Air tanker update

BAe-146 Tanker 40
Tanker 40 taxiing to takeoff to begin its fire season, May 25, 2012
Tanker 40 taxiing before takeoff 5:55 p.m. MDT, May 25, 2012. As it left the Neptune hangar at Missoula, Neptune's P2V that is used for training pilots can be seen in the background. Tanker 40 returned to the hangar later in the evening.

Next Generation air tankers

The U.S. Forest Service, after saying earlier that they would make the announcement “by the end of April”, still has not made public any decisions about contracts for the next generation of air tankers. The contract solicitation closed February 15, 2012. These next-gen aircraft are supposed to carry (preferably) 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant, shall be able to cruise at 300 knots, and will have turbine or jet engines. We have heard rumors about why the contracts have not been awarded, which we are attempting to confirm.

The inability of the U.S. Forest Service to make a decision about additional contracts is putting a serious dampener on many air tanker operators and their hopes of putting more aircraft in the air. These contractors can’t go to the bank and borrow millions of dollars to buy an aircraft by saying, “We think the USFS may give us a contract this year, or next year, or maybe the year after that; but really we have no friggin’ idea what the USFS is going to do. And if we do buy one, we don’t know if the Interagency Air Tanker Board will approve it. If we do get a contract, and if the aircraft is approved by the IATB, we don’t know exactly how many flying hours we will get paid for each year.” For some reason, bankers have little empathy for such an approach.

And some people wonder why the number of air tankers on contract has seen a 75% reduction over the last 10 years — from 44 in 2002 to the 10 or 11 (10.5 ?) we have today.

Air tanker list

On Friday there were 10 large air tankers on contract and active:

  • 3 in Nevada
  • 2 in New Mexico
  • 1 in Arizona
  • 2 in Colorado
  • 2 in California

The last time we obtained the list of large air tankers that were on exclusive use contracts was April 19, 2012. Now as you can see below, there is an updated list, dated today, May 25. There are two notable changes: Tanker 40 (with “interim approval”) is added, and Tanker 10 dropped off.

It was Tanker 10  that had the 24-inch crack in a wing spar and skin, causing the FAA to issue an Emergency Airworthiness Directive in February. Dan Snyder, President of Neptune told Wildfire Today on Friday that they have decided to not repair the aircraft this year, but to put it in “ready” storage.

Air tanker contract list May 25, 2012
Air tanker contract list May 25, 2012. NICC.

Tanker 40

BAe-146 Tanker 40
Neptune's Tanker 40, a BAe-146. Photo from Neptune's web site.

Neptune’s jet-powered air tanker, a BAe-146, will go on contract tomorrow, May 26 and will work through October 5. Tanker 40 is being brought on as “additional equipment” on their existing contract. As of Friday night, there was no Resource Order for the air tanker and it was sitting at Missoula. (UPDATE 11:20 a.m. MT, May 26: A flight plan for the aircraft was filed for it to depart Missoula at 11:00 a.m on May 26. en route to Alamagordo, New Mexico, for an estimated arrival at 1:55 p.m. MT. This would put it fairly close to the Whitewater-Baldy fire. It actually took off at 11:20 a.m. UPDATE again: before it arrived at Alamagordo, it was diverted to Albuquerque, New Mexico.)

Tanker 40 is still working under “interim” approval from the Interagency Air Tanker Board. At the end of this year it will be reevaluated and considered for full approval, based on how it performed while dropping retardant, and how it interfaced with ground crews at air tanker bases. During the winter some changes were made to the aircraft to improve its performance.

In a news release dated April 21, 2012, Neptune stated that by the beginning of the 2012 fire season they expected to take delivery of two more BAe-146 air tankers, and by 2021 they will acquire nine more, for a total of 11. These would replace the nine 50+ year old military surplus P2V air tankers they are currently operating.

Neptune has recently revamped their web site, and on it we found this statement today, indicating that they revised their air tanker acquisition schedule, most likely due to the U.S. Forest Service’s dithering about the next gen contracts.

By the end of summer 2012, we will have 3 BAe-146 large airtankers. By 2016, there will be 11 modern, large airtankers. This fleet will have the capability of being dispatched to customers worldwide.

