Conair to replace all of their L-188 and CV-580 air tankers with Q400s

The company has purchased 11 De Havilland Dash 8 Q400 aircraft which will be converted to air tankers

Conair Q400
Conair Q400. Photo Credit Damien Fournier.

The Conair Group plans to retire all of their legacy L-188 and CV-580 air tankers and over the next two to three years replace them with De Havilland Canada DHC-8 Q400s.

In a statement, the company gave their rationale for making the change:

“Planes used to fight wildfires as airtankers are often older models and are flown into demanding environments, inevitably resulting in metal fatigue over time. In addition, aircraft designed to obsolete standards leads to increased risk of incidents, costly repairs, limited replacement parts, and ultimately time grounded from fighting fires. Conair’s strategic move towards a long-term vision includes replacing the company’s fleet of heavy legacy airtankers with the new Q400ATs.

“We evaluated 29 aircraft before selecting the Q400 for modification into an aerial firefighting tool. The unanimous opinion of our flight operations experts was that the Q400 exceeds all the Next Generation performance criteria within a maneuverable and stable platform.” says Jeff Berry, Director of Business Development at Conair. “The Q400AT is fast, fuel efficient, and tactically flexible, operating both initial attack as well as sustained support actions. The Q400 is still in production and has strong Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) support from De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (De Havilland Canada), guaranteeing availability of parts and servicing for years.”

The eleven Q400s, formerly owned by Flybe and now in Europe, will be delivered to Conair beginning this month.

In 2017 the Conair Group secured a deal to sell six Q400 Multi-Role aircraft converted to air tankers to France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defence and Emergency Preparedness). These were new aircraft that Conair purchased from Bombardier which can be reconfigured in a few hours to carry passengers, hence the Multi-Role (MR) designation. The new aircraft are replacing France’s old S-2 air tankers.

One of Conair’s Q400s, a Q400AT not configured to carry passengers, was on contract in Queensland, Australia during the 2020/2021 summer bushfire season through December. This was the first time the state has had regular access to a large air tanker, rather than borrowing from New South Wales or Victoria. Tanker 141/Bomber 141 (C-FFQE) arrived in Bundaberg in August after departing from Abbotsford British Columbia and making fuel stops at Oakland, Honolulu, Majuro (Marshall Islands), Honiara (Solomon Islands), and Brisbane where it cleared customs.

Air Tanker 141, C-FFQEQ, Q400
T-141 (C-FFQEQ) Q400AT – Refueling at Majuro, Marshall Islands in August , 2020 while en route to Bundaberg, Queensland for the 2020-2021 bushfire season in Australia. Photo Credit Brendon Sutton.

In September, 2020, Jeff Berry, Manager of Business Development at Conair, said, “[The Q400AT] is a pure air tanker STC [supplemental type certificate], so we don’t have any of the residual plumbing, wiring, attachment points inside, or heavy duty flooring that you need for an MR, so it’s stripped down to be a pure tanker. And it gives us the maximum fuel load and the maximum retardant tank capacity. You get the full 10,000 liters [2,642 gallons]. The Q400AT is truly a ‘Green’ airtanker — it is incredibly fuel efficient burning only 58 percent of the fuel per hour while carrying 85 percent of the load of a typical type 1 airtanker.”

According to Wikipedia the Q400’s maximum cruise speed is 345 to 414 mph. It seems likely that the bolted-on external retardant tank would have a negative effect on the air speed and range. Out of the factory it is rated to haul up to 90 passengers.

conair tanker 42
File photo of Conair Air Tanker 42, a Convair 580, taxiing for takeoff at Whitehorse International Airport at Yukon, Canada. The aircraft was built in 1958. Photo by D. Cote, Yukon Fire Management.

Conair has been fighting fires for 51 years. In addition to the CV-580, Q400, and L-188, their fleet currently is comprised of air attack and bird dog aircraft (Cessna  Caravan C208B and Turbo Commander TC-690A), amphibious scooping air tankers (CL215T and Air Tractor AT802A), and land-based air tankers (Avro RJ85 and Air Tractor AT 802).

The manufacture date of the Convair 580 in the photo was corrected to show it was 1958, not 1981.

Lockheed L-188 air tanker strikes tree while dropping retardant

On the BTU Complex of fires August 23, 2020

Lockheed L-188
File photo of a generic Lockheed L-188 (not an air tanker).

A four-engine air tanker, an L-188, struck a tree while making a retardant drop on a fire August 23, 2020. The tanker was working out of the retardant base at the Chico, California airport and landed safely with no injuries.

There was damage to the leading edge of the left outboard wing, lower outboard wing planks, left inboard flap leading and trailing edge, as well as scuff marks (but no damage) to the #1 prop. The pilots said they knew the drop was low, observed trees near wing level, but were not aware there was a tree strike until mechanics called the damage to their attention after they landed.

