Manitoba converts to contractors for operating the Province’s air tankers

A contract was awarded to Babcock and Air Spray

Manitoba CL-415 air tanker
An employee polishes one of the Manitoba CL-415 air tankers in Manitoba that was delivered around 2012. (screen grab from ChrisD204 video)

The Canadian Province of Manitoba has decided to turn over the operation of its air tankers to a private company. The process began in June of this year when the province issued a request for proposals (RFP) which has resulted in a 10-year contract with Babcock who will work with Air Spray to operate the aircraft.

The deployment of the tankers will remain under the direction of Manitoba Wildfire Program staff.

The Wildfire Suppression Services contract includes the management, maintenance, and operation of Manitoba’s fleet of seven Canadair water-scooping amphibious aircraft (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft. Manitoba will retain ownership of the air tankers, parts, inventory, special tools, and equipment but will transfer care and custody to the contractors.

In 2017, Babcock aircraft and crews carried out over 5,500 firefighting missions, dropped 174 million liters of water and logged over 20,000 hours in support of wildfire suppression.

The Manitoba government purchased four CL-415 scooping air tankers for $126 million that were delivered between 2010 and 2012, replacing some of the much older CL-215 tankers built between 1969 and 1990.

Based on operations in prior years, the Wildfire Suppression Service will provide approximately 1,400 flying hours and 3,750 water drops per year. Operations will cover the entire Province of Manitoba and will help to protect communities in a population of 1.3 million people.

“Our government is committed to protecting Manitobans from wildfires and that’s what this agreement delivers,” said Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler. “It will ensure faster response times, enhanced safety and a superior aircraft maintenance program.  It will make Manitoba’s wildfire suppression system even better.”

Lynn Hamilton, owner and President of Air Spray Ltd., said “the Province of Manitoba can be assured that our years as a leader in the air tanker industry and experience fighting wildfires throughout Western Canada can be relied on to provide outstanding service to the Province.”

Representatives of Babcock will be meeting with affected government employees in the very near future to discuss employment opportunities under the new operating structure, Mr. Schuler said.

A government employee’s union issued a statement in July a month after the RFP was announced.

“Our skilled members at Manitoba Government Air Services provide an essential, life-saving public service to Manitobans, getting critically ill patients to hospitals and protecting communities from forest fires,” said Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky at a press conference Friday. “These essential services should not be auctioned off as profit opportunities for private airline corporations.”

Manitoba still has a RFP out for both general transportation air services and for air ambulance services.

Air Spray tests their BAe-146 air tanker

The aircraft appears to be nearing the completion of its 5-year conversion

Air Tanker 170 making test drop
Air Spray’s Air Tanker 170 making a test drop at Fox Field in September, 2018. Screen shot from the VMC Aviation Video below.

Today we learned about two videos that were shot in September as Air Spray was putting their BAe-146 air tanker through the grid test at Fox Field in Southern California. The test involves repeatedly dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. The amount in each cup is measured to determine the quantity of retardant and the uniformity of the pattern.

Air Spray has been working on this aircraft since at least March of 2014 when we visited their hangar in Chico, California. At that time the company was hoping to complete the conversion of the airliner into an air tanker by the end of that year. In March of this year they demonstrated it dropping water at the Aerial Firefighting Conference at Sacramento.

The aircraft has an unusual vinyl wrap — a forest scene on the aft section which certainly can’t be mistaken for another air tanker. It remains to be seen if the images of vegetation turn out to be camouflage, making it difficult to be seen by other aircraft when it is flying close to the ground.  The “N” number is hard to read (it’s N907AS) but that could be easily fixed.

These videos were shot by VMC Aviation Videos in September at the grid test for Tanker 170. The first one is very unusual, showing four drops on the same screen and then repeats them in slow motion. The other includes a lot of taxiing, but also has several drops.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Marcel.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Air Spray gears up (so to speak) for the fire season

(About half of Air Spray’s fleet of air tankers do not have conventional landing gear — they are on floats.)

