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.
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Videos of air tanker drops at the Britania Mountain Fire

The lightning-caused fire has burned over 32,000 acres eight miles northwest of Wheatland, Wyoming

A BAe-146 drops on the Britania Mountain Fire. A screen shot from the video below which was uploaded August 30, 2018.

Brenton Soule shot these videos at the Britania Mountain Fire in southeast Wyoming. They were uploaded to Facebook August 30, 2018.

I noticed that the audio was more intense than in most air tanker videos… probably because he was about as close as you can get to the aircraft while still remaining safely out of the drop zone.

The air tankers could be the ones photographed at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2018. Above we see a C-130 and below, a BAe-146.

Wildfire Today has more information about the Britania Mountain Fire which has burned over 32,000 acres eight miles northwest of Wheatland, Wyoming.

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Four of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers are deployed

Another five are at Missoula, MT and Alamagordo, NM

Above: Three of Neptune Aviation’s BAe-146’s at Missoula, May 25, 2018.

Like the other operators of large air tankers, Neptune Aviation is finishing the necessary off-season work on their fleet and are putting some of them to work. The company has a total of nine BAe-146 jet-powered air tankers. The conversions from airliners to air tankers is complete and they have no others waiting to be transformed.

When I visited Neptune’s facilities at Missoula Friday, marketing manager Kevin Condit said four of their tankers are actively working. The company only has four on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is a reduction from 2017 when they had seven BAe-146’s and four P2V’s on EU. All of the P2V air tankers with their two 18-cylinder radial engines and two small jet engines are now retired, and most will find homes in museums. The U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of large air tankers on EU contracts from 20 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

t-10 Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
Tanker 10 on the ramp outside Neptune’s hangar, May 25, 2018.

Neptune air tankers on EU contract this year are numbers 1, 3, 16, and 41. On call when needed (CWN) contracts they have tankers 2, 10, 15, and 40, and one additional BAe-146 without a contract (T-12) according to information provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

Friday two BAe-146’s were parked on the ramp at Missoula, 10 and 12, while two others, 02 and 15, were in the hangar for heavy maintenance.

air brake bae-146 Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
The air brake extended on T-12 outside Neptune’s hangar, May 25, 2018.

For years I have wondered why Neptune’s aircraft are adorned with the state flag for Montana, but have no American flag. Mr. Condit explained that the company is proud of Montana, most of their 250 employees live in the state, and, it’s “tradition” for the company to only display the state flag on their aircraft. However inside their main hangar they have both hanging from the ceiling.

Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire hangar
Tankers 02 and 15 in Neptune’s hangar for heavy maintenance, May 25, 2018.

Neptune has a contract to refurbish the C-23B Sherpa aircraft that the U.S. Forest Service acquired from the U.S. Army. Up to 15 were authorized to be transferred and as of today Neptune is working on their seventh, with the eighth soon to follow. It is possible that the remaining Sherpas may only be used for parts, Mr. Condit said.

Sherpa Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
One of the Sherpas that Neptune is refurbishing for the U.S. Forest Service.

This year we are attempting to get photos of the maintenance support vehicles that follow air tankers around from base to base. Neptune is changing their thinking, and is moving from trailers pulled by trucks to large van-type vehicles without a trailer. Mr. Condit said the maintenance personnel like them better because they are more nimble and easier to maneuver at tanker bases and motel parking lots. I asked if they ever carried a spare engine and he said no. If an engine suffers a bird strike, for example, which is more common than you’d think, they can ferry the BAe-146 back to Missoula on three engines, replace it overnight, and get the tanker back to its base the next day.

Mercedes support truck Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
Two of Neptune’s maintenance support trucks.

Continue reading “Four of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers are deployed”

2017 was a busy year for air tankers

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.

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.

Video of multiple air tankers working the Liberty Fire near Murrieta, CA

Above: The Liberty Fire east of Murrieta, California, December 7, 2017. Screengrab from the KTLA video.

(Originally published at 7 p.m. PST December 7, 2017)

KTLA shot some excellent stabilized video from a helicopter Thursday of the Liberty Fire that has burned about 300 acres northeast of Murrieta, California. This is a new fire that erupted this afternoon 17 miles north of another new fire, the Lilac Fire south of Temecula which was 3,000 acres at 7 p.m. PST.

The video, which is almost 2 hours long, has at least 8 shots of air tankers dropping. We skimmed through it quickly and noted where the drops occur, probably missing a few.

13:00 – DC-10
17:00 – BAe-146/C-130
35:30 – C-130
38:35 – BAe-146
49:15 –  S-2
1:05:00 – MAFFS
1:30:00 – 747
1:40:20 – MAFFS

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.