The P2V air tanker that had the 24-inch crack in a wing spar and skin, causing the FAA to issue an Emergency Airworthiness Directive in February, still has not been repaired and it may not return to service. Dan Snyder, President of Neptune Aviation which operates the aircraft, designated Tanker 10, told Wildfire Today on Wednesday that he is not sure if it will fly again as an air tanker this year. Of the nine P2V air tankers that Neptune has on contract with the U.S. Forest Service, Tanker 10 will be the last to go through their off-season maintenance cycle this year. When the mechanics get to it, they will evaluate what it will take to make it airworthy again, and then the company will make a decision about the its future.
If it can’t be repaired, Mr. Snyder said it will be replaced with another air tanker, probably a jet-powered BAe-146. He said additional BAe-146s are presently being converted from airliners to air tankers, like Tanker 40, which was converted by Tronos and leased to Neptune. When asked if the additional air tankers are being built at Neptune’s facility in Missoula or at Tronos’ hangars on Prince Edward Island, Mr. Snyder would only say they are being built in “various locations”. According to Mr. Snyder, Neptune is being proactive in acquiring additional “next generation” air tankers that are newer than the 50+ year old P2Vs, even though they do not have a contract yet for anything other than the nine P2Vs currently under contract, plus interim approval for Tanker 40.
Tanker 40, the BAe-146, is young compared to the P2Vs, but it is no spring chicken, entering service in 1986. Tronos installed a tanking system that may be a one-of-a-kind; a cabin-pressure-assisted gravity drop design. According to the official U.S. Forest Service Airtanker Drop Test Report, produced after tests in July, 2011, the aircraft uses three to six psi of positive air pressure in the cabin of the aircraft to help push the retardant out of four nozzles. Other pressurized systems, such as those used on Evergreen’s 747 and the military C-130 MAFFS, use 20 to 100 psi created by on-board air compressors. In the BAe-146, after a retardant drop, the USFS report says the lowered air pressure is slow to replenish.
The report concluded:
The system produced drops meeting all line length requirements, but failed to produce consistent results for all coverage levels with any volume released. Additionally, pattern quality generally suffered when the aircraft released all the retardant onboard; analysis indicates that the aircraft would generally produce acceptable pattern quality on the grid if the final 400 gallons of any load was not released.
During the tests ground personnel unfavorably evaluated the tank’s fill system. The Interagency Airtanker Board only gave the aircraft “interim approval”, rather than full approval as a federally contracted air tanker.
We asked Mr. Snyder for more details about the BAe-146. He said “air pressure was not a factor in the delivery of the retardant. The problem was the trail off on half load drops, this is the issue we have been working at addressing the past winter.” He said he “can’t provide specifics due to the proprietary nature of the tanking system”.
Mr. Snyder told Wildfire Today that since Tanker 40 returned from a major planned maintenance at Prince Edward Island on February 26, Neptune has been working on the tank system in an effort to improve the drop performance. He said the company has also been transitioning some of their P2V crew members into the BAe-146 program, undertaking “an aggressive pilot training program which includes several weeks of ground school covering aircraft systems and operations, BAe-146 simulator flight training, in aircraft operational experience, and pilot certification with our in house examiner.”
We found nine flight plans for the BAe-146 originating from and landing back at Missoula, most lasting 17 to 49 minutes, that were filed between March 2 and April 2.
Minden Air Corp. is also converting a BAe-146 and hopes to have it flying over fires this year. Tim Christy, the Director of Flight Operations for Minden, told us that the tank system is conventional, consisting of a 3,000 gallon internal retardant tank and a computer controlled constant flow door system which will rely on gravity, rather than a pressurized system, to force the retardant out of the tank.
Air tanker list
The list of large air tankers on contract this year that we copied from the National Interagency Fire Center web site on March 24 showed 12 aircraft, including Tanker 40, the BAe-146. The latest list dated April 4, 2012, below, does not include Tanker 40. We asked Mr. Snyder why, and he was not aware of it, and he did not know why it was not on the list. We asked Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS about the list and she said according to their aviation staff, Tanker 40 still has interim Interagency Airtanker Board approval.
But the list does include Tanker 10, which as described above, may or may not be repaired.
Solicitations for additional air tankers
The U.S. Forest Service expects to begin awarding contracts before the end of April from the responses they received to their solicitation for “next generation” air tankers which closed February 15, 2012. The specifications required that the aircraft can hold 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant, be turbine-powered, and cruise at 300 knots.
Since the contracts for the existing 11 “legacy air tankers” expire at the end of this year, it is probable that the U.S. Forest Service will issue a solicitation for the older air tankers before the 2013 fire season. It is unlikely that a large number of next-gen air tankers can be put on contract in 2013, so we may have to keep the 50+ year old war birds flying for a least a few more years. But, it is tough to predict what the USFS will do when it comes to managing large air tankers.
The Department of Interior has contracted for two water scooper air tankers for the last few years and a similar solicitation closed on April 6. Here is an excerpt:
Requirement for two multi-engine, amphibious, water scooping, tanker aircraft in support of water application for fire suppression missions. …Services shall be for the exclusive use of the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Forest Service in support of wildland fire suppression in the State of Alaska and the Lower 48 States.
Marsh Aviation may be converting amphibious piston-engined Grumman HU-16 and G-111 airframes into turbo-prop, amphibious air tankers. If “Marsh Aviation” sounds familiar to you, it’s because the company converted 23 military surplus S-2 airplanes into air tankers for CAL FIRE, and eventually replaced the piston engines with turbine engines, making it possible for the aircraft to carry 1,200 gallons of retardant.
According to Wikipedia (consider the source):
Conversion will include the installation of new 1,400 US gallon (5,300 litre) retardant tank with an automated control system operating a variable quantity/constant flow release system, major titanium modifications to the load-bearing airframe, the installation of a quick-change cargo/passenger floor, new Honeywell TPE331-14GR/HR turbo-prop engines, new EFIS cockpit, new electrical system including new starter-generators, new hydraulic pumps and an upgraded hydraulic system, as well as such optional features as an APU.