Photos of aircraft on the Elephant Butte Fire, part 1 of 5

Today, featuring Tanker 22, a P3 Orion

Tanker 22 P3 Orion Elephant Butte Fire Colorado
Tanker 22, a P3 Orion, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.

The Elephant Butte Fire burned about 50 acres on steep terrain southwest of Denver two miles northwest of Evergreen Lake, Colorado. It was reported around 3 p.m. on Monday July 13 and the spread was stopped by good work from firefighters in the air and on the ground, with a big assist from rain at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday July 14.

Skippyscage.com got some great photos of the aircraft battling the blaze, both while they were over the fire and at the air tanker base at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) northwest of Denver. With his permission, we will showing you some of his shots in five installments.

Today we are featuring Tanker 22, a P3 Orion manufactured in 1964 formerly operated by Aero Union that was recently brought back to life by Airstrike Firefighters and Buffalo Airways. It is currently on a 75-day exclusive use (EU) contract with the state of Colorado. The aircraft is registered to Buffalo.

Tanker 22 P3 Orion Elephant Butte Fire Colorado
Tanker 22 , a P3 Orion, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.
Tanker 22 P3 Orion Elephant Butte Fire Colorado
Tanker 22, a P3 Orion, on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.
Tanker 22 P3 Orion Elephant Butte Fire Colorado
Tanker 22, a P3 Orion, parked at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport after working the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.
Elephant Butte Fire
The Elephant Butte Fire, July 13, 2020. Photo by Jason Hamburg, park ranger with Jefferson County Open Space. It was taken from his fire lookout position on Jenkins Peak, looking south toward Elephant Butte.

Click here to see the series of five installments of photos of aircraft on the Elephant Butte Fire. They will be posted daily from July 17 through July 21, 2020.


Below are some archived photos of Tanker 22.

United Aeronautical acquired seven of Aero Union’s P3 tankers after the company declared bankruptcy. Buffalo Airways purchased T-22 from UA in 2014, and now it is operated by Airstrike Firefighters under an arrangement with Buffalo Airways. Another former Aero Union P3, T-23, has also been restored and is being operated by Airstrike.

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan tanker 22
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan (right) of Buffalo Airways on the purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base March 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
P3 Orion air tanker 22
Tanker 22. Photo by Sergio Mara, Sacramento McClellan Airport, January 2019.
Aero Union's P3A Tanker 22
Aero Union’s P3A Tanker 22 getting reloaded at Hemet Ryan Air Attack Base, while another P3A is headed towards the fire. Photo by Joe Cupido. Date unknown, but it is from the Aero Union days, pre-2011.

The photoshopped photo of T-22 below won our contest in 2013 to create an image of an air tanker that had a sponsor. The contest was a spurred by a suggestion by Colorado State Senator Steve King, who said: “Can you imagine what the advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on the tail of a slurry bomber?”

Jerome Laval P3
Jerome Laval P3

Colorado signs a P-3 Orion air tanker on an exclusive use contract

air tanker 23 p-3
Air Tanker 23, a P-3, drops retardant on the Swedes Fire southeast of Oroville, California. Photo by John Kerpa and Gary Thomas, 2019.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) has made it official — they have signed Air Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion operated by Airstrike, to a 75-day exclusive use (EU) contract. The choice of the aircraft came as no surprise since it was already under a call when needed arrangement with the state.

The agency announced in early June that they were going to contract for an EU air tanker, but were cagey about which one. This is the first time the state has hired an EU large air tanker.

Colorado has not specified where it will spend the majority of its time, but it may move around as needed. There are five air tanker bases in Colorado that can support large air tankers: Durango, Grand Junction, Jeffco, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs which was just converted to a permanent base. The grand opening for the facility was June 15, 2020. Colorado Springs is the only permanent base in Colorado that can officially support very large air tankers. DC-10s worked out of Pueblo for at least 2013 through 2016, perhaps longer, but the 2019 Air Tanker Base Directory does not list Pueblo as a VLAT base.

Below is an excerpt from a press release issued by the DFPC:


“We have activated the P-3 airtanker for 75 days of dedicated availability. This will provide another highly capable initial attack resource to be utilized in the State and the region,” said Vince Welbaum, Aviation Unit Chief for the State of Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “The P-3 is a proven aerial asset that can operate efficiently in our high-altitude and high-temperature conditions, and is also an excellent value for the Colorado taxpayer.”

“The design of the aircraft including four engine turbo-prop, ability to safely fly low and slow, carry full loads of retardant and ample fuel are distinct features that the State of Colorado requires to be effective for wildland firefighting,” said Welbaum. “We are excited to include the Airstrike P-3 in our arsenal of resources when large dangerous wildfires threaten life and property in the State.” One additional airtanker is also being made available to the State on a call-when-needed (CWN) basis to ensure the State has adequate access to emergency resources when they are needed most.

