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.
Above: Air Tanker 101, showing the added external tank, December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
(Originally published at 8:38 p.m. MDT August 1, 2018; updated at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018)
An engine malfunctioned on an air tanker operated by Erickson Aero Air July 30 after taking off from the Coeur d’Alene Airport in Idaho. A person we talked with at the airport said they heard a very loud “boom” as the engine failed, and said the aircraft was an MD-87 air tanker. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that contracts for the large and very large air tankers used by the federal government, confirmed Wednesday evening that “an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 did have an engine upset shortly after takeoff from the Coeur d’Alene Airport on Monday at approx. 1430 PDT”. He said the aircraft landed safely after the incident.
The Coeur d’Alene Post Falls Press reported that unofficial sources have told them that hot debris from an air tanker engine started multiple fires after the pieces fell to the ground north of the airport. They also wrote that the runway was closed while “unspecified debris” was removed. The newspaper was not able to find any government officials who would comment about the cause of the fires, saying it was under investigation.
Kootenai County Government reported on their Facebook page that “several small fires resulted from an aircraft incident” at the airport.
(UPDATE at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018: Late yesterday Jim Lyon, Deputy Fire Marshal/Public Information Officer with Northern Lakes Fire District, issued a statement confirming that a jet-powered air tanker under contract to the U.S. Forest Service, at approximately 2:30 p.m. “had mechanical problems on take-off and was able to make an immediate circle route to return to base safely. In so doing, it appears the plane was discharging some sort of material as a result of the mechanical problem, starting several fires throughout the area approximately a five mile radius of the airport.” Marshal Lyon said “up to eight fires” started by the incident were under control by the evening of July 30th.)
Below is an excerpt from a July 31 article in the Spokesman Review about the incident:
Jim Lyons, spokesman for Northern Lakes Fire District, said crews battled about seven fires, though none grew to the size of a major wildfire. The first blazes started about 2 p.m. and spread from there.
Shoshana Cooper, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in North Idaho, said the fires burned to the northwest, south and east of the airport near U.S. Highway 95. She said they burned mostly grass and brush and were not affecting structures. As of 3:30 p.m., no structures had been lost.
Multiple aircraft were sent in to drop retardant on the blazes, but firefighters weren’t sure early Monday afternoon how large the fires had grown.
KXLY reported that a firefighter was injured while working on one of the fires near the airport:
A Kootenai County Fire and Rescue firefighter was injured Monday evening when he was struck by a vehicle that was backing up on Dodd Road by Strayhorn while responding to fires burning near the Coeur d’Alene Airport. He was evaluated at the scene. His injuries were not life threatening, but he was transported to Kootenai Health as a precaution.
The airport resumed normal operation at about 6:30 p.m. Monday.
We were not able to find a SAFECOM report about the incident, and very few people are willing to talk about it. Our calls to personnel at Erickson Aero Air late in the afternoon August 1 either were not returned right away or the employees we talked with were not able to comment.
Tom Brown found five Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87’s at Madras, Oregon on May 5 and was able to grab this photo of all of them.
In June, 2016 I also saw five of Erickson’s MD-87’s at Madras. They were parked in single file and my 24mm lens was not wide enough to get them all. The one missing in the photo below also had “Spanair” on the side.
There have been several questions and comments from the readers on this website about why Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87 air tankers drop retardant with the landing gear down. The most commonly accepted explanation was to reduce airspeed, especially when making a downhill drop. This was why some older air tankers, like the DC-7 according to “Johnny”, kept the gear down.
But Erickson’s MD-87’s are required by the FAA to lower the gear while dropping — in fact it is specified in their Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) issued by the FAA. The reason is the prevention of stalling.
Earlier this year Ericson petitioned the FAA for an exemption from this requirement, and requested a “Flaps 40/Landing Gear Up” configuration while dropping, but on June 28, 2017 that exemption was denied.
Below is an excerpt from the decision which was signed by Michael Kaszycki of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service:
I deny Erickson Aero Tanker, LLC’s, petition for an exemption from 14 CFR 25.201(b)(1), that would have allowed aerial firefighting retardant drops in a configuration that does not fully meet the stall characteristics requirements on the modified DC-9-87 (MD-87) airplanes.
Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.
The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.
The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.
In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)
There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.
Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.
The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.
Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.
Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.
Coast Guard HC-130H’s
One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.
The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.
None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.
None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.
The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.
Air Tanker 60, an Erickson Aero Tanker DC-7B, made an emergency landing at the Chico, California airport Thursday morning. A person who was monitoring radio traffic told Fire Aviation that the pilot declared an emergency after shutting down the #3 engine and losing all hydraulics. The video was apparently captured by someone on the nearby Eaton Road that borders the airport.
The pilots deserve kudos for keeping the aircraft on the runway.
Click on the image above and you’ll be taken to the Action News Now website where you can view it. The resolution on the video is very poor, but you can pretty much tell what is happening.
This DC-7B is 58 years old, manufactured in 1958. Over the last three to four years several P2V air tankers in that same age range have had serious problems with hydraulics that resulted in problems as they landed.
In order to eliminate the problem of retardant from the MD-87 air tanker entering the tail-mounted engines, Erickson Aero Tanker is making a major modification to their tank system. The company is adding an external tank on the belly of their MD-87s. This tank will have an exit point for the retardant that is quite a bit lower than the previous spade opening that was virtually flush with the belly.
Chuck Rhodes, Maintenance Supervisor for Erickson Aero Tanker, told us that the new exit point is in clean air well below the slip stream. At that location, the company expects the air flow will carry the retardant straight back, and will not force it up onto the wings and into the engines as before.
After experiencing what Erickson called “intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”, they installed air deflectors in front of the exit points for the retardant. But since they are taking this extraordinary step of a major modification to the tanking system, apparently the deflectors were not as effective as they had hoped.
The air tankers will still have the internal tanks and the capacity will remain at 4,000 gallons. Mr. Rhodes said they will not carry a full load this year until the company becomes more familiar with the new system.
This modification will require that the company start over again with the approval process, which includes receiving a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA and certification from the Interagency AirTanker Board.
The two MD-87s on exclusive use contract were scheduled to begin their mandatory availability periods on June 5 and 10, but the start dates are being pushed back by weeks, if not months.
In other Erickson news, they have four MD-87s and one MD-83 parked at the Madras, Oregon airport that have been stripped of their engines and have not been converted to air tankers. (See the video below.) The MD-83 is being used for parts, while they expect the MD-87s will be converted into air tankers after the bugs are worked out in the tanking system.
Erickson also has DC-7s. Tanker 62, now located at Redmond, will likely work on an exclusive use contract with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) from July into mid-September. Tanker 66 has the option to work on a call when needed basis with the ODF. Mr. Rhodes said the company hopes Tanker 60 will receive a contract with CAL FIRE.