Yesterday we told you about the new contract that the U.S. Forest Service is offering for what they call “New Generation Air Tankers”. On this contract, aircraft must be able to cruise at 300 knots, have turbine engines, and have a “target” capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons, with 2,400 gallons being the minimum acceptable.
The agency plans to add three of these air tankers in 2012 and another four in 2013, with options to bring on up to 28 more, for a total of 35 additional air tankers.
This number, 35, reminds us of the Wildland Fire Large Air Tanker Strategy, last modified August 24, 2009 which recommended 26 large and water scooper air tankers in 2012, increasing to 35 by 2018. The report took into account attrition through age of retiring P-3s and P-2Vs.
We discussed five more air tanker studies in our September 9 article. Yes, there are a total of six in the last 15 years.
But what aircraft are available that could meet the goals of the new USFS contract solicitation? Below is a table with specifications of some of the air tankers currently in use in North America and Europe, plus one aircraft that has the potential to be converted into an air tanker.
Let’s take a closer look at the air tankers that could qualify for this new contract. First, two air tankers manufactured 21 to 54 years ago.
Until this summer the P-3 Orion had been a very important part of the air tanker fleet, powered by four turbine engines and carrying up to 3,000 gallons. But Aero Union, the company that had provided eight of them, changed hands and some of their practices changed as well. According to the USFS, the agency cancelled the contract because some inspections were not completed, leaving only 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. As far as I know, if the inspections were conducted and if the aircraft passed, the P-3 would qualify for this “New Generation Air Tanker” contract, even though the aircraft was manufactured between 1962 and 1990 — unless there is something in the 146-page solicitation that I have not seen that would disqualify it. The last we heard Aero Union closed their doors after they lost the air tanker contract.
Conair, a Canadian company that currently has 12 large air tankers and 3 Canadair CL-215′s, has a turbine-powered Lockheed L-188 Electra that would appear to qualify for the contract. They recently introduced a new 3,300-gallon constant-flow system developed in cooperation with British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests. The aircraft, manufactured between 1957 and 1961, to our knowledge has not been approved by the Interagency Air Tanker Board (IATB).
Moving on to, in most cases, newer air frames…
Bombardier Dash 8 Q400
This twin-engine turboprop airliner which carries 70 to 80 passengers has been converted into an air tanker by Cascade Aerospace in British Columbia and is being used on fires in France. Two pre-owned Bombardier Dash 8 Q400s were modified by Cascade for France’s Sécurité Civile to act as air tankers in fire season and as transport aircraft during the off season. The aircraft can be reconfigured into the passenger, cargo, or air tanker role in under three hours.
It is fast, cruising at about 391 mph, and holds 2,600 gallons. But since it can’t make the 3,000-gallon “target” threshold in the contract, it would be selected by the USFS only if an adequate number of 3,000+ gallon air tankers could not be found. As far as we know this aircraft has not been approved by the Interagency Air Tanker Board (IATB).
There is one BAe 146 air tanker flying now (pictured at the top of this article). This turbofan powered airliner that Tronos converted into a 3,000 gallon air tanker is leased by Neptune and received “interim approval” this fall from the IATB after a year of testing. It obtained a contract from the USFS for a few months this fall to see how it performed on fires and how it fit into the schemes at air tanker bases. Tanker 40 made about six drops on actual fires in Texas, but by the time it arrived there on an extended assignment, most of the fires that had plagued the state for months were out. If the IATB upgrades their approval from “interim” to full approval, the BAe-146 would qualify under the contract.
Neptune will not disclose any details about the tanking system, but there is speculation that the retardant is pumped out through nozzles, rather than using a more conventional gravity system with large doors in the belly. The military MAFFS air tankers use a pressurized system which has been criticized for not being able to penetrate a forest canopy as well as gravity systems.
The well known C-130 has been used by the U.S. military as a temporary air tanker during periods of high wildfire activity since 1971. The second generation Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS 2, slides into the aircraft through the rear cargo door and holds 3,000 gallons of retardant that is pumped out of a single nozzle on the side paratroop door via compressed air generated by an on board air compressor. The second generation MAFFS systems only fit into the C-130J aircraft, and not the older C-130s. It only takes a few hours to convert the C-130J into air tanker configuration, but as stated above, the system has been criticized for not being able to penetrate a forest canopy as well as gravity systems.
It is conceivable that a private company could acquire a turbine-powered C-130J and buy a slip-in MAFFS unit, but the price of a new aircraft alone would set you back at least $90 million. Some of the first generation MAFFS units and all of the second generation units were made by Aero Union, but the last we heard the company shut down this year after the USFS cancelled their contract for air tankers.
The Beriev Be-200 Altair is a new amphibious aircraft purpose-built for firefighting, search and rescue, and maritime patrol. Introduced in 2003, it can scoop water from a lake, or land at an air tanker base to take on retardant. Manufactured in Russia, it holds 3,170 gallons and is powered by two turbofan engines mounted above the wings to avoid water spray while scooping.
Shortly after the European Aviation Safety Agency issued an approval and Type Certificate to the Beriev Aircraft Company on September 9, 2010 the Russian Emergencies Ministry signed a $330 million contract to purchase eight of the aircraft configured for wildland firefighting. This made good on a promise Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made during their previous fire siege to acquire more air tankers, including the Be-200. Medvedev went along as a “co-pilot” on a Be-200 in August, 2010 and pushed the button to make a drop on one of the fires burning in Russia.
In April, 2010 a Be-200 visited Santa Maria, California in an effort to sell a few of the air tankers in the United States. This aircraft has not been approved by the IATB or the FAA.
The Alenia C-27J Spartan is another very new aircraft, entering production in 2007, but it has never been converted into an air tanker. It uses two of the same turboprop engines found on the C-130J, and in fact looks like its little brother. It sells for $53 million and can carry a 25,353-pound payload which would translate to approximately 2,200 gallons of retardant if converted into an air tanker. So while the performance of the aircraft would most likely be very suitable, the amount of retardant would probably prevent its being accepted on the new contract. And $53 million is a lot of bucks, but is 59 percent of what its big brother costs.
Very Large Air Tankers
It appears that the Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT), the DC-10 and the 747, would not qualify for this contract since they hold 11,600 to 20,000 gallons respectively. The USFS has made it crystal clear they have no interest in offering exclusive use contracts for these aircraft which can carry four to seven times more than a 3,000 gallon air tanker, and five to eight times more than a P-2.
When the Rand Corporation was hired to conduct a study to recommend the number and types of air tankers to be used for wildland firefighting, they were instructed by the U. S. Forest Service to disregard the Very Large Air Tankers in the new study, which demonstrated that the agency had their mind made up and didn’t want to be bothered by facts. Here is a quote from a July, 2010 draft of the 104-page report which has still not been released to the public:
At Forest Service direction, we did not examine smaller SEATs that carry 800-900 gallons of retardant nor larger VLATs that carry 12,000-20,000 gallons of retardant.
Astounding, to say the least. The USFS paid Rand $840,092 for the report.
Evergreen and 10 Tanker Air Carrier will not be able to maintain these air tankers and their crews with only Call When Needed contracts.