Projected federal air tanker fleet for the United States

Now that we have summarized the evolution of the federal large air tanker fleet over the course of 2014, it’s time to look at what is in store for 2015. There could be between 14 and 21 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts this year. Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist with the U. S. Forest Service in Boise, told us that the list should include these aircraft:

  • 1 DC-10, 10 Tanker Air Carrier
  • 1 C-130Q, Coulson
  • 2 RJ-85s, Aero-Flite
  • 2 MD-87s, Erickson Aero Air
  • 1 BAe-146, Neptune
  • 6 P2Vs, Neptune
  • 1 C-130H, U.S. Forest  Service

In 2014 a DC-10 and three more BAe-146s were brought into service as “additional equipment” on a 1-year temporary basis under exclusive use contracts awarded in 2013. Due to a change in Department of the Interior procurement policies, this will not be done again in 2015.

The USFS expects to award another “next generation” contract for up to 7 more air tankers in 2015. We will be watching to see how long it takes the agency to advertise and award the contracts. Last time it took 555 days.

The USFS will also have one CL-415 water scooping air tanker on contract this year. And, eight military C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) are expected to be available if needed.

Last year the Department of the Interior funded 33 exclusive use Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) as national shared resources. Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, said their contracts are not firmed up yet for 2015, but they expect to have about the same number of SEATs as last year.

New SEAT base at Chadron, Nebraska

SEAT base dedication at Chadron
SEAT base dedication at Chadron, NE. South Dakota Wildland Fire Div photo.

A new base for Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) was dedicated at the Chadron Municipal Airport in Nebraska on Saturday, April 16. Thanks to the Nebraska legislature’s passage in 2013 of the Wildfire Control Act, three SEAT bases are now available in the northwest part of the state. Last year a contracted SEAT came on duty July 15. Other bases managed by the Nebraska Forest Service (NFS) are at Valentine (see photo below), and Alliance. A fourth base is scheduled for construction at North Platte Regional Airport later this year.


SEAT base in Valentine Nebraska. Nebraska Forest Service photo.
SEAT base in Valentine. Nebraska Forest Service photo.

DOI contracts for 33 Single Engine Air Tankers

Air Tractor 802 single engine air tanker

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group announced today that the Department of the Interior is funding 33 exclusive use Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) in 2014 as national shared resources. Historically, SEATs have been funded as primarily a local or regional resource with assigned home bases. The 2014 exclusive use SEAT fleet will not have assigned home bases. They will be treated as national shared resources similar to Large Air Tankers (LATs). Geographic area Coordination Centers (GACCs) can preposition SEATs using the same mechanisms and rationale used for other national resources.

There are three start dates — May 26th, June 5th and June 12th. Based on the number of DOI National Exclusive Use SEATs allocated to their GACC, Bureau of Land Management State Aviation Managers and Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Aviation Managers will coordinate with fire staff and the Geographic Area Coordinating Group to determine the initial starting location of DOI Exclusive Use SEAT’s.

As National assets, DOI National Exclusive Use SEATs will be moved to areas of greatest need. Within Geographic Areas, Fire Staff on an interagency basis will provide direction to the Dispatch system on the mob/demob of SEATs to meet existing or forecasted fire loads within their jurisdiction. GACCs can preposition SEATs using the same mechanisms and rationale used with LATs.

Below are some of the provisions of the contracts:

  • These are one year Exclusive Use contracts with 4 option years.
  • There are no designated bases under these contracts.
    • Notice to Proceeds will be issued giving the contractor direction on where to report to at the beginning of the contract.
  • The Mandatory Availability Period will be 100 days with three different start dates — May 26th/June 5th/June 12th.
  • The aircraft will be AT-802s with an Interagency Airtanker Board approved gate system.
  • The Level I Pilots will be on a fixed 6/1 work schedule set at the start of the contract.
    • No relief pilot is required.
    • Companies can exchange pilots.
  • The contracts allow for the government to order an additional service truck at a daily flat rate of $500 when needed to augment the existing truck or to utilize the second one at a remote base.

