Single engine air tanker modified for night firefighting

AT-802F single engine air tanker
Photo by Aviation Specialties Unlimited

Fighting fire at night can be more effective because the fire usually spreads more slowly when the temperatures are lower, winds calmer, and the relative humidity is higher. A small percentage of helicopters are used for night firefighting but no fixed wing air tankers have yet ventured into that realm.

A company in Colorado has modified one of their air tankers for night vision goggle (NVG) operations. CO Fire Aviation has worked with Aviation Specialties Unlimited, Inc. (ASU) to add night firefighting capability to one of their Air Tractor AT-802F single engine air tankers.

Since 1995 ASU has modified more than 1,300 aircraft for aerial application at night, including the Thrush S-2R, PZL-Mielec M18, and rotorcraft such as the Bell 206 and OH-58A, but the AT-802 is the first fixed-wing aircraft they have modified that is dedicated to firefighting.

CO Fire Aviation uses their eight AT-802F air tankers on a number of state and federal contracts.

“Having operated NVGs in a variety of operations, our pilots knew that implementing a comprehensive NVG program would be the most significant way we could improve the safety and effectiveness of our aerial firefighting operations,” said CO Fire Chief Pilot Chris Doyle. “ASU’s experienced team has a strong track record with aerial applicators and we trusted them to equip our aircraft and help us launch our NVG program.”

Half of the CO Fire’s 14 pilots are currently NVG certified including two FAA-approved NVG Instructor Pilots who will be establishing an in-house NVG training program.

“Our pilot cadre has a wealth of extensive NVG experience,” said Doyle.

He explained that several of the pilots have military experience providing close air support during combat with the A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthog” aircraft and were U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School Instructors. Doyle has more than 26 years of flight experience and more than 10,000 accident-free hours of flight. He is a factory certified Air Tractor 802 instructor, and was also a Maintenance test pilot for the military weaponized version of the AT-802 in the Middle East along with a number of his current pilot cadre who were the weapons and tactics instructors.

“There is currently no other company in the world with more AT-802 NVG experience than CO Fire Aviation,” said Doyle.

“Later this year CO Fire will be conducting studies to refine and develop NVG firefighting tactics,” said Doyle. The study will involve developing safe and effective drop heights across a variety of illumination levels in different terrain. For example, dealing with moonlit and starlit-nights and low-light scenarios, working toward setting requisite minimums for illumination levels for terrain and drop height.

“We are always looking for innovations to help us lead the way in safety,” Doyle said.

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

Report released about the 2014 crash of an AT-802 in British Columbia

On July 14, 2016 the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada released the Investigation Report about the crash of a Conair Air Tractor AT-802A that occurred August 14, 2014. The crash took place as the air tanker was attempting to lift off after scooping water on Chantslar Lake in British Columbia. The pilot incurred minor injuries and the aircraft sank.

AT-802F
File photo of an Air Tractor 802-F. Air Tractor photo.

The investigators concluded that a wing stalled either independently or in combination with an encounter with a wing-tip vortex generated by another aircraft.

Below is the TSB’s Summary of the incident:

An Air Tractor AT-802A on amphibious floats (registration C-GXNX, serial number AT- 802A-0530), operating as Tanker 685, was carrying out wildfire management operations during daylight near Chantslar Lake, British Columbia. Three similar aircraft were working as a group with Tanker 685, which was second in line on a touch-and-go to scoop water from Chantslar Lake. Upon liftoff, control was lost and the aircraft’s right wing struck the water. The aircraft water-looped, and the floats and their support structure separated from the fuselage. The aircraft remained upright and slowly sank.

The pilot received minor injuries, egressed from the cockpit, and inflated the personal flotation device being worn. The third aircraft in the formation jettisoned its hopper load as it continued its takeoff and remained in the circuit. The fourth aircraft jettisoned its hopper load, rejected its takeoff, and taxied to pick up the accident pilot. There was sufficient impact force to activate the on-board 406- megahertz emergency locator transmitter, but the search-and-rescue satellite system did not detect a signal from the emergency locator transmitter until the wreckage was being recovered 6 days later.

The TSB’s findings, in part:

1. A wing stalled either independently or in combination with an encounter with a wing-tip vortex generated by the lead aircraft. This caused a loss of control moments after liftoff, and resulted in the right-hand wing tip contacting the water and in a subsequent water-loop.

2. The operator’s standard takeoff procedures did not specify a liftoff speed for scooping operations. Lifting off below the published power-off stall speed contributed to a loss of control at an altitude insufficient to permit a recovery.

3. The takeoff condition, with the aircraft heavy, its speed below the published power-off stall speed, and a high angle-of-attack contributed to the loss of control.

4. An understaffed management structure during organizational changes likely led to excessive workload for existing managers. This contributed to risks, contained within the standard operating procedures, not being addressed through the operator’s safety management system, resulting in continued aircraft operations below published minimum airspeed limitations.

The report states that Conair hired a safety manager and a company check pilot for the Fire Boss fleet before the 2015 spring training season started. And, Conair adopted a risk mitigation plan for 2015–2016, applicable to the company’s AT-802 fleet. The plan addresses issues mentioned in the TSB report, plus an additional issue identified in-house.

