Getting up to date on the DC-10 VLATs at Albuquerque

DC-10 air tanker
Air Tankers 910, 911, and 914 at Albuquerque, May 3, 2019.

On May 3 after the IAWF Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference I stopped by the headquarters of 10 Tanker Air Carrier at the Albuquerque airport. Not long ago the company moved into roomier facilities at the airport and it looks like they are settled into the new digs.

The company has four DC-10-30 Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs) now fully operational. The last one to be added to the fleet, Tanker 914, began service in 2018, joining Tankers 910, 911, and 912. T-910, the first DC-10 to be converted into an air tanker was originally a DC-10-10. In 2015 it was replaced with a DC-10-30 and now all four of the company’s aircraft are the same model, DC-10-30. The’30 series has more powerful engines and a much higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW) — 572,000 pounds which is far more than the earlier model.

When we were there one of the aircraft, T-912, had just left to start its exclusive use contract, and T-914 was going to depart in a few days to be based, for a while anyway, at Mesa, Arizona.

Two of the DC-10s spent much of February fighting fire in Chile. The original order called for just one, but on the first day at work in the country a tire failed in spectacular fashion, sending rubber shrapnel into one of the flaps, creating three holes. It took several days to fix it, working with the FAA and bringing mechanics with sheet metal expertise from the United States. John Gould, President and CEO of 10 Tanker, said the company told CONAF, the National Forest Corporation that handles wildland firefighting in Chile, that they could send a replacement DC-10 while the repairs were made. The CONAF representative said, in effect, You have more DC-10s? Bring another and we will use it along with the first one during the fire season. So a second was dispatched and they were based at opposite ends of the long, narrow country.

The Goodyear tire failed on its eighth landing —  which obviously is very unusual.

In the gallery below, mouse-over the photos below and a caption will appear. Click on a photo to begin a slide show of LARGE images, with the caption then at upper-left.

Mr. Gould said fully loaded the DC-10 VLATs weigh 405,000 pounds with a full load of retardant and 2.5 hours of fuel and 9,400 gallons of retardant, which gives the pilots a 167,000-pound margin when maneuvering for a retardant drop, compared to if it was loaded to MTOW.

The DC-10 operates with a crew of three, two pilots and a flight engineer who monitors the aircraft systems and inputs the specifications for the retardant drop.

The aircraft has five retardant tanks, three holding 2,700 to 4,000 gallons each, and two smaller fairing tanks at the front and rear. The fairing tanks are no longer used, which gives the VLAT a 9,400-gallon capacity.

En route to a fire it cruises at 340 knots, but when returning to reload it bumps the speed up to 380 knots. It drops retardant at 200 to 300 feet above the ground at 150 knots.

The first drop over a fire by a DC-10, Tanker 910, was on July 16, 2006 after being awarded a Call When Needed contract by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE.

Each DC-10 is followed by a support crew of seven maintenance technicians equipped with a four-door pickup and goose-neck trailer carrying spare parts and equipment.

Deployments for the two DC-10 air tankers in Chile drawing to a close

T-910 is en route back to U.S.

air Tanker 910 in Chile, 2019
Tanker 910 in Chile, 2019. Photo by Diego Cuadra.

One of the two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers that deployed to Chile is en route back to the United States now that the wildfire activity has slowed and the contract has ended. It is scheduled to land at San Antonio at 6:59 p.m. CST today, March 2, after a stop in Manta, Ecuador. On FlightAware it is operating as TNKR910, N612AX. 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s headquarters is at Albuquerque, New Mexico.

T-910 departed from San Bernardino, California on February 6, arrived in Chile the following day, and went to work dropping on wildfires February 8. During its first day on the job in the country a tread separated on a main landing gear tire and the debris damaged an inboard flap. The crew completed repairs three days later.

Air tanker 910 DC-10
Air tanker 910, a DC-10, en route back to the United States. FlightAware.

The second DC-10, Tanker 914, arrived in Chile on February 11. Its contract ends next week and then it will be heading back north.

The two DC-10s have been working out of three airports stretched across 572 miles of the long, narrow country — Santiago, Concepción, and Puerto Montt.

As of March 1, the two aircraft have completed 133 missions dropping a total of 1.2 million gallons, an average of 9,022 gallons per mission, said John Gould, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier. For the first week or two they were dropping plain water since there is no fire retardant in Chile, but later fire officials requested they use BlazeTamer, a concentrated water enhancer that can be injected into the tank using the existing equipment on the air tankers. The product was used on 33% of the missions.

air Tanker 914 in Chile, 2019
Tanker 914 dropping in Chile, 2019. Photo by Giovanni Inostroza Umana.

Tire failure damages DC-10 air tanker in Chile

Air Tanker 910 drops wildfire Chile
Air Tanker 910 drops on a wildfire in Chile, February 8, 2019. Screengrab from T13 video.