The AT-802 holds 800 gallons of retardant. This compares to the 2,000 to 3,500 Large Air Tankers can carry, or the 11,600 gallons the DC-10 holds. But, SEATs are a very useful tool in the aerial firefighting tool box — a tool box that should have a variety of types and sizes of aircraft with different capabilities and niches.

As the western fire season gets under way, there are nine LATs available on exclusive use contracts, and one Very Large Air Tanker, a DC-10. It is possible that an additional five “next generation” LATs may eventually meet the requirements of the contracts that were issued to them a year ago and could be added to the fleet.

Report: U.S. may give armed SEATs to Yemen

Air Tractor AT-802U
Air Tractor AT-802U

Aircraft that are frequently used as crop dusters and single engine air tankers (SEATs) may be given to the government of Yemen to battle terrorists. BuzzFeed reports that models being considered are the Air Tractor AT-802U and Thrush. The two-seater aircraft would be equipped with laser-guided missiles and high-tech electronic intelligence equipment, as well as armor to protect the crew.

Wildfire Today reported on the armed AT-802U back in 2009 when it was a hit at the Paris Air Show.

The U.S. considered using drones, but they are getting a bad reputation. Officials apparently decided on sending up to ten of the single engine aircraft to Yemen, at least in part because “even poorly trained Yemeni pilots could learn to fly them”.

BuzzFeed reports:

According to a Central Command memorandum dated Feb. 3 and obtained by BuzzFeed, the “Precision Strike” program for Yemen would “greatly enhance counter terrorism (CT) objectives to support action against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” The U.S. government says AQAP is a Yemeni-based group that has tried to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S., including the infamous failed effort by the “underwear bomber,” Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in 2009.

One choice for Yemen’s “Precision Strike” plane, according to documents and the sources, is a version of an “Air Tractor” plane called a 802U. It’s a hardy airplane, manufactured in Texas. The fuselage resembles a World War II Spitfire fighter plane, though it flies more slowly.

Asked about the Yemen project, Air Tractor Inc.’s president, Jim Hirsch, said, “I’m not at liberty to discuss that program.” Although the Air Tractor is widely used as an agriculture plane for crop spraying, the company makes a version it says is for “counterinsurgency operations,” and Air Tractor’s website bills it as “a true irregular warfare aircraft.”

The other plane in the running is a Thrush, which looks similar to the Air Tractor and is also usually used as a crop duster. It is manufactured in Georgia by Thrush Aircraft.

Air Tractor AT-802U
Air Tractor AT-802U

Problem with the Fire Boss prevents some from being used

single engine air tanker

A problem detected on Air Tractor Fire Boss AT-802F amphibious Single Engine Air Tankers is preventing some of them from being used by federal land management agencies. Cracks in the tail support structure were found on two Fire Boss aircraft.

The Bureau of Land Management’s exclusive use contracts with the Fire Bosses have expired for this year, but the agency has made a decision not to use them on call when needed contracts until they are satisfied the problems have been corrected. However Don Smurthwaite of the BLM emphasized to us that the aircraft are not grounded and they believe the issue is not widespread. The contractor is working to solve the problem.

Since the BLM administers the single engine tanker program for all the federal agencies this has stopped the use of the Fire Boss aircraft on all fires where a federal agency has operational control.

One Fire Boss under contract to the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL), Tanker 851, has been inspected and given a clean bill of health and will continue to fly on fires where the IDL has operational control.


SEAT base at Valentine

SEAT base in Valentine Nebraska
SEAT base in Valentine, Nebraska.

The new reload base for Single Engine Air Tankers in Valentine, Nebraska is nearing completion. Thanks to the Nebraska legislature’s passage this year of the Wildfire Control Act, a single-engine airtanker (SEAT) and three airtanker bases are now available in the northwest part of the state. The contracted SEAT came on duty July 15 and SEAT bases will be managed by the Nebraska Forest Service (NFS) at Valentine, Chadron, and Alliance.