In 2019 an L-188 had to execute a belly landing when the crew was not able to get the landing gear down and locked. There were no injuries.

Below is the full text of the “Narrative” and “Corrective Action”  sections as published on SAFECOM about the tree strike:


On bombing run on fire BTU Complex, aircraft entered smoke on short final, dropped load, and exiting the smoke observed trees near wing level. Aircraft climbed away with no indication to the pilots of any contact with trees. Aircraft then proceeded with a second run to drop remaining 50% load without incident, was released from the fire and returned to Chico. Flight crew had no indication of tree strike during flight. Evidence of tree strikes to the left wing discovered by maintenance during post flight inspection.


Aviation Safety Comments: This was the third drop of the day in the same area for this airtanker. The crew reported slowly deteriorating visibility for them in the area due to smoke. On this run an S2T airtanker dropped before them, and when the ATGS asked for them to tag-and-extend the crew stated that they could not see it from their position in the orbit. The ATGS then vectored them in for the drop. They successfully maneuvered onto the final leg and were cleared to drop.

Midway through the drop the airtanker briefly passed through a column of smoke, and when they emerged they immediately saw they were low. They quickly pulled up, stopped the drop, and returned to orbit altitude. They reported not to hear, see or feel any tree strike.

The ATGS had noticed the sudden pull-up maneuver and asked the crew if they were ok and if they had completed the drop. The crew stated all was ok and that they still had a half-load. Noting they were lower than intended on the previous drop, the captain opted to carry more power into the second drop, and conducted it with no issues. The ATGS then asked if they felt their visibility was continuing to deteriorate. Upon confirming it was, the ATGS opted to release them back to base. (Note: The ATGS continued to operate in the area with the S2T for a few more drops).

The crew landed back at base with no issues and left the aircraft. A short time after, they were called by maintenance back to the aircraft, which was the first time they were made aware of the tree strike. There was damage to the leading edge of the left outboard wing, lower outboard wing planks, left inboard flap leading and trailing edge, as well as scuff marks (but no damage) to the #1 prop.

Contributing Factors/Corrective Actions:

This crew is an experienced Canadian airtanker crew on their first day conducting aerial firefighting missions in California. A comment made by the captain was that his ‘muscle memory’ for power settings during drops had yet to account for the increased heat in CA. He realized after the low drop that that may have been a factor, and corrected by carrying more power into the subsequent drop, which he felt resulted in a normal height pass. This will be a talking point with subsequent Canadian crews that may come to California during this fire season.

Additionally, the aircraft Radar Altimeter appeared to not be functioning, which could have provided them with more situational awareness as they passed through the column of smoke on the drop. Before the aircraft is returned to service, the Radar Altimeter will be checked for functionality.

Lastly, a general sense during discussion with the crew is that they felt the smoke visibility in the area may have added an additional challenge as they acclimated to not only the environment, but also to CAL FIRE aerial firefighting operations (ex: FTA operations).

Additional training for visiting Canadian crews will be to emphasize that we not only hope that they feel comfortable in declining missions or drops they don’t feel can be conducted safely, we expect it.

Air tanker makes emergency wheels-up landing at Red Deer, Alberta

The landing was caught on video

air tanker l-188 wheels up landing red deer alberta
Tanker 490, an L-188, made an emergency landing June 22, 2019 at Red Deer Regional Airport when it had problems with the landing gear. Screenshot from the video below just before it touched down on the runway.

One of Air Spray’s four-engine L-188 Electras had a problem with its landing gear June 22 and had to make an emergency wheels-up landing at Red Deer Regional Airport in Alberta.

Red Deer News Now reported that according to Graham Ingham, CEO at the airport, the incident happened around 12:20 p.m.

“We had an Air Spray air tanker, an Electra-type aircraft, perform an emergency landing due to the fact it couldn’t get its main landing gear down. After a couple of attempts, they decided that it would be safer to do a wheels up landing, and subsequently they did. Thankfully they came to a complete stop. There were no injuries, no fire and it was the best outcome for everyone.”

Mr. Ingham said two pilots and two other people on board walked away from Air Tanker 490 without any injuries.

The video below shows what looks like an excellent landing, considering the circumstances.

air tanker 490 landing gear Red Deer Airport
Air Tanker 490 had a problem with the landing gear at Red Deer Airport, June 22, 2019 and had to make an emergency landing. Photo courtesy of Red Deer Airport.
Air tanker 481 Lockheed Electra L188
File photo of another Air Spray L-188, Air Tanker 481, at McClellan, March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The cause of the landing gear problem has not been released.