(UPDATED at 1:08 p.m. MDT February 11, 2019)

A DC-10 very large air tanker was damaged when a tire failed upon landing at the Carriel Sur airport in Concepción, Chile Friday November 8. The tread separated on a main landing gear tire and damaged an inboard flap. John E. Gould, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said the crew immediately began repairing the flap and that work will be completed Monday afternoon.

Damaged tire Tanker 910
Damaged tire on Tanker 910. TodayChile photo.

When tires on a race car or aircraft disintegrate at high speed as shown in the photo, chunks of rubber flying off the tire can damage sheet metal and other components.

Very roughly translated news reports indicate that the aircraft completed either four sorties or four drops on its first day of operations in Chile before the tire failed. T-910 departed from San Bernardino, California on February 6, arrived in Chile the following day, and went to work dropping on wildfires February 8.

Mr. Gould said a second DC-10, Tanker 914 has been ordered and is en route, expected to arrive in Santiago, Chile Monday afternoon. It is not necessarily to replace T-910; CONAF, the contracting organization, wanted a total of two very large air tankers under contract.

The video below shows both a Russian IL-76 and the DC-10 making drops. It is possible that a water enhancing chemical has been added to the water to increase its effectiveness in suppressing the wildfires. The DC-10 can carry up to 9,400 gallons. The IL-76 footage may be from 2017.


The article has been edited to correct the date the DC-10 first arrived in Chile.

DC-10 air tanker en route to Chile

DC-10 air tanker
Tanker 910 at McClellan October 10, 2017. Photo by Sergio Maraschin

One of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 very large air tankers is en route to Chile. Tanker 910, N612AX, departed from San Bernardino, California Wednesday. It made a stop at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala later in the day, and information on Flight Aware appears to indicate that it will also stop at Pisco, Peru.

John Gould, President of 10 Tanker said the aircraft is expected to arrive at Santiago, Chile early Thursday morning. He said it will be working for the National Forest Corporation, or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal), which is a Chilean private, non-profit organization, through which the Chilean state contributes to the development and sustainable management of the country’s forest resources. CONAF is overseen and funded by Chile’s Ministry of Agriculture. There is no one governmental agency that has the authority, responsibility, and resources to manage wildfires in the Country.

On Tuesday Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of catastrophe in some regions of the country due to unusually hot weather and numerous wildfires. Below is an excerpt from Prensa Latina:

[Undersecretary of the Interior, Rodrigo] Ubilla said that this extreme measure seeks to strengthen the network of logistical support to deal with these disasters, and that these commanders will be responsible for ‘controlling public order, operationally support the tasks of prevention, fire fighting and adopt all necessary measures to avoid risks to the population.

More than 8,000 hectares [19,000 acres] of forests and pastures have already been burned by flames, dozens of homes have been destroyed and hundreds of people evacuated, according to reports from the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) and the National Emergency Office of the Ministry of the Interior (ONEMI).

Two years ago Global Supertanker’s 747 very large air tanker spent a month or so fighting fires in Chile working out of Santiago. Andrea Avolio, a vice president of the company, said their aircraft is presently down for several weeks undergoing heavy maintenance. She said the company has not received any inquiries from officials in Chile about it being deployed.

Dan Snyder, CEO and President of Neptune, said he has recently had some informal discussions with folks in Chile but no orders have been placed. Neptune sent one of their BAe-146s, Tanker 03, to Concepción, Chile two years ago at the same time the 747 was farther north in Santiago.

A spokesperson for Aero-Flite said as far as she knew the company has no plans to send one of their RJ85 large air tankers to South America. Currently three of them are working in Australia.

Last month an IL-76 airplane hauled a Kamov Ka-32A11BC helicopter to Chile to fight fires. And on Christmas Eve Billings Flying Service unloaded one of their CH-47D Chinooks off a ship in Chile.

Billings Flying Service CH-47D helicopter
Billings Flying Service’s Helicopter 03, a CH-47D Chinook, being unloaded from the ship in Chile. Billings Flying Service photo.

Great video of drop by a DC-10

DC-10 retardant drop
Screengrab from the video below of a drop from a DC-10. Check out the shadow.

In the image above the shadow is very cool.

10 Tanker Air Carrier just sent out a tweet with a link to the video below that is on a Facebook page. It is titled “Rocky Fire”, but had no description. I am unaware of a current fire with that name. I thought it looked familiar, and I found that we had a YouTube copy of it in August, 2015. The Rocky Fire burned almost 70,000 acres near Clear Lake, California. At any rate, it’s a great video, so you’re getting another opportunity to see it — the YouTube copy — which is the same as the one on Facebook.

