A P3 Orion air tanker will be forward deployed to Colorado next month

It will be available on a call when needed contract with the state of Colorado

Air tanker 23 Pe orion
Airstrike’s Air Tanker 23. It will be forward deployed in April in Colorado, ready to be activated on a state CWN contract to fight wildfires. Photo by Sergio Mara, Sacramento McClellan Airport, January, 2019.

Airstrike Firefighters is making progress toward their goal of putting seven P3 Orion air tankers formally owned by Aero Union back into service. The aircraft have not been used on a fire since the U.S. Forest Service canceled the contract July 29, 2011 due to the company “failing to meet its contractual obligations”, according to the agency.

As we reported in August, Airstrike signed a Call When Needed (CWN) contract last year with Colorado for their P3 air tankers to be used as required by the state.

Tanker 23 (N932AU) is presently receiving a few finishing touches at the Airstrike facilities at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Scott A. Schorzman, Airstrike’s VP Business Development, said the tanker will be forward deployed to the Northern Colorado Regional Airport at Fort Collins around the second week of April, ready to be activated on a state CWN contract to fight wildfires.

Airstrike has two other P3 air tankers at their hanger at McClellan that are undergoing inspections, maintenance, and installation of equipment necessary for federal contracts.

P3 Orion air tanker 22
Tanker 22. Photo by Sergio Mara, Sacramento McClellan Airport, January 2019.

Mr. Schorzman expects Tanker 22 to be complete around May of this year. They will be leasing the aircraft from Buffalo Airways who purchased it from Blue Aerospace/United Aeronautical Corporation, the company that acquired seven of the P3s after Aero Union’s bankruptcy.

P3 Orion air tanker 17
Tanker 17. Photo by Sergio Mara, Sacramento McClellan Airport, January 2019.

Then, next out the hangar doors will be Tanker 17 with an expected completion date of early to mid summer. After that Mr. Schorzman said they will begin working on the remaining four P3s.

P3 Orion air tanker 17, 22, 23
Tankers 17, 22, and 23, all P3 Orions. Photo by Sergio Mara, at Sacramento McClellan Airport, January 2019.
P3 Orion air tanker 17, 22
Tankers 17 and 22. Photo by Sergio Mara, Sacramento McClellan Airport, January 2019.

Thanks go out to Sergio Mura. He took all of these P3 photos in January of this year.

In March of 2018 when I visited Airstrike’s hangar the only P3 present was Tanker 23. You can see that article and the photos here.

Buffalo Airways hopes to have their P-3 ready for 2019 fire season

The company purchased Tanker 22 in 2014

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways for his purchase of a P-3 formerly owned by Aero Union. Photo by Bill Gabbert, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base.

Buffalo airways expects to have the P-3 air tanker they purchased in 2014 ready to fight fire during the 2019 wildfire season. Mikey McBryan wrote in an Instagram post that the work is being performed by Airstrike Air Tankers at McClellan airport in Sacramento.

The aircraft, Tanker 22, is still using the same “N” number as when it was flown by Aero Union, N922AU. The company operates at least one Lockheed L-188 in Canada, Tanker 416, which is very similar to the P-3. In 2016 they received a five-year contract to operate eight new Air Tractor 802F FireBoss single engine air tankers owned by Northwest Territories.

Buffalo Airways has approximately eight other air tankers as well as 11 DC-3’s. In 2016 the company won a contract to operate the eight recently purchased Air Tractor 802F FireBoss single engine air tankers for Northwest Territories Environment and Natural Resources. Mikey McBryan and his father Joe starred in the Ice Pilots reality TV show that ran for at least six seasons on the History channel.

Photos of P-3 Orion air tankers at McClellan

Also: A DC-10 and Coulson’s most recently converted C-130

Above: Air tanker 23 testing at McClellan.

When Sergio Maraschin saw our article about Airstrike Firefighters signing a call when needed contract with Colorado for their P-3 air tankers, he realized we needed some more current photos of the recently refurbished aircraft. He took these at various times over the last six weeks at Sacramento McClellan Airport.

The article linked to above has the details about Airstrike’s recent projects.

Thanks Sergio!

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23 T-17 T-912
Air tankers 17, 23, and 910.

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23, over McClellan.

Coulson’s T-134, a C-130Q, has come a very long way since April, 2017. Check out these photos, here and here, taken as the project was just getting started. It is amazing what private industry can do in 16 months when they want to convert an aircraft into an air tanker. The Air Force dithered for almost five years when they were supposed to be converting seven former Coast guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers for the U.S. Forest Service, and never fully completed any of them. Now it appears the state of California will get the reborn air tankers, when and if the USAF completes the work.

T-134 C-130 Coulson
This is T-134, Coulson’s most recently converted C-130Q air tanker. Brett Coulson told us as far as they are concerned it is ready to fight fire. They intend to wait until after the fire season to paint it.

Colorado signs CWN contract for P-3 air tankers

Airstrike Firefighters has made Tanker 23 fire-ready and plans to do the same for six more P-3’s

Tanker 27, a P-3
Tanker 27, a P-3, on the Middle Fork Fire, Oregon, 2009. Todd McKinley.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) has signed a call when needed (CWN) agreement with Airstrike Firefighters to provide large airtanker services for wildland fire suppression.  The agreement will allow the State of Colorado to access Airstrike’s P-3 airtankers to help combat wildfires in the State.

The RADSII constant flow tank design can carry 3,000 gallons of retardant. Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at Sacramento McClellan Airport concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program.

