Aero Union is appealing the cancellation of their air tanker contract

P-3 Orion-1
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From

The CEO of Aero Union, Britt Gourley,said the company has appealed through the judicial process the U.S. Forest Service’s cancellation of their contract for Aero Union’s eight P-3 Orion air tankers. The USFS terminated the contract July 29, 2011, saying safety inspections were not being completed, and shortly after that the company laid off 60 of their employees. At that time, six of the eight P-3s were active on contracts. This left only 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts with the USFS.

Aero Union auctionMr. Gourley told Wildfire Today on Monday that after their contract was cancelled halfway through the fire season, and now with the aircraft sitting for almost six months, their financial situation has forced them to sell their assets. As we reported on January 1, Aero Union has put their aircraft up for auction, which will culminate in the opening of sealed bids on February 28 at McClellan, California.

Mr. Gourley said his company complied with all of the requirements in the USFS contract and claims the P-3s have “always been meticulously maintained and continuosly airworthy”. He hopes the aircraft will be flying over fires again this summer, if not in the United States, then in another country.

Mr. Gourley feels the USFS has a strong predisposition toward the C-130J as an air tanker platform and is unwilling to give serious consideration to other aircraft. He said another option for an air tanker would be to acquire military surplus P-3s and “re-wing” them with current technology and kits developed by Lockheed which cost about $18 million each.

It would be surprising if a private company could work out the finances for the procurement and then the USFS contracting arrangements to purchase and operate new C-130Js with a purchase price of about $90 million each. But if the USFS adopts a different air tanker paradigm, in which the aircraft are government-owned and contractor operated, then it’s a whole new ball game. It is hard to imagine the U.S. Government coming up with the money to buy a fleet of new air tankers. A more realistic variation on this is to acquire some gently-used C-130Js that have been thrown away by the military.

It is hard to understand how the US Government can come up with trillions of dollars for military aircraft, ships, and equipment, but the USFS has to contract for air tanker platforms that have been deemed no longer worthy of being used by the military.

MAFFS II, built by Aero Union and sold to the USFS. Photo by Aero Union

In addition to the eight Aero Union P-3s that are up for auction, the company is selling intellectual property consisting of patents, jigs, drawings, and tooling for their MAFFS II 3,000-gallon slide-in retardant tank system for C-130J. The USFS has already purchased eight of these second generation units which are used by Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units on wildfires if all of the privately owned air tankers are already working on fires. If a new company purchases the MAFFS II intellectual property and manufactures more, you could have one of your own for approximately $5.2 million.

The reason Mr. Gourley of Aero Union contacted us was so that he could ask for our email address in order to reply in writing to our January 1 article about the demise of their company and the current auction. Below is his letter:



Thanks you for your recent article regarding Aero Union Corporation’s (“Aero Union” or the “Company”), upcoming sale of it’s firefighting assets. We remain very disappointed in this turn of events as it will end Aero Union’s 50-year legacy (as of 2011) as one of the leading aerial firefighting contractors and aerial firefighting tank manufacturers in the world. However, with the strong buyer interest in our Aircraft for the upcoming sale, we are confident that the P-3 Orions will “live on” in the world’s firefighting arsenal. As stated by our Chief Pilot before a Congressional panel, “If you were going to build a Large Air Tanker for firefighting from scratch, it would look like a P-3 Orion.”

Our aircraft have always been meticulously maintained and continuously airworthy. Since the termination of our U.S. Forest Service contract on July 29, 2011, we have faithfully followed the scheduled maintenance requirements for aircraft in storage as set forth in the U.S. Navy’s “Navair” maintenance manual. Two FAA Designated Engineering Representatives stated before a Congressional panel that our aircraft are unequivocally airworthy. In fact, Aero Union has continued to maintan all FAA airworthiness certifications such that our aircraft could be activated and flown on a wildland fire immediately. We fully expect that our aircraft will be flying during the next fire season for a governmental body somewhere in the world. The demand for airtankers worldwide is indeed great.

It is unfortunate that the U.S. Forest Service terminated our contract on the basis of alleged breach of contract. As you rightly reported, we had six (6) aircraft flying during the 2011 fire season with all U.S. Forest Service and FAA approvals. The seventh (7th) was to enter service the day that our contract was terminated. Please know that we have appealed the contract termination through the judicial process.

Of utmost concern to us as firefighters is our vew that the U.S. continues to have inadequate aerial firefighting resources. With Aero Union’s aircraft not currently under contract, there are only eleven (11) Large Airtankers under the 2008 contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Note that this complement of aircraft is approximately 25% of the size of the fleet in 2002. As was seen in 2011’s devasting Texas and Southwest Fires, dramatically more aerial firefighting resources are needed within the United States. No one can dispute the fact that Aero Union’s fleet could have made a significant contribution to minimize the destruction caused by these fires if its contract had not been cancelled.

Our hope is that the new owner of our P-3’s will retain them in service in the United States. Anything that Wildfire Today can do to communicate the risks of the upcoming 2012 fire season as a result of this contract termination will do great service to the public.

Again, thank you for the article and the opportunity to respond.


Britt Gourley, CEO


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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.

10 thoughts on “Aero Union is appealing the cancellation of their air tanker contract”

  1. I agree Tankergyspie, If anyone here knew how that guy REALLY ran Aero Union (into the ground). They would agree with the USFS canceling the contracts, Its apparent that they do not like him. As for those P3’s leaving the country good luck there on the military’s weapons list still, Im sure the pentagon would love to stop what ever they are doing to help some rich foreigner that buys all or some of the planes that were capable of delivering nuclear weapons off that list so they can take it to there country. Maybe Iran will get them. Mr. Gourley may seem like a victim here but trust me he is not, the only victims are the good people he fired over his rein of terror and the USFS, because of his actions and inability’s to operate a company such as Aero Union honestly. He had not a care in the world except money. Greed, thats where it will take him into a court room were he belongs. This industry is better off without him, ask anyone that worked there.

