Seven things to know about fire aviation

There is a lot going on in wildfire aviation, but it seems like that is always the case. Here are updates on seven topics that are currently on our minds:

1.  MAFFS activated again

Four Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers have been activated. A couple of days ago the two at Channel Islands in California were activated by the state to be used on fires currently burning, primarily to assist with the 24,000-acre Mountain Fire in southern California between Idyllwild and Palm Springs. That fire seems to be trying to take out most of the San Jacinto Mountains. Two more MAFFS, one each from Wyoming and North Carolina, are also being activated with orders to report to Boise by July 21. Earlier this month four MAFFS, two each from Wyoming and North Carolina, had been deployed but they ended their assignment on July 12.

2. Nose gear problem on CV-580

One of the two CV-580 air tankers on loan from Saskatchewan had a malfunction with a nose gear and is out of service until it can be replaced or repaired.

3. Availability of next-generation air tankers

Six of the seven aircraft that received next generation air tanker contracts are still being built and have yet to begin grid tests of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. The mandatory availability period was to begin in August. We recently talked with someone who is familiar with the progress of the four companies that are working on the six air tankers.

  • Minden’s BAe-146 and Erickson Aero Tanker’s (aka Aero Air) two MD87s may be certified around the first part of September.
  • At least one of Aero Flite/Conair’s two RJ85s may be ready to go by the end of August.
  • Coulson’s C-130Q could be ready by the first or second week of August. They will begin static testing next week.

10 Tanker’s DC-10 that received an exclusive use next-gen contract was already fully certified and began work almost immediately upon receipt of the contract.

4. Neptune to test new design

Neptune has made some changes to their tanks that are being installed on their third and fourth BAe-146s, hoping to correct the inconsistent flow rates which results in the last 500 to 600 gallons trailing off, exiting the aircraft at a slower rate than the first 2,400 gallons. They will begin grid testing the new design next week in Missoula.

5. C-27Js

The U.S. Forest Service expects to hear formally very soon, or by the end of this fiscal year at the latest, that the Air Force will transfer to them at least seven C-27Js. When we saw him July 2 at the dedication of the memorial for the four crew members of MAFFS 7 that were killed in the crash on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota a year earlier, the USFS Assistant Director of Aviation, Art Hingman told us that instead of a slip-in MAFFS-type pressurized tank system, the C-27s would likely have a conventional gravity-powered tank that would require cutting a hole in the bottom of the aircraft. The tank would be removable so that the aircraft could be used for hauling cargo.

He said that while some would be used as air tankers, he seemed even more enthusiastic that others could be assigned to smokejumpers. He was not sure how many gallons of retardant they would hold because it is unknown exactly how much weight can be removed from the aircraft during the conversion process. He estimated that they could hold as little as 1,800 gallons. Another source told us that it could take two to three years to convert the aircraft into air tankers, which would be operated as Government Owned/Contractor Operated, much like the CAL Fire air tankers.

6. Lead planes

A lead plane preceding a big, lumbering air tanker flying low and slow through turbulent air, is not required for the air tanker pilots that are qualified for Initial Attack (IA), but many of them will tell you that they prefer it, since it adds another level of safety. There is discussion going on about the future of lead planes, much of it motivated by saving money. Today there are only 14 lead planes and 14 qualified pilots, but more “are in the pipeline”, according to Art Hingman.

Not all of those 14 qualified pilots are always available because the federal agencies sometimes reassign them to other functions, including Forest Health, management studies, and smokejumper operations.

This shortage has created real problems in using Very Large Air Tankers and MAFFS, since those pilots are not IA qualified and require lead planes. At times dispatchers would like to split up the VLATs and send them to different fires in different geographic areas, but occasionally that has not been possible due to the lead plane shortage. And when the six additional next-gen air tankers begin flying, the shortage will be even worse.

7. 747 Very Large Air Tanker

Fire Aviation told you on June 14 that Evergreen received a 3-year call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service for their 20,000-gallon 747 “Supertanker”. Since it last had a contract with them two years ago, it has been sitting in the desert at Marana, Arizona. Bob Soelberg, Evergreen’s Vice President of Supertanker Service and Program Management, told us today that to protect the engines while in storage, all four of them were removed and replaced with two “slugs”, which are basically weights hanging on the wings to provide stability for the aircraft. He said the 747 is scheduled to begin maintenance and a C-check In Marana August 2 which will take at least 45 days, depending on what the check finds. So possibly by mid- to late September, when the western fire season begins winding down, it could be available to drop retardant on fires. Evergreen also recently signed a 3-year CWN contract with CAL FIRE.

Evergreen did not renew their last CWN contract because the aircraft was not used enough to cover the maintenance of the air tanker and the salaries of the crews. The C-check and maintenance next month will cost several million dollars.

Mr. Soelberg was interviewed by Lars Larson on 101KXL Radio recently. The audio recording is below.

U.S. borrows CV-580s from Canada

Tanker 42, a CV-580
Tanker 42, a CV-580, at JEFFCO in Colorado in 2012. Photo by Shane Harvey.

The United States Government has again borrowed two CV-580 air tankers from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Jennifer Jones, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said they will be in Boise today, Wednesday. They may be stationed there for a while or be deployed to another location.

In June of 2012 there were a total of five CV-580s temporarily in the lower 48 states; one borrowed from the state of Alaska and four from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

The CV-580s, produced between 1947 and 1954, have a maximum retardant capacity of about 2,100 gallons. The piston engines on the ones used in Canada have been replaced by turboprops.

Update on air tanker contracting process

 

It was 482 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded in spite of the fact that all previous contracts for federal large and very large air tankers expired in December. The old contracts for a few air tankers were temporarily extended early in 2013 to provide some coverage.

Obviously the Forest Service is long overdue in awarding the contracts for legacy, next-generation, and very large air tankers. Fire season has been going on for several weeks in the south and the southwest, and Red Flag Warnings for enhanced fire danger have been common. Usually the tankers start coming on duty in mid-February.

There have been some indications that the Forest Service will announce contract awards this week for legacy air tankers, perhaps as early as Wednesday. But don’t hold your breath.

The privately owned air tanker companies, in order to remain alive in this industry, have to have nerves of steel and balls of titanium. They have to invest millions in the aircraft, deal with the FAA, pass a very expensive certification process required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, hope that Congress and the President appropriate enough money to fund a viable air tanker program, and then maybe, MAYBE receive a contract. And the contracting process is very daunting. Here is an example of a question from a potential bidder for a legacy contract, and an “answer” from the U.S. Forest Service:

Question: The response to question 44 in Response to Questions to the Draft Solicitation is confusing …. Please confirm that this RFP is only for legacy airtankers as defined by the “large Airtanker Modernization Strategy’.

Answer: The “Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” states that Legacy Airtankers are airtankers such as P-2V Neptunes, P-3 Orions, and Convair CV-580s. However, the strategy provides no formal definition of a Legacy Airtanker. This solicitation was developed around the specifications of the Legacy type airtankers as identified above. There is no specifically defined criterion that specifically defines a Legacy airtanker. Next generation type (again no formal definition) aircraft or any type of aircraft may be offered and may be awarded under this solicitation as long as they meet the specifications identified in the solicitation.