“This new agreement ensures that we could have the appropriate suppression resources available to protect the citizens of the State of Colorado for years to come,” said Vince Welbaum, DFPC Aviation Unit Chief. “The P-3 Orion is a proven aerial asset that can operate efficiently in our high-altitude and high-temperature conditions.”

Scott Schorzman, Vice President of Airstrike Firefighters said “We are excited about our new partnership with the State of Colorado. Our P-3’s are proven performers in Colorado’s challenging environment and we are committed to responding to the State’s needs quickly and efficiently.  In addition, as more P-3 firefighting airtankers come online we will make them available to the State of Colorado as they need them.”

retardant tank control panel
The retardant tank control panel on T-23.

Airstrike hopes to get carding inspections scheduled by the U.S. Forest Service in the near future for Tanker 23 which has undergone the inspections and maintenance to make it fire-ready. Since it is using the same retardant delivery system the P-3’s utilized for years, they do not have to do the grid test, but they did complete a conformity test that included 60+ ground-based static drops to verify the tank was working as it did in the past.

In April of 2011, Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P-3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

P-3 air tanker
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From Zion Helitack.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.  Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners. The cancellation of the contract left only 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, all P2V’s, down from the 44 on contract in 2002.

The P-3’s changed hands when UAC/Blue Aerospace acquired seven of them after the bankruptcy proceedings. Buffalo Airways then purchased T-22 in 2014 which for much of this year has been parked at McClellan. Airstrike is leasing it and bringing it back into compliance. They just finished the Nondestructive Testing and are moving forward with the Structural Integrity Program, Programmed Depot Maintenance, and the Annual.

In addition to buying and updating T-23, Mr. Schorzman said Airstrike is planning on acquiring the remaining five P-3’s. Their schedule calls for Buffalo’s T-22 and T-17 to be done in the Spring of 2019, then T-27 and another P-3 to be named later will roll out at the end of 2019.  Mr. Schorzman expects all seven to be “working for a living” by mid-2020, he said.

Aircraft at McClellan, March 26

Above: Air Attack 140, an OV-10 Bronco, at MCC March 26, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

Sergio Maraschin, always on the alert for firefighting aircraft, took these photos March 26 at Sacramento McClellan Airport.

S-2T MCC
Air Tanker 85, an S-2T, at MCC, March 26, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

T-23 MCC
Air Tanker 23 being worked on outside the AirStrike hangar at MCC, March 26, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

Visiting Airstrike’s facility at McClellan

They expect the P3 Orion to be finished around the first part of April.

Above: Airstrike’s Tanker 23, a P3 Orion

After the Aerial Firefighting conference at Sacramento McClellan Airport I stopped by Airstrike’s hangar last week to check on the progress of the work on Tanker 23. Formerly owned by Aero Union, the workers are finishing the required maintenance and inspections that should enable it to take to the air again over wildfires.

Bill Douglass, President of the company, said even though there are still some very important parts to reinstall on the P3 Orion, they expect it will be complete in the first part of April. He said they are going to retain the Aero Union paint scheme and registration number.

To see large versions  of the photos, click on one of the small images immediately below.

Interview with Mikey McBryan of Buffalo Airways

The company has 11 DC-3’s

During the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento this week I interviewed Mikey McBryan, the General Manager of Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories which was founded by his father,”Buffalo” Joe McBryan. He talked about the company’s P3 air tanker, their numerous other air tankers, their 11 DC-3’s, his father’s 10,000 flight hours in a single DC-3, the history of Buffalo Airways, and the additional aircraft in their fleet. And he gets in a plug for “Ice Pilots” on Netflix.

At least one P-3 air tanker expected to be fire-ready this Spring

The P-3’s formerly operated by Aero Union are slowly being brought back to life.

Above: Tanker 22 at Sacramento McClellan Airport, February, 2018.

(Originally published at 2:20 p.m. MT February 20, 2018)

Two companies expect to bring some of the Lockheed P-3 Orions formerly owned by Aero Union back into the aerial firefighting fleet. Buffalo Airways and Airstrike Firefighters are both actively working on aircraft, putting them through an “intensive and expensive inspection program”, according to Bill Douglass, President of Airstrike.

One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service cancelled the air tanker contract with Aero Union was that certain required inspections were not being done. Mr. Douglass said the company that wrote the original structural integrity inspection program for the P-3 air tankers, Avenger Engineering, is carrying out the inspections now on their P-3, Tanker 23. Most of those are now complete, the FAA is satisfied, and he expects the aircraft will be ready to fight fire later this Spring. Avenger has had a hand in the development, design, and maintenance of many water and retardant delivery systems and type certificates for firefighting aircraft including the P3.

When they finish T-23 Airstrike plans to begin work on another P-3, Tanker 17, and later take on others as they have time.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field. Airstrike photo.

Buffalo Airways and Airstrike are cooperating in some ways as they both work on their respective air tankers. Buffalo’s main headquarters is in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada, but their P-3 is registered to one of their offices in Hawthorne, Florida. The aircraft, Tanker 22, is still using the same “N” number as when it was flown by Aero Union, N922AU. Buffalo purchased T-22 in 2014. The company operates at least one Lockheed L-188 in Canada, Tanker 416, which is very similar to the P-3. In 2016 they received a five-year contract to operate eight new Air Tractor 802F FireBoss single engine air tankers owned by Northwest Territories.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P-3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”. Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.