In spite of that, the numbers of air tankers and helicopters are being slashed
Above: A water-scooping air tanker, a CL-415, at Sacramento, March 12, 2018.
In our notes from the Aerial Firefighting conference HERE and HERE, we included information about how some air tankers were busier than usual in 2017:
Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation, said their air tankers in 2016 averaged 180 hours while working on wildfires. In 2017 that increased to 276 hours each.
Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said each of their three DC-10s averaged about 300 hours on fires in 2017, which is more than usual.
Shawna Legarza, the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, said the two Aero-Flite CL-415 scooping air tankers that were on exclusive use (EU) USFS contracts in 2017 each had over 400 hours of fire flight time.
After we reported the information above, Jason Robinson, the Chief CL-415 pilot for Aero-Flite contacted us to supply more details. He generally confirmed the numbers reported by Ms. Legarza and said their two EU and two CWN CL-415’s averaged 410 hours each. In July and August alone the four scoopers flew 1,036 hours. The company brought in extra staffing to provide seven-day coverage and manage pilot fatigue. He said that in 2017, 12 Canadian CL-415’s and CL-215’s worked in California and Montana.
Mr. Robinson said they have operated CL-415’s in Alaska for up to 12 hours a day by double-crewing the aircraft.
Due to a reduction in the federal firefighting budget by the Administration and Congress, there will be no scoopers on the EU list this year. Some are still on a CWN contract, but they may or may not be available if the USFS Calls them When Needed. The large air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13 while the large Type 1 helicopters have been reduced from 34 to 28.
Two of Aero-Flite’s CL-415 scoopers, Tankers 260 and 263, began the Mandatory Availability Period on their exclusive use contracts on Monday. The company is hoping their other CL-415’s, Tankers 261 and 262, will be awarded call when needed contracts on the scooper solicitation that closed in March.
Aero-Flite also has two RJ85’s actively working on contracts and two others begin in the third week of May. They have one or two others available as call when needed depending on maintenance status.
In the last few weeks the U.S. Forest Service has brought on ten additional air tankers on a temporary basis. This includes CL-415 water-scoopers, CV-580’s, and Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130’s. Two of the aircraft were acquired through Call When Needed (CWN) agreements; four via agreements with Alaska and Canada; two MAFFS through an agreement with the Department of Defense; and two water scoopers through other contracts.
The U.S. Forest Service expects to have two HC-130H aircraft at McClellan Air Field in September. These are part of the seven aircraft fleet of HC-130H’s that the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard.
Last year one of the HC-130H’s worked out of McClellan using a MAFFS, a slip-in 3,000-gallon pressurized retardant system that pumps the liquid out the left side troop door. That was aircraft #1721 designated as Tanker 118, still painted in military colors. T-118 is now undergoing scheduled depot-level maintenance and should be replaced in September of this year by #1708 designated as Tanker 116. It will also use a slip-in MAFFS unit, one of the eight owned by the USFS, but should be sporting a new USFS air tanker paint job. After T-118 left, another former Coast Guard aircraft took its place, #1706. It is being used for training the contracted pilots and will not serve as an air tanker.
Eventually the USFS hopes to have all seven converted to air tankers with removable retardant tanks. A contract for the installation of the retardant delivery systems was awarded to the Coulson Group in May. There is also much other work that has to be completed on the aircraft including programmed depot maintenance, painting, and wing box replacement on most of them. The work is being done or coordinated by the U.S. Air Force. They were directed by Congressional legislation to use their own funds, up to $130 million, so it is no surprise that the schedule keeps slipping as delays continue to occur in awarding contracts and scheduling the maintenance.
The USFS has two water-scooping CL-415 air tankers on exclusive use contract. As noted above they recently temporarily brought on two more on a call when needed basis. All four are operated by AeroFlite and as seen in the photo above were together at Cody last week.
There was some discussion in the comment section of another article on Fire Aviation about the status of the BAe-146 aircraft being converted to air tankers by Air Spray. The company has five of the 146’s; two are out of the country and the other three are at the company’s Chico, California facility. Ravi Saip, their Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told Fire Aviation that they expect to begin flight testing one of them in air tanker mode around the first of the year. After they receive a supplemental type certificate from the FAA, work on the second one would shift into high gear. Then conversion of the other three would begin.
Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 single engine air tankers that they have purchased since 2014. Five of them have received the amphibious conversion by adding floats, and the other three are stock, restricted to wheels.
Air Spray’s Tanker 498, an L-188 Electra, is currently in Sacramento being inspected and carded by CAL FIRE so that it can be used in a Call When Needed capacity.
Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, told us that the FAA has awarded a supplemental type certificate for their reborn 747 SuperTanker — a major and sometimes very difficult barrier to overcome. Within the next two weeks they expect to receive the airworthiness certificate.
Beginning next week representatives from the USFS will observe some additional static tests and then there will be an airborne descent test, a new test added in 2013, releasing retardant in a downhill drop. That test was not required when Version 1.0 of the 747 was certified. It may have been added after it was discovered that the first BAe-146’s that were converted and issued contracts still retained hundreds of gallons of retardant after downhill runs.
These steps should take less than two weeks, Mr. Wheeler said, after which they will submit the results to the Interagency AirTanker Board.
Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told Fire Aviation that the company was offered an opportunity to submit a proposal for a call when needed contract solicitation in 2015, along with numerous other companies, but declined to do so. Their next opportunity to obtain a contract will be when another general solicitation is issued in 2017, or perhaps sooner, Ms. Jones said. The agency issued a Request for Information a few weeks ago, which is usually followed some months later with an actual solicitation.
Judging from the list of CWN air tankers with contracts, apparently it is possible to submit a proposal and receive a USFS CWN contract even if the aircraft exists mostly on paper and could be years away from being FAA and Interagency AirTanker Board certified.
In the meantime Mr. Wheeler realizes that the USFS is not the only organization that hires air tankers and has been talking with a number of other agencies in various states and countries as well as companies involved in marine firefighting.
Global SuperTanker is in the process of finishing repairs on the 747 in Arizona after some of the composite flight control surfaces (flaps, spoilers, elevators) and engine cowlings were damaged by golf ball sized hail at Colorado Springs several weeks ago. There was no windscreen or fuselage damage.
Mr. Wheeler said that was the first severe hailstorm within the last seven years at the Colorado Springs airport. But, after the aircraft left to be repaired in Arizona a second hailstorm struck the airport that some have said was a 100-year event and did much more damage than the first one.
Since then no decisions have been made. Ms. Jones told Fire Aviation:
The U.S. Forest Service continues to cooperate with the Department of Defense to identify potential federal facilities, which must be considered first.
It is unlikely that more than one or two of the seven HC-130H’s would be at the new base at at any one time, except during the winter when they would not have to be dispersed around the country to be available for firefighting. While the base might not be a huge expansion of the aerial firefighting capabilities in an area, the stationing of the flight crews, maintenance, and administrative personnel would be a boost to the economy of a small or medium-sized city.
Above: Air Tanker 262, a CL-415, in Oklahoma, April 7, 2016. Photo by John Wilson.
John Wilson sent us photos of the two CL-415 water-scooping air tankers that are on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contract. We were not sure which two AeroFlite aircraft were on the contract until we saw his photos. Now we know it is T-261 and T-262. We updated the 2016 contract list first published March 2, 2016.
John said the air tankers were seen near Bethel Acres, Oklahoma. They were most likely scooping water from Shawnee Twin Lakes in Pottawatomie County and then dropping the water on a fire a few miles to the south.
It was early evening and I was losing light but the Nikon handled it pretty well. I didn’t realize there was more than one aircraft until I started processing the images and noticed the tanker numbers.
Aero-Flite will supply two CL-415 air tankers for one to five years.
Above: Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260, a CL-415, at McClellan Air Field, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The daily availability rate for the two Aero-Flite CL-415 air tankers will be $42,285 with an hourly rate of $13,299. That daily rate is higher than all of the 21 large air tankers on contract. And only two large air tankers have a higher hourly rate — one of the DC-10s and the USFS/Coast Guard C-130.
The maximum five-year value of the contract is $142,524,440 for the two aircraft.
