For more than 15 years Minden Air Corp has been working on the concept of transitioning from their Korean War vintage P2V air tankers to a jet, the BAe-146. They acquired two or three of them and had nearly completed their work on what was going to be Air Tanker 46 when they ran out of money. Problems with hydraulic systems led to landing gear failures on two P2Vs, T-48 and T-55, taking out Minden’s last two operational air tankers, which no doubt affected their incoming revenue stream. Thankfully there were no serious injuries reported in those two accidents, unlike the crash of the company’s T-99 on October 3, 2003 that killed the two pilots, Carl Dolbeare , 54 and John Attardo, 51. A lookout staffing a fire tower saw that P2V fly into a cloud bank as it was preparing to land at San Bernardino. It did not emerge and shortly thereafter they saw what appeared to be smoke at the top of the cloud. The NTSB described it as “controlled flight into mountainous terrain”. The two pilots had a combined total of more than 15,000 flight hours.
In October AvGeek filmed a report about Minden Air Corp at the Minden Airport 45 miles south of Reno, Nevada.
Tim Cristy, Flight Operations for Minden, said in the video when explaining why the conversion of T-46 came to a stop, “We ran out of money. Well, the engineering got expensive as all get-out”.
We attempted to call Mr. Christy and Minden’s CEO, Len Parker, to get more information but the number we had used before no longer works.
The T-46 project had progressed to conducting a grid test, which involves dropping retardant over a grid of more than 3,000 cups on the ground. In the video Mr. Cristy said the test went well. We are not sure if the aircraft ever received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA which is a major hurdle to overcome in addition to approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board. After that they would have had to deal with the bewildering and unpredictable Forest Service contracting system before they ever received a dime from their large monetary investment.
The video below, published June 17, 2014, shows T-46 making its first test drops of water and retardant.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Brian. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
Airport firefighting is a very specialized niche — there are not many similarities in what they do compared to most other firefighters. For example, one of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s rigs at the city’s airport can apply by the push of a button on the dash, water, foam, dry chemical, or Halotron (a clean agent). That truck also has a penetrator device which can pierce the fuselage of an aircraft in order to apply one of the four suppressing agents in the interior of the aircraft.
Much more information is in the video below about the Los Angeles Fire Department Airport Rescue Firefighting organization.
A U.S. Forest Service lead plane pilot whose home was destroyed in the Carr Fire near Redding, California earlier this year continued to work each day guiding large air tankers as they made their retardant drops on the fire. On December 12 David Spliethof received a 2018 Regional Forester’s Honor Award for the work he did on the fire. The award is given to those who went above and beyond their scope of duty to perform an act of service of rare or exceptional character that reflects an uncommon degree of concern for the well-being of others.
Mr. Spliethof continued to fly as a lead plane pilot for days after he knew he lost his home and all of his family’s belongings. The Spliefthof’s had nothing but the clothes on their backs. He said in an interview that there is no place he would rather be than flying and helping others instead of feeling sorry for himself. He had his family, so he continued to fly to minimize the loss of more homes. Several air tanker pilots stated that for a while they had no idea Mr. Spliefthof lost his home because he was professional and never missed a beat.
There is a critical shortage of lead plane pilots and he had every reason to forgo his duties and focus on his personal situation. However, he chose to serve the agency and the public.
The Los Angeles Fire Department(LAFD) aviation program started in 1962 with one Bell 47. Today they have six helicopters, four AgustaWestland AW139’s and two Bell Jet Rangers. To work as a pilot with the Department, you can’t simply walk in off the street. The minimum qualifications are:
Private helicopter license,
At least 100 hours of flight time in a helicopter, and,
Four years experience as a firefighter with the LAFD.
After a pilot is accepted into the program they are shipped over to the Los Angeles Police Department aviation program where they receive training with 150 hours of flight time, a commercial license, and an instrument rating. If successful there, they go back to the Fire Department and get another 200 flight hours of training. Then there is additional schooling at AgustaWestland to fly their 139.
Two aircraft conducted 40 missions with infrared line-scanning equipment
Queensland does not normally experience scores of large bushfires burning simultaneously, especially during what is supposed to be their wet season. During their recent fire siege the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) brought in many resources from New South Wales, Victoria, and other areas including personnel and large air tankers. They also used two contracted intelligence gathering aircraft, a Learjet and Kingair from Air Affairs Australia, which were outfitted with infrared line scanners to detect new fires and map existing blazes.
The imagery delivered during both day and night-time flight operations provided imaging of the ground, defining active fire and burnt terrain through dense smoke.
A total of 40 flight missions were flown, delivering a total of 192 detailed fire images. Through transmission of image data from the aircraft via satellite, the imagery was delivered to the QFES State Operations Centre for near real-time utilization in Geographic Information Systems. The data was then made available through the QFES state-wide emergency mapping system for immediate regional usage.
The state government also expects to buy two lead/aerial supervision aircraft
Recognizing that there is a year-round risk for damaging vegetation fires in parts of Australia like in the Western United States, the New South Wales state government has announced funding of $26.3 million to purchase one large fixed wing air tanker and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft. Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), told us the intent of the NSW government is to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability. This resident capability will continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.
In recent years NSW and Victoria have hired large air tankers, primarily from Canada, for their summer bushfire season. During the 2018-2019 summer the two governments have six working, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They have also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters.