“Worldwide”. Hmmm. Which makes me think, would I want to fly a P2V to Greece? Or Australia? Thanks, but, NO! I would be surprised if anyone would, especially after several of them have been forced to make emergency landings in the last few months at Missoula and Prescott with dead engines, or landing gear that had to be manually lowered, giving airport firefighters something to do by escorting the air tankers down the runways as they landed. So these new air tankers may give Neptune Aviation a capability they previously didn’t have. Who knows… maybe some of them will end up down under during the northern hemisphere’s winter.

Minden also has two P2Vs, and is converting a BAe-146 into an air tanker — a project that has been going on for well over a year.

Minden's BAe-146 during the conversion process. Photo: Minden, used with permission

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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 “Air tanker update”

  1. Very well said Johnny! With T-44 leaving, Arizona has no heavy air tankers. Go Figure!!

  2. What was all this 3P talk of MAFF’s helping out. What is the “trigger” 1000 homes or one million acres. Is New Mexico still part of the Union? Not to be too critical but it appears that the Federal land managers have already given up on protecting lives and property on or near Federal lands. As for the DC-4,6,7, solid proven air tankers. Oregon and California still understand the cost effective value of the DC-7. Why Stead, Gov. of Nevada! Don’t worry when the 3P’s aren’t looking, off the six or seven tankers flying will depart for another 3P event maybe near you (check the newspaper). Hopefully one of the tankers as they tour the country will be in position to actually be luckey enough to be dispatched and hit a fire before it escapes. That would be news!

  3. I see today that T-44 left Arizona enroute to CA. They alreadty have T-55 and T-07 sitting in San Bernardino and all three tankers at Stead. Why???

  4. Three P2’s in Nevada? That is like the old days, Minden/Stead/Battle Mountain. Probably not for long. The Gov. of Nevada (who responded to the Topez Ranch fire) probably was somewhat concerned that the only fixed wing tankers (other an a SEAT) came from Cal Fire.

  5. Bill,

    The “Administrative Base” has nothing to do with where the airtankers are based.

    The “Administrative Base” is responsible solely for contracting and payment issues.

  6. Not that I’m biased (but I probably am since my Grandfather worked for Douglas, McDonnell-Douglas, and Boeing after WWII), the Douglas air-frames (DC4, DC6, and DC7) never had in-flight structural problems or maintenance issues.

    Somehow, they were caught up in the “age vs. airworthiness” madness in 2002-2004 time period.

    Old doesn’t necessarily mean unsafe… If that were a fact, National Fire Directors would be chosen for “youth and virility” vs. “ability and purpose”.

    Oregon and Alaska are still getting a great deal of SAFE “bang for the buck” using the older DC platforms… and the State of California (CAL FIRE) has used them CWN to supplement their S2T fleet in the fall on several occasions.

    My Grandfather retired as the VP in charge of the DC-10 production line after NOT liking the airworthiness and shortcuts taken on the DC-10 aircraft…His concerns had merit as history shows… but that is another story..


  7. Bill…

    Would this not be in the “NO Suprise” category?

    I also checked out the RAND website and there are plenty o DoD studies that are NOT protected by what the USFS wants to believe or quote as proprietary or whatever they want to blow up everyones fourth point of contact…

    Which gets back to the real issues at hand…..the overall program.

    I will hand it to all the operators putting the program in place for what it is. Also NASA ought to replace the Interagency Airtanker Board in conjunction with USAF and the FAA. This program is already screaming aviation professionals and not foresters or forestry techs…why???? Cuz I KNOW if I did not dual in forestry and aviation for my degree…….I could not put BS out there as many foresters who basically ride in aircraft and have pretty limited knowledge on the GS 2181 series and regular day to day aviation operations to begin with… say with any authority that this program with its current 11 tanker mission is going to suffice…although there are plenty out there with this belief……hope they are right

    The silliness is continuing and to call the contract process…professional… closing in on the pathetic.

    Isn’t there a RAND report due out this month, also?
    We will see how that gets derailed into a trainwreck…

    I learned the 7P’s long ago……60 plus years of USFS aviation has proved once again…..their plan is not coming together too quickly. Even the Wright Bros had more forethought, even with the bicycle factory in Dayton, OH!!!!

    They and we need George Peppard and Mr T ……..QUICK!!!

    1. nice overview, Bill.

      I keep waiting for the serious national media to pick up on what Oregon’s done with contracting with Butler since the feds grounded almost everyone and then picked them off one at a time …



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