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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Demonstration today of a new bomber available to fight Colorado wildfires. Nice drop along the still snowy Front Range peaks #9wxpic.twitter.com/GSlTegiEuu
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.
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.
The article linked to above has the details about Airstrike’s recent projects.
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.
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.”
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.
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.