Colorado Governor to sign aerial firefighting bill

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsOn May 12 Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will sign the legislation recently passed by the House and the Senate that authorizes the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire a fleet of helicopters and air tankers to fight wildfires. 

The Governor will host a press conference at 11 a.m. at the Centennial Airport where he will sign the bill and give his annual wildfire briefing.

Colorado Senate Bill 14-164 appropriates $19.67 million and specifies that the CFAC purchase, lease, or contract for the use and operation of up to three helicopters in 2014. Beginning in 2015 and beyond the bill authorizes up to four air tankers.

The first version of the bill required certain specifications for the aircraft, including that the helicopters be able to carry 18 passengers and be capable of rappelling firefighters. The air tankers would have been outfitted for dropping retardant at night, something that has never been done on a regular basis.

The bill that passed both the House and the Senate provides maximum numbers of aircraft, but leaves everything else up to the CFAC. The bill requires that the agency adhere as nearly as possible to the recommendations spelled out in a report they released on March 28, titled “Special report: Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, report to the Governor and General Assembly on Strategies to enhance the state’s aerial firefighting capabilities”.

firefighting aircraft bill passed by both houses in Colorado

The legislation also creates a “center of excellence for advanced technology aerial firefighting”, to…:

  • Serve as a laboratory to evaluate the “three fundamental contributing factors to successful aerial firefighting: effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability”.
  • Conduct research to evaluate new technology in a variety of settings, such as initial attack, night operations, and operations in wildland-urban interface areas.
  • Produce data and documentation on science and technology relevant to aerial firefighting.

The press conference will be held at the Centennial Airport, Denver jetCenter, Hangar A, 7625 South Peoria Circle, Englewood, Colorado 80112.

If any FireAviation readers attend the event do us a favor and send us some photos.

Tanker 260 at Wiley Post Airport

Tanker 260, at Wiley Post Airport

These photos of Aero-Flite’s brand new CL-415, Tanker 260, were taken May 7 by Chet Dodrill of Chloeta Fire. The aircraft was at Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City along with a King Air 200 air attack platform.

The word of mouth in the area is that the local firefighters were very pleased with the work T-260 did on the recent fires near Guthrie and Woodward, Oklahoma. One of the lakes it was scooping from on the Guthrie fire was five to ten miles away from the fire, which allowed quick turnarounds.

The registration number on the plane is N389AC.

Tanker 260, at Wiley Post Airport

UPDATED May 9, 2014: The photo below was posted on the Oklahoma Forestry Services Facebook page today, with this caption: “The aircraft, a CL415 Airtanker, a Single Engine Airtanker (SEAT) & an air attack platform lined up for the Media Day today.”

Media day, photo by Oklahoma Forestry Services

The video below features the CL-415.

News9.com – Oklahoma City, OK – News, Weather, Video and Sports |

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Below is the text of a press release issued by Bombardier in November when the sale of the aircraft was announced. It was posted on the Tenax website:

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“Today, Bombardier celebrated the sale and delivery of its 50th iconic Bombardier 415 superscooper aircraft assembled at its North Bay, Ontario facility. The aircraft, purchased by a partnership led by Tenax Aerospace, LLC of Ridgeland, Mississippi, will be used under contract to the United States Forest Service starting next month. Based on the list price, the Bombardier contract is valued at approximately $34.5 million USD.

The Bombardier 415 superscooper aircraft is a world-renowned firefighter and adapts to the roughest terrain and the only aircraft specifically built as an aerial firefighting airplane. It is able to land on unpaved runways, lakes, rivers and seas, enabling both rapid initial attacks to extinguish fires and sustained attacks to contain fires.

“Today, we are celebrating two milestones: the 50th Bombardier 415 aircraft assembled in North Bay, Ontario as well as the first United States Bombardier 415 aircraft sale and delivery,” said Michel Bourgeois, President, Specialized and Amphibious Aircraft, Bombardier Aerospace. “I want to congratulate the employees for this achievement and to welcome the Tenax team to the amphibious aircraft family. This is yet another testament to the true value of the expertise of our employees and of our superscooper aircraft that remains the top aerial firefighting choice around the world,” he continued.

