A wildfire 32 miles north of the Rio Grande and 28 miles southwest of Ozona, Texas has burned 18,000 acres. The Holcomb Road Fire started April 19, 2020 in Crockett County and has since spread into Val Verde County.
One of the two air tankers working on the fire Monday and Tuesday was Tanker 910, a DC-10 flying out of and reloading at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Each sortie took about three hours, plus 50 minutes on the ground between loads Tuesday for taxi and reloading. En route to the fire it was flying 450 mph at 11,300 feet, and returning, 400 mph at 16,600 feet.
Greg Mullins, former head of New South Wales Rural Fire Service, was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a public broadcasting service. Since November Mr. Mullins has been serving as a volunteer firefighter in NSW. Most of the wildland firefighters in Australia are volunteers.
The ABC video below is a fairly deep dive (for national media) into the current state of the air tanker fleet in Australia.
Only one month into the summer, Australia’s bushfire season is already one for the record books. The federal government said that as of January 14 approximately 10 million hectares (24 million acres) had burned. If the fires in the Northern Territory which had not been previously reported are included, 6.8 million hectares (16.8 million acres), that brings the total across the continent to 16.8 million hectares (40.8 million acres).
When massive wildfires are burning homes and lives are lost — 27 people have perished so far in Australia this summer — there is always pressure to deploy more firefighting air tankers. They do not put out fires, but under ideal conditions dropping thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant can slow the spread in an area which can allow firefighters on the ground to safely move in and suppress it. If firefighters are not available to quickly take advantage, the temporarily slowed fire continues to spread. Under extreme conditions, especially strong winds, air tankers can’t safely fly low and slow as they have to do, and even if they could, the retardant can be blown away from the target.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 bushfire season the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) planned on having five large air tankers available (including four that are leased and the government-owned 737), but added two more in November after large devastating fires began burning in New South Wales.
Then on January 4 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said $20 million would be provided for leasing four more large air tankers as supplementary to the normal fleet for the current season only, bringing the total up to 11. Those four include two MD-87s and two DC-10s leased from Erickson Aero Tanker and 10 Tanker. The MD-87s have both arrived in the country, in spite of one of them being stuck for a while in Adak, Alaska due to an ash plume from a volcano in the Philippines developing on its anticipated route.
The two DC-10s were both in the midst of their C-Check maintenance in Mobile, Alabama when they were requested. As this is written on January 21 one of them, Tanker 912, has made it as far as Hawaii where it was grounded January 16 by a massive tropical storm along its planned route. John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said that after being topped off with fuel and sitting on the hot tarmac, a fuel leak was discovered. The company’s fuel team is on it, Mr. Gould said. He expects the aircraft will depart from Hawaii Wednesday morning U.S. time heading toward a refueling stop at the Marshall Islands, then arriving in Australia Thursday evening local time. (UPDATE at 5:30 p.m. PDT Jan. 22, 2020. T-912 arrived in Canberra this afternoon, U.S. time.)
The next DC-10, Tanker 914, is expected to depart later this week. It will be the third DC-10 air tanker in Australia.
As this is written, Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-102, an MD-87 (N292EA), just landed at Adelaide, Australia where it will be based. Their other MD-87 that will be working on a contract in Australia, Tanker 103 (N293EA), has left North America and is on a leg from Ketchikan, Alaska en route to refuel at Adak, Alaska. It is taking a slightly different route than its sister, T-102. T-103 will be based in Western Australia at Perth.
Tanker 912, a DC-10 (N522AX), departed from San Bernardino, California Thursday morning U.S. time and arrived in Honolulu that afternoon. It will be initially based either at Canberra or Sydney.
Originally published at 8:12 a.m. MST January 16, 2020
The departure of additional air tankers from the United States to assist with bushfires in Australia has been delayed for reasons not usually associated with firefighting.
The MD-87 air tanker that was scheduled to depart on January 13 had to be rescheduled due to the eruption of a volcano in the Philippines when the ash plume made a leg of the flight in the Western Pacific inadvisable. Erickson Aero Tanker went back to the drawing board to plan a different route and obtain permits but the delay allowed the ash to clear so they were able to use the original route for the first tanker to leave for Australia.