It is our understanding that the contract used last year expired. This new solicitation specified that the USFS would hire “up to two” aircraft for a period of time “not to exceed five years”. Obviously the agency made a decision and settled on two scoopers. We checked with Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, who told us that it is definitely a five-year contract.
One Aero-Flite CL-415 was on USFS contract in 2015, Tanker 260 (N389AC). The two this year are N386AC and N392AC. We don’t yet have their tanker numbers.
In past years the Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted for one or two twin engine water scoopers, CL-215s I believe, but no longer. This year they will have at least one amphibious water-scooping Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT), an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more, Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA, told us earlier this month.
There will also be a large number of non-water-scooping SEATs, perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out.
Air Tanker 260 has been assisting firefighters in Oklahoma for the last several days. It was also used in Oklahoma in 2014.
The CL-415 is operated by Aero-Flite under a U.S. Forest Service contract.
These photos taken at Ardmore, OK were provided by Oklahoma Forestry Services.
Tanker 06, one of Neptune’s P2Vs, is also en route to Oklahoma. We’re pretty sure the photo below is a file photo, and was not taken in Oklahoma. 😉
T-06 is headed to Oklahoma as fire season gets started for Neptune Aviation. Hats off to the dedicated Neptune maintenance team who ensures Neptune is ready for action. None better! Photo courtesy of Al Golub
The only water-scooping air tanker that the U.S. Forest Service has under exclusive use contract will be based at Lake Tahoe, California this summer at the South Lake Tahoe Airport. It recently returned from spending several weeks working on wildfires in Alaska.
The CL-415 can skim across the surface of a lake and scoop 1,600 gallons of water to fill its tank. If a suitable lake is near a fire, this capability can result in large quantities of water helping firefighters on the ground suppress a blaze — especially if two are working in tandem as they usually do in Canada. Water scooping air tankers are also used extensively in several European countries.
In October, 2013, the contract for the aircraft, with a potential value of $57 million, was awarded to Aero-Flite. It is a five year deal with a provision to add a second aircraft if both parties agree.
The CL-415 is leased from TENAX Aerospace by Aero-Flite. It is a brand new aircraft and is the only CL-415 in the United States.
The U.S. Forest Service announced yesterday that they awarded Call When Needed (CWN) contracts to five companies for a total of 22 next-generation air tankers. Not all of the aircraft exist yet in flyable, modified, inspected, and carded form. In fact, we estimate only about half of them are ready to go now if the phone rang.
The companies receiving the six-year CWN contracts include:
An exclusive use contract commits an aircraft to working non-stop, except for days off, for an extended period of days, 160, for example.
However on a CWN contract the aircraft may never be used by the USFS. It could sit for years without being activated by the agency. That was one reason the 747 “Supertanker” ceased to exist. It was parked for years on a CWN contract and was not used.
This, of course, can be a very expensive and risky proposition for a private company. They have to decide if they are going to maintain the aircraft in a continuous airworthy condition and hire flight crews and maintenance personnel. The USFS thinks it’s a great deal since they spend nothing if an air tanker is not used. But even if a CWN aircraft had been at one time fully certified, by the time the USFS decides to activate it, the aircraft and the staff to operate it may or may not be ready to fight fire. And the CWN rates are usually much higher than a multi-year exclusive use contract.
Walt Darren, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away a couple of years ago, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker ready to go.
Ravi Saip, the General Manager and Director of Maintenance for Air Spray at Chico, California, said none of their BAe-146s are fully operational today. They are working on two of them, and hope to have one finished by the end of this fire season. He said most of the work is done on that aircraft, and they are working closely with British Aerospace on the cutouts in the belly through which the retardant will flow. In about two months they hope to begin flight tests, and they still need to get the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and the Interagency AirTanker Board certifications.
Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker told us they have three completed DC-10s. Two are carded and are being used today on fires in California, T-911 and T-912. The third, which replaced and upgraded the older T-910, will retain that tanker number and is waiting for the USFS to issue their certification.
Britt Coulson of Coulson Aviation said they hope their recently converted Lockheed L-382G will be carded by the USFS next week. A civilian version of the C-130, it completed the grid test in early May.
The full list of air tankers receiving CWN contracts is below. Click on the image to see a larger version.