All air tankers are grounded today

Tanker 11 at Libby Army Airfield, AZ, 6-15-2011 photo by Ned Harris
File photo of Tanker 11 at Libby Army Airfield, AZ, June 15, 2011. Photo by Ned Harris

UPDATED at 5:01 p.m. MT, June 4, 2012

Air tankers grounded

The day after the crash of Air Tanker 11 on Sunday which killed two pilots, all air tankers are grounded, we were told by Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service at Boise. Neptune Aviation, the company that operated Tanker 11, took the initiative to ground their remaining fleet of eight air tankers. Most likely the company took the step in order to help their crews and staff cope with their loss, but we are waiting for a return call from Neptune to confirm the exact reason.

In addition, following the emergency landing in which one of the three landing gears did not deploy on Minden Air Corp Tanker 55 on Sunday, the federal government is conducting an inspection on Minden’s other air tanker, Tanker 48, making it unavailable.

The result, at least for today, is the entire fleet of nine large air tankers is not available.

As these 50-plus year old aircraft age even more, the U.S. Forest Service’s commitment to putting all of their eggs in one or two baskets makes it more likely that total or near-total grounding of the air tanker fleet can occur again after a crash or when a defect is discovered. Eight of the remaining air tankers are Korean war vintage P2Vs, and one is a BAe-146 delivered in 1986. Eight are operated by Neptune, and Minden has one left.

More details about the crash

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting a few more details about the crash of Tanker 11. Here is an excerpt:

…An eyewitness told KUTV that moments before the plane crashed, it was flying very low, clipping the tops of trees.

Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said Monday afternoon that it appeared that the right wing tip hit the ground, causing the plane to go into a cartwheel. The plane was destroyed, the debris spread across a 500-to-600 foot area.

“You could see it was a very violent crash,” Gower said.

The cause of the crash remained under investigation Monday and National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on the way to the remote and rugged crash site Monday afternoon.

The Missoulian has an article about Todd Tompkins, 48, one of the pilots killed in the crash. The article also has some photos of the crash site.

More aerial resources becoming available?

There is a rumor that Tanker 911, a DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier is being brought on contract, but at 3:36 p.m. MT, June 4, we talked with Rick Hatton, the President of the company, and he has not been notified of this development. He said he also heard the rumor, and was hoping that my call was, instead of me, a contracting officer with the USFS.  The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons of retardant, five times more than a P2V and four times more than a BAe-146.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS in Boise told us that they have not hired a DC-10, but they are bringing on a CV 580 that is on contract with the state of Alaska, and they are exploring possibilities of bringing on some Type 1 helicopters early, but as far as she knows that has not happened yet.

The US Forest Service has shown no interest recently in awarding exclusive use contracts to the Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) such as the DC-10, 747, or Martin Mars, and has only offered Call When Needed contracts. It is difficult or impossible to maintain any large aircraft and a very specialized crew when there is no assurance that it will be used. The USFS is missing the boat if they do not utilize these assets, period, but especially under these conditions.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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17 thoughts on “All air tankers are grounded today”

  1. Does the Air Force and/or Air National Guard support the aerial tanker operations? C-130 aircraft? This retired Air Force officer is just wondering.

  2. As of this morning, Tanker 911 was brought on contract and several type 1 helicopters were brought on early.

    1. At 3:36 p.m. MT, June 4, we talked with Rick Hatton, the President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the operator of the DC-10s (T-910 and T-911), and he has not been notified of this development.

  3. It is interesting that on the Monday morning conference call between the Regional Fire Director / Staff and the Forest FMOs, it was stated that the DC-10 was being brought on.

    Must be some sort of disconnect between the RO and the WO.

  4. ^^^

    Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing and vice versa

    This would be a typical SAFECOM writeup right here!!

    Analysis: Failure to Communicate

    1. Seems there is a disconnect with the field. Not sure if it’s a communication issue.. contracting issue.. or BOTH… or a total lack of program leadership at the highest levels.

      What keeps coming to mind is the reason for the FF/LE mandatory retirement (roots to J. Edgar Hoover.. LONG STORY/HISTORY…).. and a Nat’l Fire Director nearing his 10th year in a position and skipping mandatory retirement….

      Follow the YEARS since the first GROUNDING of airtankers and who has been the FIRE leadership since then…..

  5. What about bringing on the DC-7 and DC-6 that currently fly in Oregon. They flew federal contracts for years before the H&P structural breakups in 2002. Also no DC-4, -6, or -7 has ever had a structural breakup or any major crash that I know of.

  6. The forrest service needs to have a look at the very sucessful operation of Convair 580’s by Conair Aviation of Abbortsford, BC. Canada. This is a large company that has been in the tanker business for many years. The 580 has been around for a long time as a commerical airliner but they overhaul the airframe and offer a powerful turboprop answer to the tanker fleet.

  7. @Kelly

    I am aware that the USFS grounded them. That was back in late 03 or early 04 if I remember correctly. That was when all the tanker operators had to prove their aircraft flight hours from the first flight to present. With the current situation of our tanker fleet I think it would be smart for USFS to contract them considering that the DC-4s, -6s, -7s have never has a structural breakup or major crash that I am aware of.

    1. @Matt,
      I completely agree. The ODF folks were smart enough to keep the Butler ships on a state contract. And CDF (oops,CalFire) has called them down there too. I’m not holding my breath for anyone in Boise or DC with an IQ larger than a green bean to make note of this and put them on a fed contract, though.

      But seriously, if Oregon’s got the two Butler ships on contract, then the FS can’t have ’em, right? And with just two ships, then (a) what would the feds do with them and (b) do ya think the state of Oregon might object?

  8. Cal Fire and O.D.F. should be very cautious offering air tankers to the Fed’s. In the 1990 the Martin Mars was flying fires in California. The Canadians (public) weren’t too excited about “having their airplane in the U.S.” Evergreen Aviation has been in the aviation fire business since the beginning of time. Their (Evergreen) report on cost saving to the taxpayer using the Super Tanker (VLAT) on fires I believe is somewhat accurate and valid. Pass practice with the State of California and even on Fed. fires using VLAT’s has reinforced the Evergreen report.
    So as the natural resources of this country are put on the line it seems very strange that there is only rumors (which buys time)(stalling) of VLAT use.

    1. J.C. , once again, you are correct. The stall tactic has worked so well for them in the past, they just continue using it and fooling the public into believing they are working hard to fix the problem. In reality, they just want to make it to retirement without making any hard, unpopular decisions.

      I wonder how many UTFs (unable to fill) have been logged so far for air tankers this year? The general public will never know.

      1. Paris, good point about the UTFs. I wonder if incident commanders and dispatchers are even bothering to place orders for air tankers every time there is an actual need for them, since they know there are so few of them available. The nearest one might be two to three hours away. Initial attack with ground AND air resources is becoming rare. So, small fires too often turn into large expensive fires.

        1. Before we get too focused on the number of aircraft UTFs, let’s get everyone back to the Basics of aircraft safety and ask the question on every aircraft Resource Order: “Is this flight necessary?” In my experience, that question is not asked often enough, and we are putting our flight crews into a high-risk environment without thinking thru the potentiial risks versus benefits. Keep asking: is this the right place for retardant; is it going to be supported by ground crews; what values are we really trying to protect; is this drop being driven by real operational needs, or is it politics/media? Use the right tool in the right plce at the right time, but let’s not expose our air resources to unnecessary flight hours and risks.

  9. I suffer from Fat Finger syndrome, my name is Parvis, not Paris.
    Emmett, you too are right on the mark. “Use the right tool in the right place at the right time”. But you can’t do that without “having” the right tools available. If one needs to dig a ditch, you use a shovel. If one needs to dig a swimming pool, one does not buy 100 shovels, you get the right tool. A backhoe. Unless a backhoe is not available, then you throw 100 shovels at it and run the cost and exposer rate way up.
    Not having the proper tools is not the fault of the FF in the field. That is solely the fault of upper management. This problem has been festering for years and here we are with ridiculously low amounts of resources. Smoke and mirrors, stall tactics, whatever they can do to make the public think they are doing all they can do. When in essence, they are doing nothing. Just my thought.

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