According to FlightAware, Tanker 102 (N292EA) departed from Portland, Washington on Tuesday January 14. The planned route for the MD-87 takes it through Alaska, Russia, Japan, Guam, and Papua New Guinea. It is expected to arrive in Australia at Cairns Friday afternoon U.S. time. As this is written Thursday morning U.S. time, the aircraft is in Narita, Japan.
The nine flight legs on FlightAware range from 783 to 1,565 miles. It is likely that they are taking the route along the western Pacific because the distance from California to Hawaii is about 2,450 miles, beyond the range of the MD-87s operated by Erickson Aero Tanker.
In 2015 a single-engine air tanker, an Air Tractor 802, flew from California to Australia via Honolulu, the Marshall Islands, Guadalcanal, and perhaps other refueling locations. It is likely that it had a ferry kit that enables 800 gallons of fuel to be carried in the hopper (retardant tank).
The two DC-10s, Tankers 912 and 914, were expected to arrive in Australia on January 15 and 25 respectively, but weather in the southern U.S. required a change in the schedule for the first one. Both of the aircraft were at Mobile, Alabama undergoing C-Checks, which can take days or weeks depending on the age of the aircraft and the number of unexpected issues discovered that require maintenance.
Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said the work on T-912 was nearly complete when it needed a test flight during VFR conditions, but it was delayed for two days due to fog.
Tanker 912 (N522AX) departed from San Bernardino, California Thursday morning U.S. time, en route to a fuel stop in Honolulu.
The planned arrivals of the other DC-10 (T-914, N603AX) and MD-87 (T-103, N293EA) are next week, Mr. Alder said.
These four air tankers will be based initially at Canberra (DC-10), Sydney/Richmond (DC-10), Adelaide (MD-87), and Perth (MD-87) but they will continually review locations according to the bushfire risk across the country, Mr. Alder said.
While large air tankers have dropped on bushfires in Western Australia before, this will be the first time that one will be based there — Perth in this case.
These additional large air tankers will bring the Aussie fleet up to 11. In addition to the 737 they purchased in 2010, the contracted ships they will have available the rest of this bushfire season are: two MD-87s, three DC-10s, two RJ85s, two C-130Qs, and one more 737.
Mr. Alder explained that the four additional tankers have been contracted for a minimum Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) of 50 days with options to extend. They will monitor the conditions continually and manage the numbers according to prevailing bushfire risk.
On Tuesday and Wednesday 10 Tanker Air Carrier posted photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with the text:
“Huge thanks to the Royal Australian Air force For sending out crew and a C17 and our own United States Air Force for coming out! This has become a joint operation.”
Mr. Alder explained why the RAAF C-17 was sent to the U.S. to pick up equipment for the three DC-10s that will be operating in Australia:
“It was opportunistic” he said. “The RAAF was in a position to be able to shift some spares to Australia. This meant that the first DC-10 didn’t have to go back to Albuquerque after the maintenance in Alabama and could head straight for Australia. We understand that the spares included wheels and tires, as well as a spare engine and APU.”
The RAAF C-17 arrived in Albuquerque Tuesday night U.S. time.
The companies supplying the four additional large air tankers that will be mobilizing to help the firefighters in Australia have been identified. On January 4 we wrote about the two DC-10s that 10 Tanker Air Carrier will be sending down.
Today we learned that two MD-87s will also be deploying. Matt Isley of Erickson Aero Tanker said Tankers 102 and 103 will be under contract with the Australian federal government. T-102 will be leaving January 13 and T-103 is scheduled for January 16.
One of the DC-10s, T-912 is expected to arrive in Australia on January 15 to be followed by Tanker 914 around January 25 after their heavy maintenance is wrapped up. They will join another DC-10, Tanker 911 that arrived in November.
This additional surge capacity was announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on January 4, saying $20 million would be provided for leasing four more large air tankers as supplementary to the normal fleet for the current season only. Mr. Morrison also said 3,000 Australian Defense Force reservists would be brought in to help with bushfire recovery efforts.
For several days military ships and helicopters have been used to evacuate residents and holiday makers in Australia who were forced to the coastal beaches by wildfires in New South Wales and Victoria. On Saturday New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was blindsided upon finding out from the media that Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that 3,000 ADF reservists would be brought in to help with bushfire recovery efforts. In addition, $20 million would be provided for leasing four additional firefighting aircraft the Prime Minister said.