Above: An Air Spray AT-802F Fire Boss at Omak, Washington in 2016. Photo by Air Spray.

Air Spray has exclusive use (EU) contracts for seven of their air tankers this year.  The company has eight Air Tractor Single Engine Air Tankers. Five are on floats, AT-802F Fire Bosses, and three AT-802F’s have conventional wheeled landing gear.

Around the middle of May two of the Fire Bosses will start their contracts in Alaska. In the first part of June three more will begin working with the Washington DNR. And in early July two of the “wheelies”, AT-802F’s, will be on duty in Oregon, one with the state DNR and the other with the U.S. Forest Service.

air tanker wildfire
Training at New Hogan Lake in California, February, 2018. Photo by Air Spray.

That accounts for all of the SEATs except one. Ravi Saip, the company’s Director of Maintenance/General Manager, said he had hoped that the BLM would pick it up along with 32 other SEATs on their National EU contract.

SEAT practice drop air tanker
A practice drop during training in 2016 at Black Butte Lake in California. Air Spray photo.

Randy Eardley, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, told us today that no EU contracts for Single Engine Air Tankers have been awarded yet this year, but there is an existing CWN contract for SEATs which will be used. He said it is unlikely that there will be an EU contract, for the second year in a row. Before 2017 there were typically 33 SEATs on EU. Approximately 10 have been working on a CWN basis in Texas and the Southwest during the last month or two.

So now, Mr. Saip is hoping that their remaining wheeled SEAT can find work on a CWN basis.

air tanker support unit
Air Tanker 825 and its maintenance support unit July 2, 2014. Photo by Air Spray.

Like other air tanker operators, Air Spray has ground-based mobile maintenance units that are dispatched with their aircraft. But in addition to carrying tools and spare parts, they also bring pumps and tanks for mixing retardant before it is loaded onto the aircraft.

Air tanker 481 Lockheed Electra L188
Air Spray’s Air Tanker 481, a Lockheed Electra L188 on static display at McClellan, March 12, 2018.

Air Spray also has a Lockheed L-188 that will be available to CAL FIRE on a CWN contract again this year.

Air tanker 170 BAe-146
Air tanker 170 makes a demonstration drop at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The BAe-146 that the company started converting in 2014 has come a long way as you can see in the photo above. It will soon be doing some static testing for the Interagency Airtanker Board and at some point a grid test, dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground.

Tanker 170 debuts at Aerial Firefighting Conference

It has a CWN contract but still needs to take a grid test and be approved by the Interagency Airtanker Board.

Above: Air tanker 170 makes a demonstration drop at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 9:55 p.m. PDT March 12, 2018)

(I am currently at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento. This venue provides a fire hose of information about fighting fires from the air. Over the coming days we will be posting articles generated here.)


It usually takes much longer to convert an aircraft into an air tanker than initially thought. Four years ago after the Aerial Firefighting North America 2014 conference in Sacramento, Ravi Saip (General Manager) and Paul Lane (Vice President and COO) of Air Spray gave me a tour of the BAe-146 they had just started working on. The interior and the cockpit had been gutted, but there was much more that had to be done.

Fast forward to today, March 12, 2018 when the aircraft, now morphed into an air tanker, made a demonstration drop at Sacramento McClellan Airport in front of a crowd of spectators at the 2018 version of the Aerial Firefighting conference.

Air tanker 170 BAe-146
Air tanker 170 at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The aircraft holds 3,000 gallons in a gravity-powered tank, like the other BAe-146’s and RJ85’s operated by Aero Flite and Neptune, but it looks very different. Some of the more recently developed air tankers have very distinct non-traditional livery, such as the 747 and 737. Air Spray has taken it a notch higher, also using a vinyl wrap, but their version has a forest scene on the aft section. It certainly can’t be mistaken for another air tanker. The “N” number is hard to read (it’s N907AS) but that could be easily fixed.

