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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, has 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. They will take over the lease of Butler’s new city-owned hangar at the Madras Municipal Airport (map) as well as the contracts with the state of Oregon for the three air tankers. The company did not have a contract with the US Forest Service for the DC-7s.
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 and since then have been growing the company. After Mr. Erickson sold Erickson Air-Crane to ZM Private Equity Fund in 2007, they began talking about getting into the air tanker business. A couple of years ago they decided to go with MD-87s and pulled together teams to develop a tank design and to handle obtaining the supplemental type certificate (STC) from the FAA.
They have purchased seven MD-87s, most of them from SAS airlines, and the conversion process is 99 percent complete on one of them, Mr. McCullough told Wildfire Today on Tuesday. The parts for the others are being fabricated in Hillsboro where all of the conversion work will be done. The other six MD-87s are at Hillsboro, Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona (map), and Madras. Some of them have already been painted at Phoenix Goodyear prior to beginning the other modifications.
After the conversions are complete, Aero Air will conduct all of their air tanker operations out of the facilities in Madras that were formerly owned or leased by Butler. That branch of the company will be known as Erickson Aero Tanker, and that is what is being painted in large letters on the MD-87s, similar to the style of the lettering on the DC-10 and 747 very large air tankers.
The 4,000-gallon internal tanks will rely on gravity, rather than pressurized air, to force the retardant out of the tank. An MD-87 can cruise at 504 mph and is powered by two rear-mounted jet, or turbofan engines. The company has secured a block of air tanker numbers from the USFS, 101 through 112 — which is more than seven, you’re thinking. Right. Mr. McCullough told us that their long term plans are to operate 12 to 15 MD-87s.
Technicians from the USFS’ San Dimas Technology and Development Center have been at Aero Air this week checking the design of the tank system to determine if it is in compliance with the very extensive and complex requirements for federally-contracted air tankers. Aero Air has already done a static test, expelling water from the tank while the aircraft is on the ground, but more are scheduled. In the Spring they hope to pass the airborne retardant drop tests where the retardant is captured in hundreds of cups arranged in a grid pattern on the ground. If the STC and the approvals from the Interagency Air Tanker Board have positive results, there may be at least one MD-87 dropping on fires next summer.
Assuming… that the U.S. Forest Service completes the evaluation of the proposals from air tanker companies for “next generation air tankers” and awards a contract to Aero Air. The company, along with three others, was notified last Fall that they were going to receive contracts, but before the contracts were actually awarded and signed, two companies that were not slated to get contracts, 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson, protested, and the USFS halted the process. Months later they started over, amending the request for proposal which then closed again in November. If the contracts had actually been awarded, Aero Air would have been expected to provide two MD-87s beginning in 2013. The other companies that almost got contracts were Neptune for BAe-146s, Minden for BAe-146s, and Aero-Flite for an Avro RJ85, a derivative of the BAe-146.