Colorado signs CWN contract for P-3 air tankers

Airstrike Firefighters has made Tanker 23 fire-ready and plans to do the same for six more P-3’s

Tanker 27, a P-3
Tanker 27, a P-3, on the Middle Fork Fire, Oregon, 2009. Todd McKinley.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) has signed a call when needed (CWN) agreement with Airstrike Firefighters to provide large airtanker services for wildland fire suppression.  The agreement will allow the State of Colorado to access Airstrike’s P-3 airtankers to help combat wildfires in the State.

The RADSII constant flow tank design can carry 3,000 gallons of retardant. Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at Sacramento McClellan Airport concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program.

“This new agreement ensures that we could have the appropriate suppression resources available to protect the citizens of the State of Colorado for years to come,” said Vince Welbaum, DFPC Aviation Unit Chief. “The P-3 Orion is a proven aerial asset that can operate efficiently in our high-altitude and high-temperature conditions.”

Scott Schorzman, Vice President of Airstrike Firefighters said “We are excited about our new partnership with the State of Colorado. Our P-3’s are proven performers in Colorado’s challenging environment and we are committed to responding to the State’s needs quickly and efficiently.  In addition, as more P-3 firefighting airtankers come online we will make them available to the State of Colorado as they need them.”

retardant tank control panel
The retardant tank control panel on T-23.

Airstrike hopes to get carding inspections scheduled by the U.S. Forest Service in the near future for Tanker 23 which has undergone the inspections and maintenance to make it fire-ready. Since it is using the same retardant delivery system the P-3’s utilized for years, they do not have to do the grid test, but they did complete a conformity test that included 60+ ground-based static drops to verify the tank was working as it did in the past.

In April of 2011, Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P-3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

P-3 air tanker
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From Zion Helitack.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.  Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners. The cancellation of the contract left only 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, all P2V’s, down from the 44 on contract in 2002.

The P-3’s changed hands when UAC/Blue Aerospace acquired seven of them after the bankruptcy proceedings. Buffalo Airways then purchased T-22 in 2014 which for much of this year has been parked at McClellan. Airstrike is leasing it and bringing it back into compliance. They just finished the Nondestructive Testing and are moving forward with the Structural Integrity Program, Programmed Depot Maintenance, and the Annual.

In addition to buying and updating T-23, Mr. Schorzman said Airstrike is planning on acquiring the remaining five P-3’s. Their schedule calls for Buffalo’s T-22 and T-17 to be done in the Spring of 2019, then T-27 and another P-3 to be named later will roll out at the end of 2019.  Mr. Schorzman expects all seven to be “working for a living” by mid-2020, he said.

Visiting Airstrike’s facility at McClellan

They expect the P3 Orion to be finished around the first part of April.

Above: Airstrike’s Tanker 23, a P3 Orion

After the Aerial Firefighting conference at Sacramento McClellan Airport I stopped by Airstrike’s hangar last week to check on the progress of the work on Tanker 23. Formerly owned by Aero Union, the workers are finishing the required maintenance and inspections that should enable it to take to the air again over wildfires.

Bill Douglass, President of the company, said even though there are still some very important parts to reinstall on the P3 Orion, they expect it will be complete in the first part of April. He said they are going to retain the Aero Union paint scheme and registration number.

To see large versions  of the photos, click on one of the small images immediately below.

At least one P-3 air tanker expected to be fire-ready this Spring

The P-3’s formerly operated by Aero Union are slowly being brought back to life.

Above: Tanker 22 at Sacramento McClellan Airport, February, 2018.

(Originally published at 2:20 p.m. MT February 20, 2018)

Two companies expect to bring some of the Lockheed P-3 Orions formerly owned by Aero Union back into the aerial firefighting fleet. Buffalo Airways and Airstrike Firefighters are both actively working on aircraft, putting them through an “intensive and expensive inspection program”, according to Bill Douglass, President of Airstrike.