Air tanker 170 BAe-146
A drawing of the retardant tank on air tanker 170 at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Air tanker 170 BAe-146 tank
The retardant tank on air tanker 170 at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I appreciate the efforts of the designers of automobile bodies and aircraft livery that create something that is not like all of the others that are on the road or in the air — like the Plymouth Prowler, the Chevrolet SSR truck, and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. That does not mean I would buy one, but there is something to be said for not being boring.

Air tanker 170 BAe-146
Air tanker 170 at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2015 the U.S. Forest Service awarded call when needed contracts for 22 large air tankers. The interesting thing about that list was — at least half of them did not exist, or at least they were years away from being converted into air tankers. Air Spray, Neptune, Coulson, 10 Tanker, and Aero Flite have all benefited as their aircraft slowly made the transitions into reality. Air Spray’s N907AS is the latest.

Air tanker 170 BAe-146
Air tanker 170 at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

But Tanker 190 still has to prove itself, and a grid test is on its calendar in April along with the other steps on the way to approval by the Interagency Airtanker Board.

In addition to this aircraft, Air Spray owns four other BAe-146’s. Two of those are currently being converted into air tankers.

Air tanker 170 BAe-146
Air Spray personnel at MCC March 12, 2018. L to R: Dennis Murray, Josh Pavia, Michael Young, Lowell Slatter, Robert Maggetti, Brian Baldridge, Dennis Chrystian, Heather Jay, Paul Lane, Ravi Saip.

Air Spray and Coulson to roll out additional air tankers

Both companies expect to introduce new air tankers in the next few months.

Coulson's "new" Tanker 133
Coulson’s “new” Tanker 133 just after the decorative wrap was applied. Coulson photo.

Coulson

Britt Coulson told us today that their most recently converted air tanker, Tanker 133 will be complete by the end of this week (see above photo). It will be the third in the C-130 series that the company has converted and is their second L-382G, which is a civilian version of the C-130. Their first L-382G, Tanker 132, was first grid tested in 2015 and in recent months was on contract in Australia. T-133 should be complete before the company begins pilot training at the end of this month.

Coulson is also working on a fourth air tanker. The “new” Tanker 134 is the second C-130Q that they have acquired and should be ready to go about four years after their first C-130Q, Tanker 131 reported for duty. The aircraft needs heavy maintenance, and to get it done they will remove the tail and wings and truck it down the highway from Tucson to another facility in Mesa. Britt Coulson said they expect to have it complete by the end of this summer.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q which will become Tanker 134 later this year. Coulson photo.

The C-130Q’s began as strategic communications links for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces. They are similar to the C-130H, but the 12 “Q” models that were made were outfitted with complex electronics systems, including a six-mile long trailing wire antenna, for communicating with submarines and bombers. Tanker 131 still has the remains of a vent for cooling the winch that was used to reel in the long antenna.

Privately owned C-130’s are extremely hard to find, and it is likely that very few more, if any, will be converted to air tankers in the near future.

Air Spray

Meanwhile Air Spray expects to roll their first converted BAe-146 out of the hangar in a week or so to begin static tests of the retardant system while the aircraft is parked on the ground. After that is complete they will start flight tests and work towards the grid test, dropping retardant into a matrix of cups on the ground at Fox Field. Ravi Saip, the company’s Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told us today that he expects the tanker will be ready to fight fire sometime this summer.  They are also working on a second BAe-146, which, so far, has the interior stripped out. Air Spray has been working on the first one since at least 2013, when the estimated completion date was fire season 2014.

Air Spray's BAe-146
Air Spray’s BAe-146s as seen in a 2013 Air Spray photo. Ravi Saip said when they roll the nearly completed aircraft out of the hangar he will send us a better picture.

Mr. Saip told us that the recent contracts for federal air tankers require that instead of being certified in the “restricted” category, they must comply with the requirements of a “standard” aircraft. The Forest Service, and especially the FAA, have been pushing for this change for jet-powered air tankers for a while.While it complicates the conversion and approval process, it also opens the  possibility of air tankers being allowed to carry passengers if the Forest Service wanted to plug that into the contracts.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) — three on wheels, and five on floats. They are on contract with Alaska, Oregon, the Forest Service, and one is on Call When Needed.