Other firefighting aircraft have had landing gear problems:

Air tankers working the Chuckegg Creek Fire in Alberta

Air tankers Chuckegg Creek Fire
Air tankers on the Chuckegg Creek Fire. Alberta Fire photo.

The large aircraft on the left is the Electra L-188. It has four turbine engines, can cruise at 592 km/hr (368 mph), and can carry 11,365 liters (3,000 gallons) of fire retardant.

To the right of the Electra are four of the Air Tractor 802F amphibious aircraft. They can work as land-based or skimmer air tankers. They have a cruising speed of 260 km/hr (161 mph) and can carry up to 2,430 liters (644 gallons).

The Chuckegg Creek Fire in northern Alberta has burned 276,000 hectares (682,000 acres).

Two air tankers recently certified

Buffalo Tanker 416

Above: Buffalo Airways’ newly certified Tanker 416. Photo by Buffalo Airways.

Two large air tankers in Canada were recently certified and are ready for fire assignments.

Buffalo Airways has a newly certified L-188, Tanker 416. We asked Raquel Downey of Buffalo about the smoke or dust visible in the picture under and behind the aircraft. She said it was “just dust and dirt being blown back”. It must have been on a dirt or gravel runway.

We also asked Ms. Downey about the status of the P3 they purchased two years ago, but she said Joe McBryan is not answering any questions about the aircraft. We heard from a reliable source in March that it was in Florida getting some maintenance done.

Air Spray Tanker 492
Air Spray Tanker 492 was recently certified. Photo by Air Spray.

And Air Spray’s Tanker 492 received the last of its FAA and Transport Canada certifications over the weekend. It rolled out of the hangar today and straight into service in Alberta, Canada. It has an updated RADS II tank and a new paint job.

Congrats to Buffalo and Air Spray.

Slow-motion video of Lockheed Electra L-188 retardant drops

A Lockheed Electra L-188 air tanker, #489, dropping in slow motion on a wildfire. The date, location, and videographer (other than the logo at bottom-right) are unknown.

The wake turbulence as the aircraft passes through the smoke at 2:45 is very interesting, as is the precision drop at 1:45, keeping the retardant off the rocks in an area that is highly visible to recreationists on the nearby lake.

In August of 2012 Wildfire Today ran a photo of Tanker 489 dropping on the Taylor Bridge Fire.

Thanks go out to Chris

Air Spray to begin converting a second BAe-146

Air Spray's Tanker 482
Air Spray’s Tanker 482 At their Chico, California facility, September 11, 2013. Air Spray photo.

Following up on the development that Air Spray has received a Call When Needed contract from CAL FIRE for an L-188 Electra, we checked with Ravi Saip, Air Spray’s Director of Maintenance and General Manager at their new Chico facility in California to get an update on their conversion of a BAe-146 into an air tanker. Like some of the aviation companies, they are keeping their cards close to the vest, but he told us that the project is “moving along well”, and they “anticipate being available for the 2014 fire season”. They have a second BAe-146 that will be “arriving soon” which will also will be converted.

Mr. Saip said, “The long term goal for Air Spray is to facilitate the needs of both the US and Canadian wildfire management teams with as many tools as they need.”

Air Spray signs contract with CAL FIRE

Air Spray Tanker 482, an L-188, at Chico, California. September 13, 2013.
Air Spray Tanker 482, an L-188, at Chico, California. September 13, 2013.

Air Spray, an air tanker company with headquarters in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, has received a Call When Needed contract from CAL FIRE for an L-188 Electra “Long Liner” air tanker. The company flew Tanker 482 down to California last week, Chico and later McClennan, to get the aircraft and pilots carded by CAL FIRE. The flight crew will be evaluated by CAL FIRE this week.

Air Spray will leave the L-188 at Chico until the weather turns, and when activated on the CWN contract, they will fly a crew down from Red Deer. They may add up to three more L-188s to the contract when the air tankers are released from their Canadian contracts.

Air Spray also operates Turbo Commander 690 “Bird Dogs” or lead planes, as well as some charter aircraft.

The L-188’s air frame is virtually the same as the P-3, a maritime patrol aircraft which has also seen service in its later years as an air tanker; the L-188 has been called a P-3 with windows. Both of them carry about 3,000 gallons of retardant.

Last year Air Spray established a new United States base at Chico and announced that they had acquired a BAe-146 airliner which they would convert into an air tanker in the new facility.

They hired several workers who had previously worked for the now bankrupt Aero Union. Seven of Aero Union’s P-3 air tankers have been parked at McClellan for over a year, with an eighth in Canada. They are still owned by the bank, unsold, due to the very high cost of putting them back into flyable shape. The rumors that the P-3s have been scrapped are not true.


Thanks go out to Johnny, Walt, and Jerome.