Erickson Aero Tanker to receive approval for their MD-87s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Erickson Aero Tanker expects to begin flying two of their MD-87 air tankers on contract next month. Kevin McCullough, President of the company, told Fire Aviation on Wednesday that they have received a supplemental type certificate for the aircraft from the FAA, they have passed the grid test of dropping retardant into hundreds of cups on the ground, and the Interagency AirTanker (IATB) board will soon issue an interim 18-month approval. The new policy of the IATB is to award 18-month interim approvals, basically two fire seasons, for new air tanker designs.

The mandatory availability periods for the two MD-87s that received next-generation air tanker contracts will begin June 5 and June 10. Mr. McCullough said the aircraft are in Arizona now and will fly up to their facility in Oregon next week. The following week they will go through the carding procedure.

The MD-87s have a retardant capacity of 4,000 gallons and will very rarely have to carry less than that due to density altitude, Mr. McCullough said.

The company bought seven MD-87s and so far three of them have been completely retrofitted as air tankers. Their next-gen contract allows for the U.S. Forest Service to add as “additional equipment” eight more MD-87s, for a total of ten. The decision to add more air tankers is totally up to the USFS, assuming of course that the vendor has the aircraft available. The USFS would, 1) determine that there is a need, and then, 2) come up with the money. Mr. McCullough told us they hope to have ten MD-87s in service somewhere down the road.

The air tanker numbers on the three completed MD-87s are 101, 103, and 105.

Erickson Aero Tanker was one of five companies that received contracts in May of 2013 for a total of seven next-gen air tankers:

Coulson and 10 Tanker had their aircraft flying soon after the awards became final last summer, following the resolution of the protest that was filed over the contract by Neptune Aviation. It is our understanding, after talking with USFS officials, that Aero Flite will very soon receive final IATB approval for their two RJ85s. That leaves Minden’s BAe-146, which has not yet attempted a formal grid test, but has passed a static test, releasing water from the tank while parked on the ground.

Here is the breakdown of Type 1 air tankers which are now, or may soon be active on USFS exclusive use contracts this year:

Air tankers available in 2014

Other air tankers

10 Tanker has a second DC-10 on a call when needed contract. It could either remain as call when needed, or the USFS could add it as additional equipment on the company’s next-gen contract.

As mentioned above, Erickson Aero Tanker has a third MD-87 that will ready to drop on fires in a couple of weeks, according to Mr. McCullough. It is not currently on contract but could be added as additional equipment. They have four more MD-87s that could be retrofitted.

Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. One of the five is on a “legacy” contract (as noted in the chart above), and the other four have no contract. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.

The Department of the Interior also has 33 single-engine air tankers (SEATs) on exclusive use contract that carry 800 gallons, and the USFS has a 1,600-gallon CL-415 water-scooping air tanker. The DOI usually has two CL-215s on contract that have a 1,400-gallon capacity.

Update on next-gen air tankers

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 160 at the retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Five companies received contracts on May 6, 2013 for seven “next-generation” air tankers. Of those seven, only two have met all of the specifications in the contracts and received the required certifications from the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) for a supplemental type certificate, a static drop test on the ground, and an airborne test of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups. The two that have passed and have flown on fires are 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s 11,600-gallon DC-10, and Coulson Group’s 3,500-gallon C-130Q.

Here is what we learned this week while talking with aviation professionals at Cheyenne.

Minden Air Corp, who received a contract for one BAe-146, has passed the static test. They have not attempted a formal monitored grid test. The retardant system they are building has some impressive capabilities, including a high flow rate and a great amount of flexibility in the flow rate. It has the ability to select two different flow rates on one drop, for example, going from coverage level 5 to coverage level 8. (The numbers refer to the number of gallons of retardant that lands on 100 square feet of flat terrain.) That feature could be used when there is a change in vegetation or topography, moving, for example from grass to timber, or flat terrain to a steep slope. In each case it would be helpful to increase the coverage level.

Erickson Aero Tanker, received contracts for two MD-87s. One of the aircraft participated in a grid test in January, and the Interagency Air Tanker Board is still reviewing the results. Even though they added a fairing to modify how the air flow affected the performance of the aircraft and the retardant flow near the fuselage, the aircraft experienced some problems in qualifying at the higher coverage levels. The engineers may need to enlarge the retardant door openings to increase the flow rates.

