The Great Basin Coordination Center distributed this photo on Twitter Monday at 6:50 p.m., saying “Busy day at Stead”.
I counted nine air tankers:
Four Neptune BAe-146’s
One Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
One Aero-Flite RJ 85
Two Aero-Flite CL-415’s
I’m not sure what fires they are working on but the 83,000-acre Long Valley Fire is 16 miles north of the airport and there are several others 140 to 230 miles to the northeast but Battle Mountain tanker base is closer to those.
The progression of the three air tankers through the retardant loading and refueling procedures was “like a ballet on the tarmac”.
Above: Neptune tankers 01 and 41 at Medford, Oregon, June 9, 2016. Photo by Kristin Biechler.
Kristin Biechler spent a couple of hours Thursday at the Medford air tanker base in southwest Oregon. She sent us this report and took the photos Thursday evening. Thanks Kristin.
“Base Manager Lonnie Allison was very cooperative and allowed me to talk with various staff, including ground crews, pilots and dispatchers and to take photos up close. The Medford base is really jumping these past three days with the Pony fire in northern California. Neptune tankers 01, 10, and 41 (all BAe-146s) are making turnarounds to the Pony fire in about 45 mins. From Medford it’s about 12 minutes of flight time to the fire. They drop their retardant, then return to Medford to fill up with retardant and refuel if needed.
The pilots were telling me they get about 3 hours of flight time per refueling. Pilot John Gallagher said the Pony fire had made a big run on Wednesday night. He noticed a significant difference this morning that the fire had gone down into the canyon almost to the river and up another flank. He was based out of Redmond yesterday, but the three Neptune tankers are in Medford today for the Pony fire.
It was like a ballet on the tarmac with all three planes on the ground at the same time. The Redmond airport is also busy with aircraft on several fires in Eastern Oregon. T-162 and T-163 (photos from 6/8/16) are now assigned to Eastern Oregon fires, rather than the Pony fire in California.
I was listening to the air traffic communications between pilots and the Medford tower plus the USFS tanker base. A few minutes after departure one of the Neptune pilots reported seeing a new wisp of smoke, single column, and circled around to give coordinates. That turned out to be a small grass fire, very near the USFS Applegate Ranger District office. The tower made appropriate notifications and an Oregon Department of Forestry hand crew was dispatched.
Also of interest was the report that the Redmond, Oregon airport had to be shut down due to a disabled air tanker on the runway. Tankers from there are currently assigned to Eastern Oregon fires (Owyhee Canyon and Akawana fires.) All tankers were being diverted to Klamath Falls, OR for refueling. There is also an air tanker base at Klamath Falls so refueling and retardant would not be an issue.
Also, note that VLAT T-912 is flying out of Castle AFB in California to the Pony fire. One of the dispatchers told me the turnaround on that DC-10 was about 53 minutes on the Pony fire.
I also met and talked with the ground crew that manages the retardant station. Cristina Serabia and her daughter, Jasmine Serabia are employed by Hunot Retardant Company out of Ramona, California and work on a USFS contract at Medford. Ms. Serabia indicated when the second, portable base is opened at Medford for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) she will assign a crew to that location and will also work shifts on that side of the airport. The scheduled date for opening that base is July 1 but with all the early fire activity it may be necessary to open it sooner.
Medford Air Tanker Base Manager Lonnie Allison wanted everyone to know, “we’re already kicking butt here at Medford.” As of noon today, they had just pumped 100,000 gallons of retardant for the season which began on June 5.”
Edward O’Brien, a reporter with Montana Public Radio conducted interviews with three people about the reasons for the protests and delays in awarding the exclusive use contracts for another seven next-generation air tankers. He talked with Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation; Tom Harbour, Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service; and Bill Gabbert, of Fire Aviation.
Mr. O’Brien’s commentary and snippets from the audio interviews can be heard at the Montana Public Radio website, where you can also read the transcript, a portion of which is below:
“A contract dispute has created uncertainty and potential lost revenue for the companies that supply firefighting air tankers, including Missoula’s Neptune Aviation.
The conflict is over long-term contracts for jet engine, so-called “next generation” planes that bring more to the table than the Korean War-era prop-driven tankers firefighters have been using for decades.
“These are larger, faster aircraft capable of carrying at least 3,000 gallons of retardant and (flying) at least 300 miles per hour, designed to better take the stresses and strains of what we ask these airtankers to do these days.”
That’s Tom Harbour, Forest Service Director of Fire and Aviation Management. The agency currently has at least six “next generation” tankers ready to go this fire season and hoped to have up to another seven planes contracted for by now.
But that’s plan’s now on hold.
Two out-of-state air tanker companies – Coulson Aviation, and Erickson Aero Tanker – protested provisions of the government’s airtanker contracting process.
Details of those complaints filed with the Government Accountability Office aren’t public.