The year following the August 14, 2014 crash on Chantslar Lake there were three incidents that we are aware of that involved Conair AT-802’s:

Israel adds to their air tanker fleet

Air Tractor AT 802 air tanker in Israel
Air Tractor AT 802 air tanker in Israel in 2011.

In 2011 Israel first contracted for seven single engine air tankers, Air Tractor AT 802s, supplied by Elbit Systems and Chim Nir Flight Services. Now they are adding to the fleet and will have a total of 14.

Elbit Systems announced on January 5, 2015, that it was awarded an approximately $100 million contract from the Israeli Ministry of Defense (IMOD) to procure six new firefighting aircraft and operate the firefighting squadron, which will consist of a total of fourteen aircraft, including eight aircraft previously procured by Elbit Systems. The contract, to be performed over an eight-year period, also covers flight hours, infrastructure upgrade, maintenance, airstrip operation, handling of fire retardants and other aspects of operating the squadron.

The firefighting aircraft, manufactured by Air Tractor, are single-engine aircraft, capable of carrying approximately 3,000 liters (792 US gallons) of water and flying three hours without refueling.

Bezhalel (Butzi) Machlis, President and CEO of Elbit Systems commented: “We are very proud to be selected for this opportunity to harness our professional capabilities and vast experience to the collective efforts of protecting Israel’sresidents and natural landscape”.

The Elad firefighting squadron was founded four years ago following the Mount Carmel forest fire and is named after Elad Riben, the fire scout that was killed in this fire. Since then, Elbit Systems has been cooperating with the IAF, firefighting units, the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in developing the squadron’s operational procedures and qualifying designated airstrips. The aircraft will be flown by CHIM-NIR’s pilots, the project’s subcontractor.

Since its inauguration in 2011, the firefighting squadron has performed over 4,600 missions, accumulated over 2,500 flight hours and has helped extinguish over 500 potentially destructive fires across the country, providing a prompt and professional solution.

Elbit Systems is developing a system for fighting wildfires by dropping small bags of liquid from a helicopter or cargo plane. The idea is that the bags would break upon impact and slow the spread of the fire.

water bag
One of the water bags. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Minnesota converting from CL-215s to Fire Bosses

CD-215 T266
Minnesota’s Air Tanker 266, a CL-215

After running CL-215 amphibious water scooping air tankers for years, the state of Minnesota is selling the two they have and will be converting to single-engine Air Tractor 802F Fire Boss scoopers. The CL-215s served the agency well, but Aero Flite, now owned by Conair, is no longer interested in maintaining and operating the piston engine aircraft for the state. A newer model, the CL-415, has the more reliable turbine engines. The 215’s will be sold at auction, and four turbine-engine-powered AT-802Fs will be hired on contract.

Tankers 263 and 266 are listed on the State of Minnesota’s online auction site. The planes are listed as Lots #12726 & #12727.

AT-802F
Air Tractor 802-F. Air Tractor photo.

SEAT sinks in British Columbia lake

An Air Tractor 802 Fireboss crashed and and sank August 14 while scooping water on Chantslar Lake in British Columbia, Canada about 30 kilometers west of Puntzi Mountain. Jeff Berry of Conair said the pilot was able to exit the Single Engine Air Tanker, but was held overnight in a hospital in William’s Lake and released Friday morning.

The Fireboss was brand new. Recovery operations are underway at the lake.

SEATs at Chester

Chester air attack base sign

Yesterday we stopped by the air tanker base at Chester, California where Terry Grecian, the manager, was kind enough to allow us out on the ramp to talk with one of the pilots.

Since it rained heavily a couple of days ago it has been less hectic at Chester. Earlier in the week they had Single Engine Air Tankers, Large Air Tankers, and several helicopters working out of the airport. On Wednesday there were just two SEATs and one Type 2 helicopter parked there.

Pilot Fred Celest and air tanker 873
Pilot Fred Celest and air tanker 873 at Chester, Calif. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Fred Celest is the pilot for Tanker 873, an Air Tractor 802-F. He has previously flown crop dusters, private jets and P2V air tankers. He likes flying air tankers better than corporate jets, he said, because with air tankers he travels less. While talking with him we detected a bit of an accent, and it turns out that he is French and German, but is a United States citizen.

Mr. Celest felt it was important to point out that the 800-gallon aircraft has a 1,650 HP Garrett-14 engine. The air tanker is under contract through New Frontier Aviation out of Fort Benton, Montana. The company also operates 550-gallon M-18 Dromader SEATs.

Air tankers at Castlegar, BC

air tankers Castlegar, BC
Conair CV-580 air tankers at Castlegar, BC, July 9, 2014. Photo by Jeremy Chernoff.

Jeremy Chernoff was kind enough to send us these photos he took at Castlegar, BC, Canada. Thanks Jeremy.

air tankers Castlegar, BC
AT-802F single engine air tankers and a bird dog at Castlegar, BC, July 14, 2014. Photo by Jeremy Chernoff.