Aero-Flite has two RJ-85s, an aircraft similar to the BAe-146. It has passed the grid test and the company is working on obtaining dual “citizenship”, supplemental type certificates for the retardant system from Transport Canada and the United States FAA . It is likely that the aircraft will be certified very soon by the IATB for an 18-month interim approval, which will be the new standard operating procedure for air tankers that receive an initial blessing from the IATB. The interim approval provides an opportunity for field trials, to determine if anything surfaces that was not apparent during the static, STC, and grid tests.

Bonus coverage:

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” was not part of the next-gen contract, but the company did have a couple of call when needed contracts (CWN), with the last one being issued June 14, 2013. After receiving the contract Evergreen scheduled a needed C check which would have started August 2, and depending on what was found during the process would have been ready to fly in mid- to late September — about the time the western wildfire season begins to wind down. The cost of the C check is over a million dollars. But a few weeks after receiving the contract, Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Evergreen Supertanker Services, told Fire Aviation they reconsidered and decided to postpone the C check since there was “insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades.”

A matter of weeks after Mr. Soelberg gave us that update the company filed for bankruptcy. The change in ownership made the CWN contract void. As of now, the 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker is not covered by an air tanker contract.

Neptune has one BAe-146 working on the “legacy” air tanker contract, even though it now meets the criteria for a next-gen, including the required air speed and a 3,000-gallon retardant capacity. Before they modified the tanking system for the third time last fall, the tank held about 2,900 gallons and there was a problem in coverage level of the last 400 gallons exiting the tank, so the Forest Service restricted it to only carrying 2,500 gallons. The modifications increased the tank size to 3,000 gallons and made other changes in the system. At another grid test last fall it showed improved consistency for all 3,000 gallons, and in the flow rate at all coverage levels. As a result the Forest Service has now certified the tank system to carry 3,000 gallon of retardant. Their new design is innovative in that it uses GPS to measure the aircraft speed and then can automatically modulate the retardant flow rate to maintain the desired coverage level. They also have a sensor on the drop tubes which measures the actual flow rate. They system can then direct the valves or doors to change the size of the opening in order to maintain the coverage level as other factors change, such as the head pressure in the tank or if the aircraft encounters turbulence. Neptune expects to have a total of five BAe-146 air tankers available by later this summer.

Tanker 101 dropping retardant at the grid test

Tanker 101, an MD-87
Tanker 101, an MD-87, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

Jeff Zimmerman took this excellent shot of Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101, an MD-87, dropping retardant during the grid test at Fox Field in southern California January 15, 2014.

Erickson Aero Tanker received a contract for two MD-87s air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service as part of the agency’s next-generation air tanker program.

You can see more of Jeff’s photography at his site. Thanks Jeff.

Aero Air to begin grid testing their MD-87

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87
Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop in early 2013. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

Aero Air, also known as Erickson Aero Tanker, has scheduled retardant drop grid tests at Fox Field in southern California for one of their MD-87 aircraft that they are converting into air tankers. Last month Aero Flite’s Tanker 160, an RJ85 which is similar to a BAe-146, went through the same procedure.

Aero Air’s tests of their 4,000-gallon MD-87 are expected to begin January 13, weather permitting, and will last four or five days. The aircraft will start dropping at about 7:30 a.m. each day and will continue until either the wind increases to over 10 knots or until one hour before sunset if there is no wind.

The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds or thousands of cups intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires. For the RJ85 tests, both paid and inmate fire crews were on hand at Fox Field last month to assist with the set-up of the grid and the collection of the cups after each drop. Firefighters have been asked again to assist with the MD-87 tests.

Kevin McCullough, the President of Aero Air, told Wildfire Today in December, 2012 that they had purchased seven MD-87s and intended to convert them into air tankers.

Aero Air received a contract from the U.S. Forest Service on June 7, 2013 for two MD-87 air tankers. The aircraft were not ready and missed the contractual start date a couple of months later. The U.S. Forest Service then issued “cure notices” to Aero Air and two other companies that received the next generation contracts for five air tankers, none of which met the required start date. Aero Air responded saying the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014. Later in a justification for awarding a sole source contract to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers, the USFS wrote they were “not confident that [the] five … contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014″.

Below is a video about Aero Air’s MD-87 air tanker making their first test drop early in 2013.

Progress check on next-generation air tankers

We attempted to contact all four of the vendors that received contracts for next-generation air tankers that are still working to convert their aircraft into air tankers. We wanted to get updates on how close they are to being ready drop retardant over fires. Minden and Coulson returned our phone calls. 10 Tanker had their two DC-10s ready to go and fully certified when the contracts were announced, so their status is obvious.