Catching up on aircraft photos

(Updated October 4, 2018)

We are catching up on some photos sent in by our readers. The image above is by Austin Catlin — an Avro RJ85 working on a fire in Eastern Idaho.

Sky Aviation helicopter
Sky Aviation on the Willow Fire near Madras, Oregon. Photo by Tom Brown.
Coulson helicopter
A Coulson helicopter on the Willow Fire near Madras, Oregon. Photo by Tom Brown.

Below are shots of DC-10s at Sacramento McClellan Airport by Sergio Mara.

DC-10 air tanker Sacramento McClellan Airport DC-10 air tanker Sacramento McClellan Airport DC-10 air tanker Sacramento McClellan Airport DC-10 air tanker Sacramento McClellan Airport

Thanks guys!

Photos of P-3 Orion air tankers at McClellan

Also: A DC-10 and Coulson’s most recently converted C-130

Above: Air tanker 23 testing at McClellan.

When Sergio Maraschin saw our article about Airstrike Firefighters signing a call when needed contract with Colorado for their P-3 air tankers, he realized we needed some more current photos of the recently refurbished aircraft. He took these at various times over the last six weeks at Sacramento McClellan Airport.

The article linked to above has the details about Airstrike’s recent projects.

Thanks Sergio!

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23 T-17 T-912
Air tankers 17, 23, and 910.
P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23, over McClellan.

Coulson’s T-134, a C-130Q, has come a very long way since April, 2017. Check out these photos, here and here, taken as the project was just getting started. It is amazing what private industry can do in 16 months when they want to convert an aircraft into an air tanker. The Air Force dithered for almost five years when they were supposed to be converting seven former Coast guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers for the U.S. Forest Service, and never fully completed any of them. Now it appears the state of California will get the reborn air tankers, when and if the USAF completes the work.

T-134 C-130 Coulson
This is T-134, Coulson’s most recently converted C-130Q air tanker. Brett Coulson told us as far as they are concerned it is ready to fight fire. They intend to wait until after the fire season to paint it.

Forest Service issues solicitations for CWN air tankers

Above: Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. The aircraft was under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

On June 15 the U.S. Forest Service issued solicitations for Call When Needed (CWN) air tankers. There are two separate requests for proposals (RFP), one for Large Air Tankers (LAT) and another for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT).

The verbiage in the LAT document implies that, perhaps, only air tankers that have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons will be considered:

Aircraft less than 3000 gallons or greater than 5000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft in the target volume, given the priority mission for these airtankers is initial attack.

And the VLAT RFP “prefers” aircraft that can carry at least 8,000 gallons.

Aircraft with greater than 8000-gallon (72,000 pounds) dispensing capacity are preferred. Aircraft less than 8000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft at the target volume, given the primary mission for these airtankers is large fire support.

It is interesting that the RFP has such imprecise language for this important specification, capacity, that can be easily required and measured. It is not subjective, unlike the editorial comments about one type of air tanker being prioritized for initial attack and another for large fire support. This assumes that LATs are not suitable for large fires and VLATs are not appropriate for initial attack. There are so few federally contracted air tankers available, now that the numbers have been cut again, that during periods of high fire activity too often no air tanker is going to arrive during the initial attack stage when a new fire is still small — unless it is on state land in California where CAL FIRE still believes in aggressive initial attack from both the ground AND the air. A VLAT, while carrying three to six times more than a LAT, can split their load, only dropping what is necessary, and land partially loaded with retardant if necessary.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and various congressional committees have been begging the Forest Service for many years to develop hard data to determine the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft and the liquids they drop on fires, so that better decisions can be made about how the $100 million appropriated annually for this activity should be spent.

The last time the Forest Service issued a solicitation for CWN air tankers was 222 days ago, on May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS at that time restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated VLATs from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the 747 carries up to 19,200.

Global Supertanker, the operator of a 747 VLAT, filed a protest which was upheld by the GAO. In their decision, the GAO wrote that the FS:

…failed to provide reasonable justifications for the challenged specification, such that we are unable to conclude that the challenged specification is reasonably necessary for the agency to meet its needs.

We recommend that the agency make a documented determination of its needs. Once the agency identifies its needs, the agency should revise its solicitation to include specifications that are reasonably necessary to meet those needs. We also recommend that the protester be reimbursed the costs of filing and pursuing the protest, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

In 2012 the FS began a program to answer some of the questions about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft, titled, Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study. The agency’s stated goal was to begin releasing summaries of the results in 2017, but so far have not done so. A couple of weeks ago when we asked Vicki Christiansen, the Interim Chief of the Forest Service, when the study’s results would be released, she responded by email:

The summaries are not currently available. Unforeseen delays with staffing changes, retrieving aviation use data, and completing final reviews has delayed their overall schedule. The AFUE work group is continuing their work to complete the summaries and they will be provided as soon as they become available.