While the 50th Bombardier 415 aircraft to roll out of North Bay, Ontario is the first to be sold to a United States customer, a total of five State and privately owned CL-215 aircraft, the predecessor to the Bombardier 415 aircraft, are currently operated in the United States.

Since the first Bombardier 415 amphibious aircraft was delivered in 1994, a total of 85 Bombardier 415 and four Bombardier 415 MP aircraft have been delivered to governments and firefighting agencies around the world. In addition, 80 CL-215 and CL-215T amphibious piston aircraft remain in service worldwide.

About the Bombardier 415 aircraft

The Bombardier 415 firefighter aircraft has a normal cruise speed of 180 KT (333 km/h) under certain conditions. In an average mission of six nautical miles (11 kilometres) distance from water to fire, it can complete nine drops within an hour and precisely deliver 14,589 US gallons (55,233 litres) of fire suppressant.”

Neptune Aviation’s five BAe-146 air tankers

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Neptune’s five BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo.

Neptune Aviation assembled their five BAe-146 air tankers on the tarmac at Missoula for picture day. It is a pretty remarkable photo — five jet-powered air tankers that meet the basic U.S. Forest Service criteria to qualify as “next-generation” air tankers, which require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons.

Only one of these five air tankers has a confirmed contract with the federal government, the USFS. It is on a “legacy” contract. Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now for the USFS are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.

A very unlikely option would be for the USFS to allow competitive bidding on an additional contract. All of the existing valid legacy and next-gen contracts allow for up to four additional aircraft to be added as “additional equipment” to each line item. The vendors that won the awards for those contracts are all hoping to add more aircraft down the road, and would most likely be very distressed if another company came in that lost competitive bidding previously, and basically took away their opportunity to supply more air tankers.

But, it is painful to see four recently retrofitted, freshly painted, jet air tankers sitting on the tarmac — with a rather bleak future.

Erickson Aero Tanker to receive approval for their MD-87s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Erickson Aero Tanker expects to begin flying two of their MD-87 air tankers on contract next month. Kevin McCullough, President of the company, told Fire Aviation on Wednesday that they have received a supplemental type certificate for the aircraft from the FAA, they have passed the grid test of dropping retardant into hundreds of cups on the ground, and the Interagency AirTanker (IATB) board will soon issue an interim 18-month approval. The new policy of the IATB is to award 18-month interim approvals, basically two fire seasons, for new air tanker designs.

The mandatory availability periods for the two MD-87s that received next-generation air tanker contracts will begin June 5 and June 10. Mr. McCullough said the aircraft are in Arizona now and will fly up to their facility in Oregon next week. The following week they will go through the carding procedure.

The MD-87s have a retardant capacity of 4,000 gallons and will very rarely have to carry less than that due to density altitude, Mr. McCullough said.

The company bought seven MD-87s and so far three of them have been completely retrofitted as air tankers. Their next-gen contract allows for the U.S. Forest Service to add as “additional equipment” eight more MD-87s, for a total of ten. The decision to add more air tankers is totally up to the USFS, assuming of course that the vendor has the aircraft available. The USFS would, 1) determine that there is a need, and then, 2) come up with the money. Mr. McCullough told us they hope to have ten MD-87s in service somewhere down the road.

The air tanker numbers on the three completed MD-87s are 101, 103, and 105.

Erickson Aero Tanker was one of five companies that received contracts in May of 2013 for a total of seven next-gen air tankers:

Coulson and 10 Tanker had their aircraft flying soon after the awards became final last summer, following the resolution of the protest that was filed over the contract by Neptune Aviation. It is our understanding, after talking with USFS officials, that Aero Flite will very soon receive final IATB approval for their two RJ85s. That leaves Minden’s BAe-146, which has not yet attempted a formal grid test, but has passed a static test, releasing water from the tank while parked on the ground.

Here is the breakdown of Type 1 air tankers which are now, or may soon be active on USFS exclusive use contracts this year:

Air tankers available in 2014

Other air tankers

10 Tanker has a second DC-10 on a call when needed contract. It could either remain as call when needed, or the USFS could add it as additional equipment on the company’s next-gen contract.

As mentioned above, Erickson Aero Tanker has a third MD-87 that will ready to drop on fires in a couple of weeks, according to Mr. McCullough. It is not currently on contract but could be added as additional equipment. They have four more MD-87s that could be retrofitted.

Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. One of the five is on a “legacy” contract (as noted in the chart above), and the other four have no contract. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.

The Department of the Interior also has 33 single-engine air tankers (SEATs) on exclusive use contract that carry 800 gallons, and the USFS has a 1,600-gallon CL-415 water-scooping air tanker. The DOI usually has two CL-215s on contract that have a 1,400-gallon capacity.

Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260 used in Oklahoma

KOCO has an article and photos of Aero-Flite’s brand new CL-415 water scooping air tanker (Tanker 260) that relocated from Florida to Oklahoma City a few days ago to be used on the fires in the area. Michelle Self posted a video on her Facebook page of it scooping out of Lake Liberty (map) while it was working on the fire near Guthrie, OK. The lake was five to ten miles west of the fire which would have contributed to very fast turnaround times for the 1,600-gallon water drops.

Update on next-gen air tankers

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 160 at the retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Five companies received contracts on May 6, 2013 for seven “next-generation” air tankers. Of those seven, only two have met all of the specifications in the contracts and received the required certifications from the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) for a supplemental type certificate, a static drop test on the ground, and an airborne test of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups. The two that have passed and have flown on fires are 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s 11,600-gallon DC-10, and Coulson Group’s 3,500-gallon C-130Q.

Here is what we learned this week while talking with aviation professionals at Cheyenne.

Minden Air Corp, who received a contract for one BAe-146, has passed the static test. They have not attempted a formal monitored grid test. The retardant system they are building has some impressive capabilities, including a high flow rate and a great amount of flexibility in the flow rate. It has the ability to select two different flow rates on one drop, for example, going from coverage level 5 to coverage level 8. (The numbers refer to the number of gallons of retardant that lands on 100 square feet of flat terrain.) That feature could be used when there is a change in vegetation or topography, moving, for example from grass to timber, or flat terrain to a steep slope. In each case it would be helpful to increase the coverage level.

Erickson Aero Tanker, received contracts for two MD-87s. One of the aircraft participated in a grid test in January, and the Interagency Air Tanker Board is still reviewing the results. Even though they added a fairing to modify how the air flow affected the performance of the aircraft and the retardant flow near the fuselage, the aircraft experienced some problems in qualifying at the higher coverage levels. The engineers may need to enlarge the retardant door openings to increase the flow rates.

Aero-Flite has two RJ-85s, an aircraft similar to the BAe-146. It has passed the grid test and the company is working on obtaining dual “citizenship”, supplemental type certificates for the retardant system from Transport Canada and the United States FAA . It is likely that the aircraft will be certified very soon by the IATB for an 18-month interim approval, which will be the new standard operating procedure for air tankers that receive an initial blessing from the IATB. The interim approval provides an opportunity for field trials, to determine if anything surfaces that was not apparent during the static, STC, and grid tests.

Bonus coverage:

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” was not part of the next-gen contract, but the company did have a couple of call when needed contracts (CWN), with the last one being issued June 14, 2013. 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. But a few weeks after receiving the contract, Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Evergreen Supertanker Services, told Fire Aviation they reconsidered and decided to postpone the C check since there was “insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades.”

A matter of weeks after Mr. Soelberg gave us that update the company filed for bankruptcy. The change in ownership made the CWN contract void. As of now, the 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker is not covered by an air tanker contract.

Neptune has one BAe-146 working on the “legacy” air tanker contract, even though it now meets the criteria for a next-gen, including the required air speed and a 3,000-gallon retardant capacity. Before they modified the tanking system for the third time last fall, the tank held about 2,900 gallons and there was a problem in coverage level of the last 400 gallons exiting the tank, so the Forest Service restricted it to only carrying 2,500 gallons. The modifications increased the tank size to 3,000 gallons and made other changes in the system. At another grid test last fall it showed improved consistency for all 3,000 gallons, and in the flow rate at all coverage levels. As a result the Forest Service has now certified the tank system to carry 3,000 gallon of retardant. Their new design is innovative in that it uses GPS to measure the aircraft speed and then can automatically modulate the retardant flow rate to maintain the desired coverage level. They also have a sensor on the drop tubes which measures the actual flow rate. They system can then direct the valves or doors to change the size of the opening in order to maintain the coverage level as other factors change, such as the head pressure in the tank or if the aircraft encounters turbulence. Neptune expects to have a total of five BAe-146 air tankers available by later this summer.