As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that exclusive use contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The activation of the contracts was held up by a protest from Neptune Aviation, but the awards finally went to.

Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.

The other four companies are finishing the tank installations and still have to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the FAA and have to pass a static test, dropping while parked on the tarmac; then, finally a grid test during which they drop actual retardant from the air into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground which will determine the volume and consistency of the drop pattern. As far as I know none of the four remaining companies have scheduled a grid test yet with the Interagency AirTanker Board, which must certify all air tankers under contract with the federal government.

Minden Air Corporation

We talked with Len Parker, the CEO of Minden, who told us that they are making good progress on their BAe-146, Tanker 46, and that they expect to make the deadline for full certification, which is in the first part of August. Their tank design is very different from Neptune’s design for their BAe-146 which uses cabin air pressure to assist in forcing the retardant out of the tank. Mr. Parker told us their tank totally relies on gravity, having more than 10 feet of vertical head pressure. When asked if the door system was constant flow, he said yes and no, explaining that it is more advanced than a typical constant flow system, and uses advanced technology.

The tank holds about 3,100 gallons, he said, and when empty weighs about 2,000 pounds less than other tanks that may be used on BAe-146s, meaning they would not have to carry reduced loads of retardant as often when density altitude is an issue on hot days at high altitude.

Tanker 46 has passed the static test and meets the required flow rates, Mr. Parker told us. They are still working on the STC, but expect to select a date for the grid test by July 12.

Minden has purchased a second BAe-146 and has already started converting it.

Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.

Coulson's T 131

Britt Coulson sent us these photos that were taken June 28, 2013. He told us the aircraft, which holds 3,500 gallons, has been painted and they will apply the wrap, which we ran a photo of earlier, later this month. He said on July 2:

…most of the tank is now installed, gear and all flight controls are checked, tank doors are going on this week, hydraulics are being finished this week as is the floor to complete the tank install.

The tank in Coulson's T 131

As you can see in the photo, there are wheels attached to the tank. Mr. Coulson told us they can remove or reinstall the tank in about 30 minutes.

They still have to obtain the STC and the other certifications.

The other two companies

We called and left messages at Aero Flite and Aero Air, but the calls and emails were not returned.

Aero Flite photos?

We received the two following photos from someone who told us that they show Aero Flite’s RJ85 (Tanker 160) external retardant tank being attached to the belly and sides of an aircraft last week. We can’t independently verify they are genuine, so for now we’ll just call them an artist’s conception of what their RJ85 may look like.

AeroFlite RJ85 side AeroFlite RJ85

USFS to issue contracts for 3 next-gen air tankers

Tanker 910, a DC-10
Tanker 910, a DC-10, landing at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(Originally published at 11:15 a.m. MT, May 31, 2013; updated at 8:30 p.m., May 31, 2013)

The attorneys and U.S. Forest Service officials dealing with the contract protest that Neptune Aviation lodged when they were passed over for a next-generation air tanker contract have have decided that three of the seven line items on the solicitation are exempt from Neptune’s protest because the company did not bid on those line items. As a result, three companies were notified Thursday that they definitely will be issued five-year exclusive use contracts:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.

The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.

The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.

The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.

The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.

It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.

Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.

USFS announces contracts for next-generation air tankers

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87
Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service announced today they intend to award contracts to five companies for what the agency is calling “next-generation” air tankers, used for dropping water or fire retardant on wildfires.

The U.S. Forest Service expects to award exclusive use contracts to:

Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. (See below for more information on the “legacy” aircraft contract).

The new next-gen contracts are for a base period of five years with five one-year options (a total of 10 years if all contract options are exercised).

In a press release the USFS said the contracts allow the companies to provide additional next generation air tankers in future years, contingent on funding and other circumstances…

…to reach the total of 18 to 28 recommended in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy that the Forest Service submitted to Congress in February 2012.

These new contracts for next-gen air tankers require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least  3,000 gallons.

The USFS said the five were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.

We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.

The USFS said they plan to bring the seven next-gen air tankers into service over the next year. Most of these aircraft, except for the DC-10, are not ready to drop retardant on fires. Some are still being converted from airliners into air tankers, have not passed the drop tests required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, or they do not have an FAA Type Certificate. Even if the progress on some of these air tankers goes as the companies optimistically hope, it could be months before they are seen dropping retardant over a fire.