The NSW government purchase of the large air tanker and lead/supervision airplanes will be through an upcoming tender process. Likewise the maintenance and operation of these aircraft will be contracted out.
On December 5 the Australian federal government announced that they would contribute an extra $11.0 million to aerial firefighting for 2018-19 via NAFC. This was part of a larger funding package ($26.1 million in total) that included a number of other initiatives to support bushfire response and community resilience. (More details of the overall package here). The $11.0 million for aerial firefighting is a one-off extra contribution for 2018-19, recognizing that the Australian 2018-19 season is forecast to be above normal in key bushfire risk areas. For 2018-19, it means that the total direct contribution to aerial firefighting from the federal government will be $25.8 million.
Mr. Alder said that in Australia the responsibility for land and forest management and bushfire prevention and suppression constitutionally rests mainly with state and territory (provincial) governments. The federal government contributes funding and other resources to assist the states and territories. With aerial firefighting, the state and territory governments and the federal government collaborate through the NAFC which handles contracting of aerial resources on behalf of the states and territories. This provides coordinated approaches to market, common standards and interoperability.
In addition to the six large air tankers and heavy helicopters, this summer NAFC has contracted for other aerial resources:
More than forty fixed wing firebombing aircraft, including two AT802 Fireboss (scooping) airplanes;
Five helicopters specially equipped for dedicated intelligence gathering with gimballed infrared sensors and mapping and communication systems;
Four dedicated mapping/strategic intelligence gathering fixed wing aircraft (three Lear 35/36 jets and one Kingair turboprop), equipped with infra-red line scanners, image processing and high bandwidth communications systems.
Two night vision equipped helicopters for suppressing fires at night (and several other NVIS helicopters for support tasks).
The current NAFC large air tanker contracts are for three years with options to extend to five years, Mr. Alder told us. Five of the six working in Australia this year have mandatory availability periods (they call them “minimum service periods”) ranging from 84 to 112 days; a sixth is for 152 days. The U.S. Forest Service MAPs are usually 133 to 160 days, and the USFS contract that is out for bid now is for one year with options to extend to five years. Both the USFS and NAFC can, and often do, extend the days worked within a season beyond the minimum as needed.
To our readers: does anyone care to speculate which aircraft NSW will purchase in their goal to spend $26.3 million on a large air tanker (LAT) and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft? I don’t see how the LAT could be new. Even if the CL-415 were still being manufactured, it’s generally not considered a large air tanker since it can only carry 1,600 gallons. And the last ones produced sold for around $37 million. A new Q400 would be out of the price range, but the manufacturer, Bombardier, and Conair, which does the conversions, are both based in Canada, which appears to be a preferred source of NAFC. I have seen a used Q400 advertised for about $12 million.
A previously owned BAe-146 or RJ85 can be bought for $5 to $6 million, and adding a retardant delivery system might run around $3 to $5 million more. There are used 737-400s on the market for about $3.5 million. Coulson and Conair, both Canadian companies which are currently converting these models, would probably be happy to make a sale. Of course Neptune is also building BAe-146s. A new C-130 or LM-100J would be out of the question at their budget. Used C-130s are difficult to find and the cost can be higher than retired airliners.
The Fire Department may acquire it from the National Guard
The Santa Barbara County supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the submission of a competitive bid for the fire department to purchase a Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard.
Currently the agency operates two Bell OH-58A+ helicopters used primarily for law enforcement operations. These aircraft are equipped with multi-agency communications radios, Forward Looking InfraRed technology, powerful searchlights, LoJack stolen vehicle tracking equipment, photo and video equipment, and mapping technology.
The department also operates three Rescue/Firefighting aircraft: two Bell UH-1H Hueys and a Bell UH-1N twin-engine Huey. All three Huey Aircraft are equipped with rescue hoists, capable of lowering rescue personnel into remote or otherwise inaccessible locations and extricating lost or injured persons who could not be rescued by conventional means. All of the Huey aircraft are also capable of fire suppression missions using either fixed water tanks or removable long-line buckets.
Below is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Ynez Valley News:
Interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the Blackhawk helicopter will cost less than $1.73 million, noting Cal Fire just purchased two new Black Hawks for between $20 million and $25 million each. He said there will be some additional costs to remove military-specific equipment from the Black Hawk and install the gear necessary to turn it into a Firehawk aerial firefighting unit. The annual operation and maintenance costs also will be higher than the choppers the county currently operates.
County Fire’s Hueys fly at 120 knots and carry 360 gallons of water, but the Firehawk will fly at 190 knots and carry 1,000 gallons of water, which can be released as a full load or in three separate loads. It can also carry twice as many personnel, Dyer said.
In addition to the $1.7 million purchase price of the Blackhawk, the additional costs of retrofitting and maintenance will bring the total up to about $4.7 million. The most costly task will be the installation of the 1,000-gallon water tank including extending the landing gear, which raises the aircraft to make room for the tank.
The helicopter they hope to purchase has been used as an air ambulance by the National Guard. It has about 3,200 hours on it and was built in 2002.
One of the Hueys now operated by the department flew in the Vietnam War and is 51 years old. Parts are becoming difficult to find for the helicopter fleet, with all of them being previously owned and retired by the military.
Two of the district supervisors stated that the fire department needs to develop a long range strategic plan for managing and funding the helicopter fleet.