be equipped with Infrared/Electro-Optical sensing systems with color camera and FLIR systems which would have recording capability. If the personnel on board had time, when they are not managing aircraft, they could record air tanker drops and monitor the location long enough to determine if the water or retardant had the desired effect on the spread of the fire. The aircraft would have an aft crew station for two people designed for training which would have a duplicate set of controls and radios, which could possibly also be used for evaluating drop effectiveness when not used for training.
Thanks go out to Rick and the others who let us know about this.
It’s just a guess, but what you see in this photo of Tanker 910 over the Beaver Fire in Idaho may be evidence of what led to the replacement of the number two engine last week. The image is a screen grab from the video below which has many excellent still images from the Beaver Creek Fire.