The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers 523 days ago on November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012.

These next-generation air tankers can fly faster, should be more reliable, and can carry more retardant than the “legacy” P2V air tankers that were designed in the 1940s for maritime patrol. The Korean War vintage P2Vs have two 18-cylinder radial piston engines with many moving parts, requiring more maintenance than the turbine or turbofan engines of these newer aircraft. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000 gallons of retardant and can cruise at 225 mph.

On March 28, 2013 the USFS announced that contracts were awarded to Neptune Aviation and Minden Air, for what the agency called “legacy” air tankers. Exclusive use contracts were awarded to Minden for one P2V and to Neptune for six P2Vs and one BAe-146. These contracts are for six to eight aircraft over the next five years, when optional years for various line items are considered.

The USFS expects legacy air tankers to continue to be part of the fleet until there are adequate numbers of next generation large air tankers.

With the 7 contracts for next-gen air tankers announced today, plus the 8 legacy contracts, this will make 15 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts if and when the 7 next-gen aircraft are converted and obtain approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and the FAA. In addition, the government can call up 8 military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers.

The USFS still has not announced new contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10 or 747, which expired December 31, 2012. However, and surprisingly, one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s received a contract on this new next-gen solicitation. The agency had extended the call-when-needed contract for the DC-10 while they struggled with issuing new contracts. There have been no contracts for the 747 “Supertanker” operated by Evergreen in recent years.

Below are the specifications for air tankers that we compiled, including some aircraft being considered for conversion into air tankers. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Air Tanker Specifications

 

Erickson to buy Evergreen Helicopters, Inc.

Evergreen helicopter at Custer 2008
An Evergreen helicopter, a Eurocopter AS 350 B3,  at Custer, SD July 9, 2008. Photo by Bill Gabbert

As we reported on Wildfire Today earlier this afternoon, Erickson Air-Crane, Inc. has signed an agreement to purchase Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., a company with approximately 400 employees. This will be the second major acquisition Erickson has made in the last three months. In November they reached an agreement to buy Air Amazonia, a subsidiary of HRT Participacoes in Brazil, along with their 14 helicopters. Both acquisitions are expected to close in the second quarter of this year.

For the $250 million price tag, Erickson will get 52 helicopters and 12 fixed wing aircraft from Evergreen Helicopters. The 64 aircraft are a mix of leased and owned. Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker”, which can carry up to 20,000 gallons of fire retardant, is not part of the deal and will remain with Evergreen. The 747 is still configured as an air tanker but has not fought fire recently. The company has not been interested in accepting the U.S. Forest Service’s only offer of a call when needed contract.

From Air Amazonia Erickson will receive 14 passenger transport and medium-lift helicopters, (7) S-61, (5) Bell 212, and (2) A350 that have been used in the oil and gas industry. At this time Erickson has no plans to use the Amazonia helicopters for aerial fire suppression.

Erickson Air-Crane, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, for decades has built, operated, and sold Erickson S-64 heavy-lift helicopters, using a license acquired from Sikorsky. Up through 2007 the company concentrated on firefighting (53% of their business) and timber harvesting (38%). With the planned diversification the company expects to add contracts for Department of Defense work amounting to approximately 43% of their revenue, as well as increasing the oil and gas component. They think that about 30% of their work will be in Afghanistan. After the acquisitions, firefighting will provide about 19% of Evergreen’s revenue.

Since the company went public in April 2012 their stock price has risen from $8.00 to $15.11 today. According to Zacks.com:

In 2012, the company generated revenues of $180.8 million, up 18.4% year over year. The increase in revenue was driven by new firefighting contracts, an active fire season and the company’s expansion of infrastructure construction, especially in support of the oil-and-gas market in South America.

Maybe we’re entering a period of merger-mania. As we reported December 12, 2012, Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick. Aero Air acquired Butler’s three DC-7 air tankers, support equipment, and spare parts in Madras, Oregon. Kevin McCullough, now the President of Aero Air, and Jack Erickson, founder and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, became co-owners of Aero Air in 1998. Aero Air is currently converting some MD-87s into air tankers and hopes to snag a contract for “next-generation” air tankers, when and if the U.S. Forest Service ever issues the contracts. It has been 476 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.

Below are examples of the aircraft Erickson will be acquiring.

–From Evergreen Helicopters:

Evergreen helicopters Evergreen fixed wing

–From Air Amazonia:

Amazonia helicopters

Thanks go out to Kelly