The managing editor of fireaviation.com, Bill Gabbert, says those protests have since been amended.
“It slows things down a bit. The GAO has 100 days in order to adjudicate these protests, but when a company files an amendment and then later, another amendment, that throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings.”
The GAO is now forced to go back to square one.
“And I’ve talked to a representative of GAO who told me that they’re probably going to need the entire 100 days in order to figure out what’s going on with these protests. That puts it into the middle or the end of July,” Gabbert says.
In other words, the heart of fire season in the Rocky Mountains….”
Neptune Aviation, in addition to the six P2Vs and one BAe-146 they have under exclusive use contracts, expects to have a total of seven converted BAe-146 air tankers available by the end of this year. Perhaps some of those additional six will be put to work when the U.S. Forest Service announces the second round of “next-generation” air tanker contracts later this year, or perhaps in 2016. Proposals from vendors were due March 24, 2015.
The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association issued a press release about preparations their clients are undertaking to get ready for this fire season.
While the fire season throughout much of the US does not begin until early spring, the private aerial firefighting industry is—even now–battle-ready for what could be another tough year, thanks to ongoing dry conditions in the Western states.
“I think there is going to be far more fire activity in 2015, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which is a lot drier than it was last year at this time,” said Drew Njirich, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “Although California will also be an area of focus, every part of the west, including Idaho and Montana, could be severely impacted by this year’s fire season.”
Intermountain Helicopter’s single Bell 212 medium helicopter, which is under an Exclusive Use (EU) contract with the US Forest Service (USFS) for the next three years, underwent maintenance and modification work during the winter months to assure its availability for its multi-mission work in support of ground-based fire firefighters, such as ferrying of personnel and supplies to the fire lines. As an additional safety measure for the upcoming fire season, the company installed a Garmin GDL-69 satellite link weather system in order to monitor weather conditions in areas where there is no cellphone coverage. “Being linked to a satellite system means that we can monitor the weather wherever we are, in real time,” Njirich explained. “When it comes to safety, we try to stay ahead of the game.”
At Rogers Helicopters, winter maintenance is nearing completion. “We always prepare for a high level of firefighting, even if it turns out that the fire season is not as severe as those in the past,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of the Fresno, California-based company.
Two of the company’s Bell 212s are being readied for operation under USFS EU contracts, with an additional three Bell 212s committed to EU contracts with the State Of Alaska Department Of Forestry.
“Another Bell 212, and a Eurocopter AS 350B2 A-Star will be under USFS Call When Needed (CWN) contracts,” Rogers noted. “In addition, we have two fixed wing Rockwell 690A twin turboprop Commanders that will be operated in air traffic management roles during aerial firefighting for the USFS.”
Those aircraft will be manned by a cadre of 14 pilots, four of whom will be assigned to the Commanders. All of the pilots are currently undergoing recurrent training, said Rogers, who explained that all of the company’s fixed wing and helicopter training is carried out in house.
Keith Saylor, Director Of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that the operator has just submitted a proposal to make 19 helicopters available under state and federal CWN contracts. Those aircraft will include former US Army CH47D helicopters, acquired by Columbia last year, as well as Columbia Model 107s and Model 234s. At the same time, three of the company’s Model 107s and one Model 234 will be commencing the final year of a four year USFS EU contract beginning in May.
“We put our aircraft through some contractually mandated avionics changes, along with our routine winter fleet maintenance,” Saylor pointed out. “We also carried out initial training of the pilots we newly hired, along with recurrent training for those already on staff.” Columbia Helicopters, he added, is anticipating a “moderate to severe” fire season for the Pacific Northwest.
Neptune Aviation Services, the largest operator of fixed wing aerial tankers, expects to wrap up all heavy maintenance in May, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company. “Since last fall, we will have invested nearly 18,000 man-hours to prepare our aircraft for the 2015 fire season, which is about average for each year,” he said.
Currently, Neptune Aviation Services has seven aircraft under EU contracts with the USFS for 2015, which includes six P2V Neptunes and one BAe146 jet. However, Snyder stressed that other aircraft are available as needed. In fact, by the end of this year, the operator expects to have a fleet of seven BAe146 jets reconfigured for aerial firefighting, in addition to its legacy fleet of P2Vs.
“We began flight crew training on both the Neptunes and BAe146s starting in January of this year,” Snyder reported. “That includes ground school, simulator, in-aircraft training; as well as mission specific training.” The BAe146 simulator training, he explained, is conducted in Australia and in the United Kingdom. “We use a generic simulator for the P2V instrument training,” said Snyder.
Although he did not want to speculate about the coming fire season, Snyder did point out that the company has received inquiries from the USFS about deploying some of the contracted aircraft early due to concerns about the fire potential in California. The first aircraft, in fact, has been mission ready since March 5, with deployment of the remaining five by May 30.