    1. Richard’s is the only sane response to this article. Now that several months have passed since the termination of Aero Union’s contract it is obvious that Mr. Gourley was blowing smoke up everyone’s you know what. What is even worse is most of the people who replied to this article are misinformed and are fantasizing about how to remedy things.

  2. As I look through my weekly aviation publication, I am amazed at the goverment contracts that are handed-out like valentine candy each week. 200 million dollars here, 400 million dollars there. Defense contractors and their lobbyist understand how the “system” works. An aviation defense contractor for humanitarian (goverment backed money) reasons (loss of thousands of homes each fire season) would use their political power to offer solutions for reducing these losses. Example a C130JF (fire) for international private companies to purchase. Elected officials would support a bill that would assist in reducing the financial impact to the private operators. Senator so and so; “I would certainly like to see these heavier-than-air flying machines in my state represented area to help protect my constituency. With the backing of senators and representatives, an aviation defense contractor would offer a air tanker variant of an aircraft already in production for sale to private industry. Air tanker operators would operate and maintain their aircraft with the dollars need to substain a extended term agreement for purchase and services. Funded by FEMA.

  3. FYI… The info that the majority of costs (budget) on wildfires is incorrect. It HAS changed in the last decade.

    The majority of costs recently are associated with contracted logistical support and other contracted support (crews, dozers, water tenders, etc.)

    Not sure of the reason, but “aircraft costs” RARELY exceed 1/3 of the incident tally anymore… My guess is fewer aircraft equal fewer costs… Fewer aircraft equal GREATER costs in other areas in the long run.


  4. Answer to rebel….

    One can state that the fire managers are behind the operators of the airtanker business. You know the real fact? Not enough horsepower in those fire managers to affect/effect change. Just because the fire manager has “developed” a relationship through a contract… that isa not enough. Why do I say this? I served in the fire biz for approx 20 yrs intermittent, State, and Fed back in the day.

    Became a pilot and aircraft mech and pilot concurrently, during those days.

    Here is what it takes (percieved) ALOT of lobby power with the aircraft companies and Congress. But you know what? Aircraft manufacturers are not going to tool up for 20-25 aircraft UNLESS they have some kind of backing from the House, Congress, and the Prez himself and all those folks who can SEE BEYOND the USFS itself and all its glory.

    Again, when the USFS gives up 1/2 to 2/3 of its operating budget to aviation and not just TALKING it, will change ever be affected. As I have mentioned before….1980 Aviation Week and Space Technology…….approx Apr thru Nov of that time frame…..the USFS was TALKING about airtanker replacements back then…approx 40 yrs later…TALKI is still that!! Just talk!!!

    When are the USFS and the fire managers going to get serious about a real aviation program? Maybe it is time to put the aviation program into the hands that can contract, procure, maintain, and fly the missions.

    Maybe the FAA ….. Maybe the USAF buys and flys the USFS fire season missions and BILLS the entire aviation cost to the USFS. That MIGHT put the true realization of cost.

    Maybe GOCO. But then there needs to be an agency with BETTER wherewithall to work the contracts whether its a State or Fed mission without the interruption of mid fire season as seen with AUC and the fractured use of 10Tanker LLC and Evergreen.

    Fractured and broken service such as this summer sure does not put anyone at ease whether they are near Fed property or the WUI.

    Any u fire managers got any bright ideas? Because I know of two companies….H&P, AUC, and many others who were “de contracted” due to gamesmanship that could have possibly done this WHOLE thing better than what was handled by a “professional land management” agency in 2011!!

    1. Thanks for the reply Leo – You for sure know what you are talking about .Even though I am not involved in the business myself, I have been following this Air Tanker issue for the last 6 months and have learned quite a lot. I agree with what you have said above. The whole thing is an absolute disgrace. Meanwhile, the country burns. Very nasty situation for everyone. Shame on the powers that be that allowed this to happen and allow it to continue to that industry and the people who work in it.

  5. jc, can the public help you, the fire managers, in standing behind the companies you mentioned above. If yes what do you suggest we do?

  6. For those who have the “blue sky” idea that the Feds are going to fund a fleet of heavy air tankers, I hate to pee on your parade, it isn’t going to happen. The future of fixed-wing aerial fire fighting will continue to be those companies i.e Neptune, Minden, Aero Union, 10 Air Carrier, Evergreen and others, that accept the challenge and have successfully accomplished the task for over fifty years. As fire managers we need to stand behind these companies.

  7. Makes mine ache, too

    After watching a Paris Air Show 2011 demo on the C130J on a YouTube type of production…

    I can bet the USFS has its mouth watering at those flight profiles!!!! Thinking that they could probably get away with the same as the USAF buoyzz putting the “J” through its paces.

    Be a loooong time before the USFS gets its “J’s” and if they do, hopefully, there will many strings attached from USAF, Lockheed contract office, and MX that will make em cry!

    Good on AUC for pursuing through the court system…. 6-12 ships with the same failures in inspections???? PREPOSTEROUS! With AUC’s help and NAVAIR and BuNOPS maintenance procedures….I can bet maintenance was top notch especially in Nav environment.

    Maybe it is time USFS puts allllllll the documentation and cards on the table to the US taxpaying public and prove to them and all us mechanics there were problems.

    Only scheisters with an agenda, and no intestinal fortitude would do this. Time for a Congrssional on the USFS for Fraud, Waste, and Abuse. Bet with that threat….. we could see plenty of idocumentation that needs a second party review!!


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