John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said their company will be sending two more DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers to Australia as soon as the heavy maintenance presently underway is complete. He expects Tanker 912 to arrive in Australia on January 15 to be followed 10 days later by Tanker 914. They will join Tanker 911 that arrived in November. The DC-10 can carry up to 9,400 gallons of water or retardant.
Here is the text of a January 4 announcement from the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council:
“Following a request from the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) representing 31 fire and emergency service Chiefs and Commissioners, the Prime Minister has announced $20m additional funding for the lease of large firefighting aircraft to assist the ongoing bushfire crisis in Australia.
“AFAC President and Commissioner Fire and Rescue New South Wales, Paul Baxter QSO, welcomed the news.
” ‘On behalf of AFAC, we are heartened by the Prime Minister’s announcement of additional funding and ongoing commitment from the Commonwealth to AFAC through the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC). This ongoing commitment will support states and territories working together with us to advance long term planning and resourcing arrangements for aerial firefighting. AFAC is working with the Commonwealth to make the necessary arrangements to have these four large aircraft operational as soon as possible. We will also be working with states and territories on the strategic positioning of the aircraft, so that there is flexibility for them to be able to move around the country to protect life and property, supporting the efforts of crews on the ground’.
“The Commonwealth will fund leasing costs, with operational costs to be covered by the states and territories.
“The announcement today is an example of national collaboration, facilitated through AFAC and its business unit, NAFC.
“On behalf of the states and territories, NAFC contracts and manages a fleet of over 140 special aircraft across Australia and maintains arrangements to share access to firefighting aircraft to meet jurisdictional demands.”
Late Wednesday night Air Tanker 911, a DC-10, was over the Pacific Ocean on the way to Australia when it had to return to its base in Albuquerque due to a problem with a radio. About 50 minutes after departing from San Bernardino the pilots discovered that the High Frequency radio used on long range international flights was not working, even though it appeared to have passed earlier tests on the ground. There had been no need for the HF radio on T-911 since its last international assignment approximately seven years ago.
The Very Large Air Tanker, which can carry up to 9,400 gallons of water or retardant, has been ordered by Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) on an Enhanced Call When Needed (EWCN) contract to assist firefighters in the country who are dealing with large numbers of devastating bushfires which have destroyed over 100 homes.
After the flight crew turned the huge aircraft around they landed in San Bernardino and then flew to 10 Tanker’s base in Albuquerque. John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said technicians found the coaxial cable that connects the radio to the antenna on the tail was not attached. It was just laying by the radio. After connecting it the radio worked fine. Mr. Gould said that even if an antenna is not connected to a radio, if testing equipment is close enough it can receive a signal from the radio.
Mr. Gould said that after resting, the crew will depart again from Albuquerque, with planned stops in Santa Maria (Calif.), Honolulu, Pago Pago, and should arrive at RAAF Richmond, New South Wales (map) Saturday morning Australia time.
Normally the DC-10 operates with a three-person crew, two pilots and a flight engineer. On this flight they will carry a total of five, with an additional pilot and flight engineer to allow resting and crew changes while en route.
The Helena, Montana Air Tanker Base set some records over the last several days while supporting the North Hills Fire. Thanks to the fire being only 9 miles north of the airport and recent improvements made at the base, on Sunday air tankers reloading there completed 68 loads for a total of 231,000 gallons of retardant.
In recent days fixed wing firefighting aircraft at Helena included a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, four Large Air Tankers, two Single Engine Air Tankers, three Air Attack ships, and two Lead Planes.
Over the last year at the base the Forest Service upgraded the plumbing and installed two new pumps, two 25,000-gallon retardant tanks, and one 25,000-gallon off-load tank.
According to KTVH the DC-10 was recently able to load, make a drop and reload in a short amount of time. We checked with John Gould, President and CEO of 10 Tanker, who consulted the data submitted by the fight crews that were flying the North Hills Fire. The flight times for each sortie on July 27 and 28, off the runway to back on the runway, ranged from 10 to 24 minutes with most of them in the 15 to 18 minute range. That does not include taxi and takeoff on the 9,000-foot runway. The time the DC-10 spent in the reloading pit getting another 9,400 gallons of retardant was usually around 19 to 21 minutes, block in to block out.