One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service cancelled the air tanker contract with Aero Union was that certain required inspections were not being done. Mr. Douglass said the company that wrote the original structural integrity inspection program for the P-3 air tankers, Avenger Engineering, is carrying out the inspections now on their P-3, Tanker 23. Most of those are now complete, the FAA is satisfied, and he expects the aircraft will be ready to fight fire later this Spring. Avenger has had a hand in the development, design, and maintenance of many water and retardant delivery systems and type certificates for firefighting aircraft including the P3.

When they finish T-23 Airstrike plans to begin work on another P-3, Tanker 17, and later take on others as they have time.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field. Airstrike photo.

Buffalo Airways and Airstrike are cooperating in some ways as they both work on their respective air tankers. Buffalo’s main headquarters is in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada, but their P-3 is registered to one of their offices in Hawthorne, Florida. The aircraft, Tanker 22, is still using the same “N” number as when it was flown by Aero Union, N922AU. Buffalo purchased T-22 in 2014. The company operates at least one Lockheed L-188 in Canada, Tanker 416, which is very similar to the P-3. In 2016 they received a five-year contract to operate eight new Air Tractor 802F FireBoss single engine air tankers owned by Northwest Territories.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P-3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”. Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.

A former Aero Union P3 to be resurrected

A new company expects to have it airworthy again by the end of this year.

Above: Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field May 17, 2017. Airstrike photo.

(Originally published at 2:23 p.m. MDT August 8, 2017)

Another one of the P3 Orion air tankers formerly operated by Aero Union has been sold. Tanker 23, N923AU, was purchased by Airstrike Firefighters LLC, a new company with Aero Union roots that was incorporated September 1, 2016. One of the founders of the company is Bill Douglas who is serving as the President. He told us that he worked for Aero Union from 2005 until 2009 where he was an investor and the CFO.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field July 11, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento where they are concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program. Before acquiring the aircraft Mr. Douglas consulted with Avenger Engineering, a company that has had a hand in the development, design, and maintenance of many water and retardant delivery systems and type certificates for firefighting aircraft including the P3. One of their goals is to complete all of the work and inspections that the U.S. Forest Service and the Interagency AirTanker Board requires for contracted air tankers.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23’s retardant tank at McClellan Air Field July 24, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Mr. Douglas expects Tanker 23 will be physically ready to fight fires by early to mid-fall of this year. Then, of course, the aircraft and pilots will need to be inspected and carded and it will need a contract. Even though it will have the same constant flow 3,000-gallon RADS II retardant delivery system that it used for years and is the gold standard for air tankers, Airstrike is not sure if it will be required to retake the grid test. Like the owners of the 747 SuperTanker found out, even though the system had been approved before, some of the standards and test procedures have changed in recent years which meant the 747 had to repeat some of the tests or take new ones only recently developed.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field. Airstrike photo.

In late 2013 the eight Aero Union P3 airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company’s financial problems.

Of the eight P3’s UAC acquired, one was sold to Buffalo Airways, T-20 is in Tucson and may or may not be scrapped, T-21 is also in Tucson and is designated as scrapped, and Airstrike bought one, leaving UAC with an inventory of five. Mr. Douglas said he is in discussions with UAC about the possibility of purchasing the remaining fleet.

Tanker 20 at Tucson March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.
T-21 at AMARG in Tucson, March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

At the time of the Aero Union bankruptcy Tanker 20 was in Canada in the middle of heavy maintenance, partially disassembled. Then when the company lost their USFS contract in 2011 and later went bankrupt, that process stopped and it sat there for a while until UAC had it shipped on a truck as a wide load from Halifax to Tucson. There has been talk about converting it to a simulator.

We have reached out to Buffalo Airways a few times since they bought their P3 in 2014, but owner Joe McBryan, the “Ice Pilot” reality show star, has not been willing to disclose to us the status of Tanker 22.

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan (right) of Buffalo Airways, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base March 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The P3’s that are now owned by UAC were manufactured between 1962 and 1965 and have less than 20,000 hours, according to Bradford Beck, the President and COO of the company.