Inspections required on large air tankers

P2V air tanker
Neptune’s P2V air tanker 45 on the Whoopup fire southeast of Newcastle, WY, July 18, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Update at 11:37 a.m. MT, February 9, 2012

The other ten P2Vs passed the inspections.

Update at 4:52 p.m. MT, February 8, 2012

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) that requires inspections of P2V aircraft after a large crack was found in a wing spar and skin on one of Neptune Aviation’s P2V-7 air tankers. The EAD, intended for the owners and operators of Lockheed P2V aircraft, says the 24-inch crack propagated through the wing front spar web, lower chord, and wing lower skin. The FAA is requiring “a detailed inspection for cracks, working fasteners, and other anomalies, including surface damage in the form of a nick, gouge, or corrosion; and repairing if necessary.”

We talked with a spokesperson for the FAA who told us that their agency does not “ground” aircraft, however the Emergency Airworthiness Directive requires that inspections of the P2V air tankers be completed within one day of the operators receiving the notification. Then they must report to the FAA the findings, positive or negative, of the inspections.

We will update this article when we have more information.

This affects all of the large air tankers that are under a standard U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contract. All 11 of them are P2Vs — nine operated by Neptune and two by Minden.  In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on USFS contracts.

One additional air tanker not affected is the jet-powered BAe-146 which is being flown by Neptune under temporary “interim” approval from the Interagency Air Tanker Board. After a year of testing it was granted “interim” approval status last fall and is being considered for full approval. The last we heard it was out of service and undergoing a major scheduled maintenance at the Tronos facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Minden also has a BAe-146 under development and is hoping to have it flying over fires this fire season.

The USFS cancelled Aero Union’s contract for their eight P3 air tankers last summer, saying the company did not complete some required inspections. The P3 air tankers are not affected by this FAA directive, but Aero Union has closed their doors and is auctioning their air tankers and other assets this month.

The remaining USFS-contracted air tankers were scheduled to come on earlier than usual this year. One of Minden’s P2Vs is scheduled to start on February 15, and the agency asked Neptune to have their first aircraft mission-ready by February 26. Three more airtankers are scheduled to begin their Mandatory Availability Periods (MAP) in March (one Minden, two Neptune), two are scheduled to begin their MAPs in April, and four are scheduled to come on board in May.

Rick Hatton, the President and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier was not offered an exclusive use contract for their two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers by the U.S. Forest Service, and only has a call when needed contract with the agency. The DC-10s carry 11,600 gallons, about four times the capacity of a standard large air tanker. Mr. Hatton told Wildfire Today this morning:

We did some good work with the 10s in 2011 in 6 states plus Canada. With over 420 missions on over 70 fires, we are hopeful of being awarded a multiple aircraft contract in 2012. Two are ready for that, and we can add one every 6 months if contracted. The 10 can do the work of 4+ alternative aircraft, and can really fill a big part of the fleet needed now and in future years.

The USFS has put all of their eggs into one basket, with all 11 of their contracted air tankers being the same model, except for the BAe-146 which has interim approval. This is not the first time that all aircraft of the same model have been grounded. The agency could have seen this coming and should have been prepared. Since the two fatal crashes in 2002 which permanently grounded several models of ancient air tankers, the USFS has had 10 years to rebuild the aging fleet, but sat on their hands watching the fleet decay from 44 air tankers to 11, as they were hampered by indecision and analysis paralysis.

Have the chickens come home to roost? Maybe the 24-inch cracks found in the 50+ year old P2V can be easily fixed, and perhaps the other 10 P2Vs will get a clean bill of health — until the next crash or Emergency Airworthiness Directive. Or, the worst case scenario is that an analysis will determine that a weakness has been discovered that, for safety reasons, will permanently ground all P2V air tankers, reducing the fleet to one air tanker on “interim” approval status.

We all know that 50-60 year old aircraft are going to have more safety and maintenance issues than more modern aircraft. The USFS’ request for proposal for “next generation” turbine-powered air tankers is a step in the right direction, but we didn’t see anything in the RFP that required WHICH generation they belong to, or that they be, for example, less than 20 years old. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS told us today that they expect to award the first of these next-gen contracts in April of this year. In addition, Ms. Jones told us:

Until we are notified otherwise by the vendors, we expect the [P2V] airtankers to be available at the start of their mandatory availability periods. The U.S. Forest Service is committed to modernizing the Large Airtanker Fleet. The agency is currently developing a strategy to improve and modernize the fleet.