Scott Schorzman, Vice President of Airstrike Firefighters is quoted as saying “We are excited to bring the P-3 airtanker to the State of Colorado and do what we do best, fight fire from the air. The P-3 is the perfect aerial firefighting platform for the State of Colorado, and we intend to demonstrate its efficiency and cost effectiveness. This is another step forward in strengthening our long-term partnership with the State and to participate in its growing fleet of aerial wildfire assets.”

Airstrike is an Anchorage, AK-headquartered company with operations in Sacramento, CA.  Airstrike has 30 employees that are refurbishing a fleet of seven P-3 firefighting airtankers for use on State and Federal contracts.

Colorado to hire an exclusive use large air tanker for the first time

This would be an upgrade over the existing CWN contract. One aircraft that might be considered is a P3 Orion.

air tanker 23 P3 orion dropping
File photo of one aircraft that might be considered for an EU contract for the state of Colorado, a P3 Orion, which made a demonstration drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport June 28, 2019. It has been under a CWN contract with Colorado. Screengrab from Nine News video.

The state of Colorado intends to contract for an exclusive use (EU) large air tanker. In 2018 they signed a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for a P3 operated by Air Strike Firefighters, but the deal they are negotiating now would be the first time the Division of Fire Prevention and Control has hired an EU large air tanker.

“We are currently working with a vendor to contract one of their large air tankers,” Phillip Daniels said on June 11. He is the agency’s Deputy Chief of the Wildland Fire Management Section.  “It is our desire for the contract to begin soon for 75 days exclusive use, however, we are still in the contracting and inspecting phase of the procurement process. This would be the first occurrence of Colorado contracting [an EU] large air tanker and are ensuring that we are doing it right!  Previously we have only contracted Single Engine Air Tankers and Helicopters.”

This year, as usual, Colorado has EU contracts for two Single Engine Air Tankers and two Type 2 helicopters. The state also owns two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-Mission” (MMA) fixed wing aircraft used for detection, mapping, and coordination.

Mr. Daniels said his understanding is one of the pilots is initial attack qualified, which means a lead plane will not be required unless there are multiple air tankers working the fire. He said if a lead plane is needed, they will order one through the interagency process.

“And while we occasionally have an ATGS [Air Tactical Group Supervisor] on board the MMA, it’s primary mission is recon,” he explained. “We try not to assign it to missions where it can’t easily be reassigned for detection.”

PC-12 Colorado aircraft MMA
File photo of one of Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” at Sacramento McClellan Airport March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

P-3 drops retardant on the Swedes Fire

air tanker 23 p-3

This photo of Air Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion, was taken on the Swedes Fire southeast of Oroville, California.

We are trying to confirm the details but we are led to believe it was taken either September 7 or 8 by John Kerpa or Gary Thomas.

On September 7 the aircraft delivered 10 loads of retardant and accumulated six hours of flight time. Those were the first drops by a P-3 since the Forest Service cancelled the contract the federal government had with Aero Union in June, 2011.

More information about the return of the P-3 air tankers on September 7.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Norm. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Until Saturday a P-3 air tanker had not dropped on a fire since 2011

Air Tanker 23 owned by Airstrike Firefighters dropped on the Red Bank Fire

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23 testing over McClellan, August, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

A P-3 Orion air tanker was very busy in Northern California Saturday September 7. Tanker 23, after starting the day at Sacramento McClellan Airport, departed at 11:42 a.m. PDT and arrived over the Red Bank Fire at 12:09 p.m. PDT. By 12:20 p.m. it had landed at Redding. Then according to the FlightAware activity log it made five more trips from Redding to the Red Bank Fire or the nearby South Fire 30 to 40 miles southwest of the airport. After that it began working on the Swedes Fire 7 miles east-southeast of Oroville and reloading at Chico. The last time we checked it appeared that it completed at least eight sorties Saturday. Quite a reintroduction to aerial firefighting! (UPDATE: we received word the aircraft completed 10 sorties, and flew for six hours total time on September 7.)

In the tweet below, the photographer captured Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion.

Swedes Fire
Swedes Fire, 6:37 p.m. PDT Sept. 7, 2019. Nevada Seismo Lab.

Bill Douglas, President of Airstrike Firefighters, confirmed that the drops T-23 made today are the first a P-3 has made over an actual fire since the Forest Service cancelled the contract the federal government had with Aero Union in June, 2011. After Aero Union went bankrupt UAC/Blue Aerospace bought seven of the eight P-3s that were still basically in one piece. Since then four of them have ended up in the hands of Airstrike Firefighters (Tankers 17, 21, & 23) and Buffalo Airways (T-22) and are being resurrected as air tankers. Airstrike Firefighters has an agreement to purchase the remaining three (00, 25 & 27) from UAC/Blue Aerospace if that appears to be a good business decision after the first batch of P-3s are restored.

Tanker 23 reloading
Air Tanker 23, a P-3, reloading September 7, 2019 at either Redding or Chico. Airstrike photo.

The work on Tankers 22, 23, 21, and 17 has been or will be done at the Airstrike facilities at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Obviously T-23 is done and Scott A. Schorzman, Airstrike VP for Business Development, said the work on T-22 is nearly done. When finished it will be operated by Airstrike.