Mr. Saip said the one with the Forest Service at John Day, Oregon is the only SEAT the agency has on contract and is instrumented with strain gauges like the large air tankers.

The Bureau of Land Management usually does all of the contracting for the federal SEATs. Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the BLM, told us in March that the number of SEATs on exclusive use contracts was expected to be the same as in 2016 — 33 aircraft.

18 BAe-146/RJ85 air tankers expected to be operational this year

Above:  T-10 (a BAe-146), another BAe-146, and an RJ85 (center) at La Grande, OR. Photo by Josh Annas.

The number of RJ85 and BAe-146 air tankers continues to grow. According to BAE Systems there are likely to be 18 of the aircraft that are operational by later this year and there are four more in various levels of conversion.

The two quad-jet aircraft are similar — both are made by BAE — and can carry up to about 3,000 gallons of retardant utilizing gravity to empty the tanks.

During the 2016 wildfire season the 14 in-service BAe 146-200s and Avro RJ85s of Neptune Aviation and Conair/Aero-Flite flew a combined total of over 5,800 tanker missions, dropping in excess of 12.5 million gallons of retardant.

A further eight BAe 146/Avro RJs are under conversion, with four scheduled to enter service during 2017.

Neptune Aviation’s fleet of seven BAe 146s flew a total of 2,880 hours on airtanker operations in the United States and Canada. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer explained: “We are a US national resource. Wherever the US Forest Service has the need or request we can and do get dispatched”.

He added: “The yearly utilization average per aircraft varies greatly from year to year based on the fire season. Some years it is 200 hours per aircraft; others it can be 400 hours per aircraft. Fire operations in a day vary greatly as well. Some days there are no flights; some days only one. Sometimes it can be up to 10-15 missions a day. The distance to the fire, weather, and fire activity all affect this number.”

Seven of Neptune’s BAe 146s are under Exclusive Use Contracts with the USFS, along with four P2V Neptunes. An additional BAe-146 is contracted to CAL FIRE in California.

More recently, one of Neptune’s BAe 146s was on an assignment in Chile for several weeks.

Neptune has acquired and is converting a further two BAe 146-200s into airtankers to be ready for this year’s fire season.

Conair of Abbotsford, Canada, and its US subsidiary Aero-Flite, has a total of seven Avro RJ85s in service as airtankers, with an eighth aircraft under conversion ready for the 2017 fire season.

Four of Conair/Aeroflite’s RJ85s are earmarked for the 2017 Exclusive Use Contract with the USFS.

Jeff Berry, Conair’s Director of Business Development, stated that by early November the seven in-service aircraft had flown more than 430,000 km in support of wildfire operations on hundreds of fires in the United States and Canada during 2016. He added: “That is equivalent to a distance greater than 10 times around the world and the volume of retardant delivered to control wildfires was greater than the volume of six Olympic swimming pools.”

In addition, one of Conair’s RJ85s was recently deployed during the down under summer under contract to the State of Victoria to help in suppressing bushfires.

Two air tankers recently certified

Above: Buffalo Airways’ newly certified Tanker 416. Photo by Buffalo Airways.

Two large air tankers in Canada were recently certified and are ready for fire assignments.

Buffalo Airways has a newly certified L-188, Tanker 416. We asked Raquel Downey of Buffalo about the smoke or dust visible in the picture under and behind the aircraft. She said it was “just dust and dirt being blown back”. It must have been on a dirt or gravel runway.

We also asked Ms. Downey about the status of the P3 they purchased two years ago, but she said Joe McBryan is not answering any questions about the aircraft. We heard from a reliable source in March that it was in Florida getting some maintenance done.

Air Spray Tanker 492
Air Spray Tanker 492 was recently certified. Photo by Air Spray.

And Air Spray’s Tanker 492 received the last of its FAA and Transport Canada certifications over the weekend. It rolled out of the hangar today and straight into service in Alberta, Canada. It has an updated RADS II tank and a new paint job.

Congrats to Buffalo and Air Spray.