The Hawkins and Powers C-130A air tanker that crashed on June 17, 2002 near Walker, California when the wings fell off, had a series of fatigue cracks in the skin panel of the right wing which grew together to become 12-inches long and were found to have propagated past the area where they would have been covered by the doubler and into the stringers beneath the doubler and across the lap joint between the middle skin panel and the forward skin panel.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Inspections required on large air tankers”

  1. Bill…………….I hope you don't mind me replying to Richard on this one? Richard, The answer is yes, 10 Tanker Air Carrier do have a continuous airworthiness program (approved by the FAA)…they have a standard airworthiness certificate which means…..
    Check out this link to the FAA's website….they operate under parts 91 and 137. Part 91 tells them how to maintain the aircraft to be safe for flight (same as P2's) and 137 lets them drop retardant from an aircraft (same as P2's)
    Standard Airworthiness Certificate
    The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for the safety of civil aviation.

  2. Im curious Bill, about Tanker 10, next time you talk to those guys ask them if they have a continuous airworthyness program for there aging aircraft since it now has a different role from its original intended one, flying a lot of people from point a to point b at long distances also not dispensing them in flight. Just wondering if they have one. Im not saying that they don’t maintain it, I’m sure they do, but in this world the customer needs a little more Neptune obviously conforms to it. Curious if they had Boeing amend there maintenance program because of the new role for the aircraft. That might be a reason the usfs won’t give them a multiple year contract, also they should rethink tanking another one and stick to what the fs wants not what they think the fs needs. Same to you Tronos tank the airplane (T40) to the needs of the fs not yours, if you force feed them something they don’t like you will end up in their rear view mirror which in my opinion your already there.

  3. Gary I agree with you, I just can’t see how USFS doesn’t s see a need for the VLAT’s, 10TAC has proven her self, give them the contact and quit wasting time, SEAT’s have there place, thick canapy and large fires are not them. Had 10 been used in several fires as she should have been, there would not have been the loss of property/forestry there was, last year she was able to start proving herself as an IA, and did a very good job of it, if Texas would get off there tails and get her for at least two years, there would be several happy people in this state. If the folks with the purse strings would just talk and listen to the boot’s on the ground they may have a diffrent outlook.

  4. Industry (Neptune) and the FAA working together that is way it ought be and I know the DOM and the mechs will sort it out and let the USFS know when THEY find out.

    Think this aging aircraft issue is new? Cessna Aircraft Corp has launched a supplemental inspection program THIS month for 145,000 light GA aircraft. Read it in Business and Commercial Aviation Jan 2012 page 22.

    USFS thinking or wishing this was going away have really got no reason or excuses now to start thinking about this subject more seriously. Maybe the NTSB ought to join forces with the FAA to save the operators from any contract harassment until and after the inspections are over.

    Glad the FAA caught this one and Neptune also. Kudos on the credibility and intestinal fortitude of Neptune.

    Kind suggestion to USFS……stay out of it and WAIT til this settles. Your organization can NOT afford more contract elimination of aircraft programs such as H and P and AUC. No two P2v’s are the same as was no P3’s are the same. Each of these series of aircraft served different flight regimes while with the US Nav. If anything the flight profiles that were induced by wildland fire operations, the USFS ought to be ponying up the money for the up-n-coming repairs that Neptune may need to do if economically repairable.

    Wishing for C130J’s while this happening….well I hope the USAF and Lockheed have any answer for you….going rate is what you are paying to keep the factory at Marietta, GA open.

    Seriously USFS are any of you there paying ANY attention how serious the costs of maintenance is about to get? Why do you suppose new aircraft and aircraft maintenance costs so much?? Do Not tell any of US mechanics it’s all personnel costs..

    Neptune…y’alll be careful out there, ya here?

  5. Great article. It is still sad that the USFS has not offered the DC 10 (VLATS) a contract. They were effective. My guess is that they are still not as smart as CAL FIRE or just too focused on lining Mr Rey and Lockheeds pockets. This is not good news for the industry even if the planes are cleared.

  6. Before we place T130 in the “next generation” catagory, consider this. It was manufactured in 1953 and was an “A” model that Lockheed tried to convince the AF not to build, knowing full well that the experimental H-box spars were a failure of concept.

  7. Bill, I was very interested in your conversation with the FAA rep as I had the same question you did. Good job. Tyler


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