Mr. Douglas said T-17 does not presently have a tank, so that is one obstacle that has to be overcome. If you’re keeping score at home, T-17 will have to take on a new number since another tanker has grabbed it during the 8-year hiatus.

Airstrike Firefighters has Call When Needed Contracts with four states, California, Colorado, Alaska, and Oregon.

Congratulations to UAC/Blue Aerospace for saving the P-3 from the scrap heap, and to AirStrike and Buffalo Airways for bringing them back to life.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom and Norm. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

P3 Air Tanker Water Drop Filmed from 20000 feet

Demonstration water drop Tanker 23, P3 Orion
Demonstration water drop by Tanker 23, a P3 Orion operated by Airstrike. June 28, 2019 at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, Colorado. Filmed by Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 MultiMission aircraft. Screenshot from the video below.

A P3 Air Tanker, Tanker 23, made a demonstration water drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, Colorado June 28, 2019 while Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 MultiMission aircraft filmed it from 20,000 feet. The aircraft has a Call When Needed contract with the state of Colorado for fighting wildfires.

You can also watch the video on YouTube.

More information about the demonstration, including a video shot from the ground.

P3 demonstration drop in Colorado

Tanker 23, a P3 Orion, making a demonstration drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport June 28, 2019. Screengrab from
Tanker 23, a P3 Orion, makes a demonstration drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport June 28, 2019. Screengrab from @CReppWx video.

Air tanker 23, a P3 Orion (N923AU), appeared at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland June 28 as promised. The airport conducted what they called a “media day”, allowing media personnel to view the aircraft. The public was not invited.

The video below from Cory Reppenhagen of Nine News (@CReppWx) shows Tanker 23 dropping. The announced plan was for it to drop BLAZETAMER380, a water enhancing gel that looks similar to water when released by an air tanker.

The state of Colorado has a Call When Needed contract with Airstrike Firefighters that would allow the company’s fleet of P3s to be used in the state if they are available. Airstrike is working to restore seven P3s that were formerly operated by Aero Union.

Air Tanker 23 P3 Orion
On March 15, 2018 Tanker 23 was in the process of being made fire-ready again at Airstrike Firefighter’s facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
P3 Orion air tanker 17, 22, 23
Tankers 17, 22, and 23, all P3 Orions being restored at Airstrike Firefighters in Sacramento. Photo by Sergio Mara, at Sacramento McClellan Airport, January 2019.

Buffalo Airways and Airstrike are working together to restore Tanker 22.

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan tanker 22
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan (right) of Buffalo Airways on the purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base March 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

More photos of the P3s in the hangar at McClellan.

Air tanker demonstrations for media planned at airport in Coloradoo

Plus, an opinion about keeping the public away from the static displays

Air Tanker 23, a P3 Orion
File photo of Air Tanker 23, a P3 Orion. Airstrike Firefighters photo.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) is planning a media day on June 28 at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, Colorado (map). Two air tankers will be making demonstration drops — an Airstrike Firefighters P-3 Orion and a Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT). They will be dropping BLAZETAMER380, a water enhancing gel that looks similar to water when released by an air tanker.

The DFPC  has a summer-long exclusive use contract for the SEAT and a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for Airstrike’s large four-engine P3 air tankers.

The airborne demonstrations are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. MDT June 28, with static displays to follow.

The event is for the media, who will be escorted out to the ramps to get a close up look at the aircraft on static display. We were told by Shawn Battmer, the Airport Executive Assistant, that the public will not be allowed to approach the planes but may be able to see them through a fence near the Fort Collins-Loveland JetCenter. Ms. Battmer did not say anything about being able to see the water drops, but they will presumably be from 100 to 200 feet above the ground so sightseers may be able to find a spot where they get a good view of the demonstrations.

In August of last year the DFPC signed a 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.

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

An Opinion:

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and the Northern Colorado Regional Airport are missing what could have been a grand public relations opportunity by not allowing the public to get close to the static displays of the aircraft. It will be a lost opportunity to educate the public about aerial firefighting. They could at least set up a designated location outside the secure fence where the taxpayers who fund these aircraft could be ENCOURAGED to see how their money is spent as the air tankers make their drops. And further, it would have been possible to allow the public to go 150 feet or so out onto the ramp where they could walk around the three of four aircraft and talk to the pilots and crews. Air shows do this, and the Aerial Firefighting Conferences at Sacramento, Europe, and Australia do it as well, allowing hundreds of people out on the ramp. Portable barriers could be set up and volunteers or wildland firefighters could ensure that the visitors stay within the established viewing areas.

As you can see in the photo below, it is possible for the media to record interviews while others walk around the aircraft.

Attendees at the Aerial Firefighting Conference in Sacramento were allowed within a designated area of the ramp to examine the aircraft and talk to the flight crews while the media was conducting interviews. Photo By Bill Gabbert, March 12, 2017.
tour 747 Supertanker
At the Aerial Firefighting Conference in Sacramento on March 12, 2017 people lined up to tour the 747 air tanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert.