Possibilities for “New Generation Air Tankers”

Q400 air tanker
new air tanker
Neptune's Tanker 40, a BAe 146

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.

Air tanker numbers, projected through 2018
The number of firefighting aircraft on exclusive use contracts, not CWN, projected through 2018. Source: page 21 of the report referenced above.

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.


Air Tanker specs

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.

P-3 Orion

P-3 Orion-1
P-3 Orion, making a low drop on a fire near Cedar City, Utah, in 2006. From zionhelitack.blogspot.com

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.

Lockheed L-188

Filling an L-188 Electra
A Conair ground crewperson attaches a hose to the tank of a Lockheed L-188 Electra airtanker at their base in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Photo: Andy Clark.

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

Q400 air tanker
Q400 air tanker. Photo: Cascade Aerospace

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).

BAe 146

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.


MAFFS training drop May 4 2011
C-130J MAFFS training drop May 4, 2011. Photo by Jake Putnam

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.


BE-200 air tanker at Santa Maria, California
BE-200 air tanker at Santa Maria, California in April, 2010. Photo courtesy of Michael Lynn.

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.


C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

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

747 dropping in Haifa Israel Dec 5 2010
The 747 Super Tanker dropping in Haifa Israel, December 5, 2010

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.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

27 thoughts on “Possibilities for “New Generation Air Tankers””

  1. Fine data there, Bill

    C130J, C27, Beriev, even the Q400 which is now in use with Pinnacolaba airlines (Pinnacle, Colgan, and Mesaba) are all fine aircraft but seriously the cost “at the convienience to the Gov” are going to be the factor at which the operator(s) may to Uncle Sugar ‘pony up some dinero” that u are using and abusing at the HR and IT levels, lower the SES and GM /GS wages, and we MIGHT get ONE C130 J model.

    But I love the awareness you are providing, Bill. Because we sure are not getting the bang for the buck with ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLthose USFS F&AM studies we have been promised and repromised about “how effective” the program is

  2. “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”.

    I don’t know detailed specifications, but I met the Tronos folks in the initial stages of their conversion project and discussed their plans. At the time they confirmed they were designing a pressurized delivery system for the BAe 146. I also watched from above as Tanker 40 made a drop near Longview TX in October. It is indeed a pressurized system using nozzles placed at the lower aft of the fuselage. Laid down as an extension of a line dropped from a CV580, the T40 line I observed (Coverage Level 6) was in comparison longer, but appeared much more narrow & lighter in coverage (in an immature pine plantation). The flanking fire did not directly challenge any of the retardant while we watched, but if laid across the head of a surface fire with decent intensity, my professional opinion is that a drop of CL6 from T40 under the same conditions (6-8′ flame length) would soon be compromised.
    There were no obvious concerns about the aircraft platform itself; the 146 worked well in the FTA and the pattern flown, drop speeds & height were well managed. Mind you, it is pancake flat in NE Texas.

  3. What type company would venture into a “possible-low bid” contract and invest 100’s of millions of dollars in air tankers with the Federal goverment?Evergreen and 10 Air Carrier did so and got shut out by the Fed’s. If you want speed, versatility, coverage levels without compormise and economy of scale the Fed’s crystal ball should see jumbo jets (VLAT’s) as part of their plan. May Aero Union rest in peace. Is that nationally know palm reader lady in Florida still in business?

  4. The Navy’s new 737 based P8 is just coming online so I would assume there will be a lot of P3’s available in the future.

  5. 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 about VLATs or advice from an unbiased subject matter expert. 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.

  6. Bill

    More for the records!! Yet the 7-35 acft in the mix that is “predicted” sure makes me wonder and I would almost bet the operators wonder about this contradictory way of thinking. MORE reason these folks NEED to manage land and not aviation assets. They can not even identify that w/o 3000 gallon haulers….what’s left!!

    Who are these folks?? Didn’t want to bothered by facts? Did not to be bothered by unbiased SME’s?? Wow, this sure furthers the belief there needs to be COMPLETE cultural overhaul with these folks because it proves they can notidentify the REAL issues out there!

  7. There comes a time to cut bait or go fishing, looks like the USFS has decided to go on a fishing expedition (pun intended).

    1. Right. Finally, after 10 years!

      Yes, this is a good sign, the solicitation, but we’ll have to wait and see if the USFS will actually bring on 7, 12, 20, or 35 new air tankers.

  8. About a private company acquiring a c130j and a tank. The plane is possible, the tank not so much last time I checked Aero Union is no more, and they hold the rights and pattens to that tank. The forest service is going to have to look to another company to develop and build something similar plus maintain it, that tank system is a nightmare. Retardant eats metal.

  9. I believe the Convair 580 (Lockheed L188 / Electra) was approved several years ago after the State of Alaska put them on contract. We have certainly used them in the interagency environment throughout the west and Alaska. The FS paid Alaska to extend the contracts this fall and moved the aircraft to Boise. The Convair pilots were some of the ones raising an issue about dispatch office naming conventions or lack thereof (Color Country was one example).

  10. Kent, the Lockheed L188 (Electra) is the civilian version of the Lockheed P-3 (Orion). The Convair platforms (CV-340/CV580) are not related in anyway. Each version, contractor, and ability is specified in the bid schedule. Not sure what you’re talking about in terms of “naming conventions”.

    Richard, if and when Aero Union officially closes down shop through dissolution, bankruptcy, sale, etc…. part of the process is liquidation of assets to cover debts, and/or the sale of patents to cover indebtedness to creditors. If the owner of the patent goes out of business.. and the government determines a critical need (especially if R&D was funded by federal grants), the patent may be seized as “abandoned” or transferred through imminent domain…. FYI.

    1. I agree Ken didn’t think of that, but think about this. The unreal cost to build that system let alone tool up for it is mind blowing, I recall that little weasel the owner pricing it at a cool five mill a unit. I wouldn’t be surprised if he some how transferred all of there pattens to one of his other companies, he is a dirty lawyer. I’ll bet anyone my first born child that there will never be another maffs unit built. I’m pretty sure there officially closed.

      1. Richard, I’d bet that the patent for the “MAFFS System” was/will be a major factor in either the sale, dissolution, or bankruptcy of Aero Union.

        I’d really doubt that any patents were passed to another company.. if so.. it’s easy to follow the money so “investors” can get a return on their losses. The primary investor was the US govt (USFS, DoD, FEMA, USAID) who funded research and development (R&D).

  11. I have been thinking about the corrosiveness of the fire retardant. How about several high density cross linked poly tanks, configured in such a way that low pressure/high volume air pressure forces the retardant out the diffuser nozzles?
    Quick ejection of retardant, without reliability problems of hi volume pumps and motors.

    Am I missing the mark?
    Thanks, JohnW

  12. John Woods did miss the mark a little on this one, however so did I. I should have placed my comment under “limitation of retardant” Forty -eight years in the business and I’m still perplexed.
    In California where the S-2 air tankers are “cocked” and loaded with retardant (airborne in minutes) how will that effect the containability of
    fires starting on Federal lands and moving quickly to State and private lands? The attorneys are lined up on both sides. Let’s through in some law firms representing the big insurance carriers. Take a deep breath, are we sure cross-linked polymers (gels) have the same effect on personnel and the enviroment as ammonia base products? If your answer is yes, water is the same as acid.

  13. The table shows the P-2 with turboprops.
    But I thought that the P2V was powered by radial engines, not turboprops. (did the Japanese P-2J have turboprops?)

    CL-415 is listed as 1954-present, but I thought that the CL-415 was introduced in 1994, and the CL-215 was introduced in 1969.

  14. Re: comments about Aero Union built retardant tanks, didn’t a long-standing airtanker operator based in Alberta purchase the rights to the 3000 USG RADS II tank?
    The civilian Lockheed Electra is a formidable firefighting asset with a stellar performance, reliability and safety record; the only thing clouding its future is the possibility of OEM withdrawing support after an impending decision this summer. But that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the OEM offering its new and very expensive C130J products in the Next-Gen RFP could it??? Personally, I’d trade 1 firefighting Electra for 2 Hercs any day.

  15. Has anybody taken a gander at possibility of retrofitting the now retired S-3 Viking?

    1. Yes. The USFS paid a company to do a study on the feasibility of the S-3 as a firefighting aircraft. Let’s call it study 4.5. A retired USN S-3 pilot headed up the study for the contractor. He put on a compelling presentation at the 2011 Associated Aerial Firefighters meeting in Reno. The company gave the USFS several contingencies from the most basic and least expensive conversion on up to the most advanced. Impressive aircraft performance both high and low speed. The most limiting factor was the landing performance. No thrust reversers and poor brakes. The aircraft was designed to be stopped by arresting cables. The study recommended upgrading the brakes and exploring a thrust reverser retrofit. Many airframes were retired at mid-life as a cost saving measure for the Navy. Another plus was the engines are very similar to those on currently flying CRJ aircraft.

      1. ” … the 2011 Associated Aerial Firefighters meeting in Reno. … ”

        WOW, they still have those?

        RE: the so-called plan for USFS acquiring C-130s … I would bet money that’ll never happen. The agency had a bit of an issue with C-130 aircraft some years back (look it up) and I rather doubt the FS would try anything with that aircraft again. Right or wrong, the stigma sticks.

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