Colorado signs a P-3 Orion air tanker on an exclusive use contract

air tanker 23 p-3
Air Tanker 23, a P-3, drops retardant on the Swedes Fire southeast of Oroville, California. Photo by John Kerpa and Gary Thomas, 2019.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) has made it official — they have signed Air Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion operated by Airstrike, to a 75-day exclusive use (EU) contract. The choice of the aircraft came as no surprise since it was already under a call when needed arrangement with the state.

The agency announced in early June that they were going to contract for an EU air tanker, but were cagey about which one. This is the first time the state has hired an EU large air tanker.

Colorado has not specified where it will spend the majority of its time, but it may move around as needed. There are five air tanker bases in Colorado that can support large air tankers: Durango, Grand Junction, Jeffco, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs which was just converted to a permanent base. The grand opening for the facility was June 15, 2020. Colorado Springs is the only permanent base in Colorado that can officially support very large air tankers. DC-10s worked out of Pueblo for at least 2013 through 2016, perhaps longer, but the 2019 Air Tanker Base Directory does not list Pueblo as a VLAT base.

Below is an excerpt from a press release issued by the DFPC:


“We have activated the P-3 airtanker for 75 days of dedicated availability. This will provide another highly capable initial attack resource to be utilized in the State and the region,” said Vince Welbaum, Aviation Unit Chief for the State of Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “The P-3 is a proven aerial asset that can operate efficiently in our high-altitude and high-temperature conditions, and is also an excellent value for the Colorado taxpayer.”

“The design of the aircraft including four engine turbo-prop, ability to safely fly low and slow, carry full loads of retardant and ample fuel are distinct features that the State of Colorado requires to be effective for wildland firefighting,” said Welbaum. “We are excited to include the Airstrike P-3 in our arsenal of resources when large dangerous wildfires threaten life and property in the State.” One additional airtanker is also being made available to the State on a call-when-needed (CWN) basis to ensure the State has adequate access to emergency resources when they are needed most.

Scott Schorzman, Vice President of Airstrike Firefighters is quoted as saying “We are excited to bring the P-3 airtanker to the State of Colorado and do what we do best, fight fire from the air. The P-3 is the perfect aerial firefighting platform for the State of Colorado, and we intend to demonstrate its efficiency and cost effectiveness. This is another step forward in strengthening our long-term partnership with the State and to participate in its growing fleet of aerial wildfire assets.”

Airstrike is an Anchorage, AK-headquartered company with operations in Sacramento, CA.  Airstrike has 30 employees that are refurbishing a fleet of seven P-3 firefighting airtankers for use on State and Federal contracts.

Temporary VLAT retardant base established at Colorado Springs

temporary retardant base Colorado Springs Airport

Above: MAFFS #2 reloads at the new temporary retardant base at the Colorado Springs Airport. Screen grab from the video below.

A new temporary fire retardant base has been set up at the Colorado Springs Airport. A spokesperson for the airport told us that it can handle Very Large Air Tankers such as the DC-10 and 747. In the video below one of the DC-10’s can be seen in the background.

This is part of a joint effort between the Colorado Springs Airport, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Army Fort Carson to provide a reload facility in the area.