For a decade or two CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service aviation managers been talking off and on with officials at the Castle Airport (MER), 8 miles northwest of Merced, California, about using it as an air tanker base. As a former Air Force base with an 11,802-foot runway, and its location in central California near the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it could be a valuable resource for any fire aviation asset, but especially for Very Large Air Tankers like the DC-10 or 747.
Finally, prompted in part by the nearby Rim Fire, 40 miles from the airport, the U.S. Forest Service recently signed an agreement with Merced County to allow the airport to be used as an air tanker base. Tuesday of this week both DC-10 air tankers began using it to reload with retardant, making the round trip to and from the Rim Fire every 30 to 40 minutes, dropping 11,600 gallons with every trip.
According to the Modesto Bee:
Under the agreement, Merced County will charge the Forest Service through a series of fees: $225 per month for the 5,200-square-foot building lease, $450 per day for the 551,600-square-foot ramp and 50 cents per 1,000 pounds a plane weighs upon landing, according to county staff.
With a DC-10 air tanker weighing about 368,000 pounds, it will cost around $184 for each landing. The fee for landing a 6,505-pound single-engine Air Tractor AT-802 with an 820-gallon retardant capacity would be about $3.
For now, at least, the Tanker Base will be on call when needed status, staffed only if there is a specific need.
The video below has information about this new use for the Castle Airport.
It’s just a guess, but what you see in this photo of Tanker 910 over the Beaver Fire in Idaho may be evidence of what led to the replacement of the number two engine last week. The image is a screen grab from the video below which has many excellent still images from the Beaver Creek Fire.
As we move into national Preparedness Level 5 today for the first time since 2008, and we have more than 48 uncontained large fires, it’s a good time to see what air tankers are available. These numbers are provided by Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.
Today, not counting 2 air tankers that are on their days off and five that are down for maintenance, there are 13 in service.
Overall, if none were on days off or down for maintenance, we would have:
7 P2Vs on Exclusive Use Contract
2 BAe-146s on Exclusive Use Contract
2 DC-10s on Exclusive Use Contract
4 CV-580s borrowed from Canada and Alaska
5 MAFFS borrowed from the military
This amounts to 11 that are on federal contract and 9 that are borrowed, for a total of 20.
Six of the seven air tankers that received “next generation” contracts, and the 747 that will be under a CWN contract, are weeks or months away from being physically ready and fully certified. However, these are counted when the USFS distributes misleading stats claiming, “Overall, we could have up to 26 airtankers available for wildfire suppression.”
Tanker 910, a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, experienced an engine failure coming off of a drop on the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho on Thursday, August 15. The pilots flew the tanker back to their reload base at Pocotello, Idaho, making a non-emergency landing, said Rick Hatton, CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier. The engine, the number two engine which is in the tail, is being replaced and the aircraft should be back in service today or Monday.
Losing an engine is not unheard of, especially in the P2Vs air tankers which have 16 18-cylinder radial engines with many moving parts. For example in 2012 there were two engine failures in a two day period. One occurred in a P2V just after takeoff from Rapid City. Tanker 43 had to jettison their retardant onto the runway, which required its’ closure, diverting at least one commercial flight to another airport.
10 Tanker’s two DC-10s have both been very busy on fires for the last couple of months. Tanker 911 received a multi-year exclusive use contract on June 7 during the next generation award process. Mr. Hatton told us that on June 14 their other DC-10, Tanker 910, received a 60-day exclusive use contract. We had been told by a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service that it was a Call When Needed contract like the one awarded to Evergreen’s 747 on June 14. Mr. Hatton said that at the end of the 60 day period the contract will revert to CWN for Tanker 910. He, of course, is bullish on the capability of the DC-10s, and said:
Any future national fleet composition would be significantly enhanced across all the relevant metrics by having six to nine Next Gen DC-10s on long term exclusive use contracts.
An Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) has completed a detailed comparison of the use of a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) and P2V Large Air Tankers to complete the same task of creating 4.6 miles of retardant line on the Colockum Tarps Fire, which is what Tanker 911, a DC-10, accomplished during 3.12 flight hours on July 30, 2013.
The DC-10 made eleven drops from five-11,600 gallon loads of retardant. The writer figured it would take 41 drops from P2Vs to construct the same amount of retardant line. Two P2Vs could do it in two days, or four P2Vs could do it one day. Depending on which scenario was used, a DC-10 would result in a cost savings of $122,078 or $136,578.
Other advantages pointed out were that the VLAT could accomplish the objective much more quickly with a wider and more consistent retardant line, and “the eleven individual drops with the VLAT significantly reduced the number of ‘pilot drop exposures’ as compared to the number of drops/passes that would have been required with heavy airtankers”.
The DC-10 was tied up for just over three hours, but it would have taken four aircraft-days if P2Vs were used. The VLAT freed up air tankers, ASM/Bravos, and lead planes for other fires. If we had 44 air tankers like we did in 2002, that would not be as critical as the present situation, where we only have about 10 large air tankers plus one VLAT on exclusive use contracts, and one VLAT on a call when needed contract.
The 747 VLAT may become available by the end of September on a call when needed contract and we may have one or two “next generation” large air tankers in the fleet within the next few weeks.
Jim Kunkle sent us this photo of a DC-10 air tanker, T-910, making its first visit to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base while supporting the Aspen Fire south of Yosemite National Park in California. Thanks Jim.
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.
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.
Mead Gruver of the Associated Press reports that 10 Tanker Air Carrier has decided not to move their air tanker headquraters from Victorville, California to Casper, Wyoming, after announcing May 14 they would relocate to the Casper/Natrona County International Airport.
CEO Rick Hatton said in May, “This fantastic operational environment and its central location will allow improved response times to fires in the mountain west region.”
…On Friday, 10 Tanker President Rick Hatton said Wyoming has been welcoming to his company but the desert Southwest offers a better climate to store planes.
Also, a reassessment of Wyoming’s tax advantages showed little benefit to relocating to the state.
“We started to rethink our decision and we started to conclude that the receptivity in Wyoming, which was lovely, didn’t outweigh the other factors,” Hatton said.
He hasn’t settled yet on a headquarters location yet, he said, but it won’t be Victorville [California]. He suggested that it could be New Mexico or Arizona.
10 Tanker air carrier has one DC-10 under a five-year exclusive use contract and another has a call when needed contract. They carry 11,600 gallons of retardant and were both busy in June, dropping about 698,000 gallons during the month.