Update on Forest Service C-130 air tankers

USFS https://fireaviation.com/2014/03/20/tom-harbour-talks-about-air-tankers/
The paint design that has been approved by the Forest Service for the seven C-130s that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service.

It will probably be a year before any of the seven C-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard, to the Air Force, and finally to the Forest Service will be seen dropping retardant on a fire. Tom Harbour told us last month that he expects at least one to be flying by 2015.

The aircraft all need various levels of maintenance and it is thought that at least five will have to have the wing boxes replaced, a 10-month project that costs around $7 million each. Then the retardant systems will be installed. The Air Force, the agency overseeing the work on the aircraft, is expected to issue a solicitation for bids on the retardant system within the next two to three months. The Forest Service is working with the Air Force to write the specifications, which will reflect some of the language in the existing air tanker contracts, and information that the agencies have learned about retardant systems over the last 50 years.

The Forest Service is partnering with the Coast Guard for training and higher level, or Depot level, maintenance for the C-130s. The discussions within the Forest Service have been that the logistics, support, routine maintenance, and pilots for the C-130s would be provided by contractors, making it a government-owned/contractor-operated (GO/CO) program.

But no solicitations have been issued for these services. The Forest Service’s recent track record for awarding aerial firefighting contracts can lead one to an assumption that contracts for a GO/CO operation will not be awarded any time soon. Three USFS air tanker contracts have been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO — the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.

It could take longer to award the contracts than to refurbish and retrofit the C-130s. We would be very surprised if it happens by the end of this year.

After the contracts are signed, it could take quite some time for the contractors to ramp up to procure equipment, and to hire pilots, mechanics, and other employees to provide the services. If the pilots have no air tanker experience or qualifications, that will be another issue that has to be overcome. However, there is probably a large pool of ex-Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve C-130 pilots. Some of them may even have prior Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) experience. In fact, Coulson has hired several pilots with MAFFS experience to fly their recently converted C-130Q air tanker.

The good news is that it is much easier to find and hire a C-130 pilot with recent experience than it is to find a P2V pilot that has flown the aircraft recently.

Annual MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS aircraft at Cheyenne
MAFFS aircraft at Cheyenne, April 30, 2014, MAFFS numbers 0, 1, and 3

Yesterday I visited the Wyoming Air National Guard facility at Cheyenne Regional Airport during the annual training and certification/recertification for the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) units from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Charlotte, North Carolina. Each unit supplies two C-130H3 aircraft that can carry the 3,000-gallon fire retardant system when they are needed to help suppress wildfires, supplementing the United States’ atrophied fleet of large air tankers which has declined from 44 in 2002 to 9 this year.

The training includes classroom and airborne sessions, actually dropping, in this case, water, however, very strong winds required cancellation of the practice drops Wednesday. They hope the weather improves so they can get off the ground today.

MAFFS unit
Lt. Col. Alan Brown of the Wyoming Air National Guard stands at the rear of a MAFFS unit inside a C-130H3. Loadmasters sit in the two chairs to the right of Col. Brown. The retardant is pumped out of the pipe in the lower half of the orange paratroop door. The upper pipe in the door allows outside air to enter the tank as the retardant exits, if compressed air is not used to push the retardant out of the tank.
MAFFS unit Alan Brown
Lt. Col. Alan Brown, of the Wyoming Air National Guard, is seen near the two air compressors at the front end of a MAFFS unit. If the compressors are working properly, which is not always the case, it takes about 30 minutes to refill the two compressed air tanks, which push the retardant out of the tanks. A specially-built ground-based air compressor sometimes meets the MAFFS aircraft at their temporary base and can refill the tanks in about 14 minutes.
Lt. Col. Alan Brown
Lt. Col. Alan Brown of the Wyoming Air National Guard holds a MAFFS retardant release control.

In the photo above and the video below, Lt. Col. Alan Brown of the Wyoming Air National Guard shows and explains how a hand-held control can be used by the loadmasters in a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tanker to release the 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, if for some reason the pilots, who normally trigger the release with an identical controller, are unable to perform that function. The video was filmed by Bill Gabbert for FireAviation.com on April 30, 2014 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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