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.”
This is a video of MAFFS 4 from the 146 Air Wing of the California Air National Guard making a drop on the American Fire, August 17, 2013 in northern California. The audible gear and altitude warnings are normal for MAFFS drops. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a fix so that they can disable them while dropping retardant.
There probably will not be a great need for air tanker drops on the southern California Mountain Fire for at least another day or two. It rained much of the day on Sunday and two weather stations near the fire measured between 1 inch and 2.3 inches in the 24-hour period, triggering a flash flood watch.
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.
The four military MAFFS air tankers that have been activated since June 11 and 21 are being swapped out for four others. Over the next few days the C-130s and crews from the 302nd Airlift Wing, Colorado Springs (US Air Force Reserve), and the 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Islands (California Air National Guard) are being traded for two each from Air National Guard units in North Carolina and Wyoming
Here is an excerpt from an article in the Charlotte Observer about the North Carolina aircraft:
…Three C-130s will lift off Sunday from the base at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and head to Mesa, Ariz., to fight a new outbreak of wildfires. Their assignment comes less than a week after 19 firefighters were killed on the ground while battling a raging wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix.
A year ago, four Charlotte-based crewmen were killed on a mission when a sudden downdraft hurled their aircraft into a mesa in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Charlotte’s Air National Guard unit is one of four in the nation, and the only one on the East Coast, equipped with what are called MAFFS units. Mobile Airborne Fire-Fighting Systems are van-sized tanks that are loaded onto C-130 cargo planes to spread fire retardant from low altitudes.
Two C-130s from the base are equipped with the MAFFS gear, and a third carries support personnel. In all, about 30 members of the N.C. Air Guard unit will be on the mission, Lt. Col. Rose Dunlap of the N.C. Air National Guard said Wednesday.
The two C-130 MAFFS air tankers operated by the California Air National Guard’s 146 Airlift Wing have been activated and should be in Colorado Springs Saturday or Sunday.
Today the two MAFFS from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs were dropping on the East Peak, Collins, and West Fork Fires, working out of Jefferson County airport near Denver and Peterson at Colorado Springs. As of June 20, these two aircraft had made 27 drops totaling 68,000 gallons of retardant since they were activated June 12 when the Black Forest Fire was burning, an average of 2,518 gallons per drop.