USFS awards contracts for seven additional air tankers

Tanker 40, a BAe-146, during tests. Photo by Tronos

UPDATED at 7:39 p.m. MT, June 13, 2012

Following the President’s signing of the bill that waived the 30-day notification period for informing Congress about new air tanker contracts, the U.S. Forest Service announced they have awarded new exclusive use contracts for seven additional air tankers.

Four companies will provide three next generation airtankers in 2012 and four in 2013:

  • Neptune Aviation Services, Inc. will provide two BAe-146s in 2012;
  • Minden Air Corporation will provide one BAe-146 in 2012 and 1 BAe-146 in 2013;
  • Aero Air, LLC will provide two MD87s in 2013; and
  • Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Arizona will provide one Avro RJ85 in 2013.

The AVRO RJ85 is a variant of the 3,000-gallon BAe-146 with more efficient jet engines, produced between 1993 and 2002.

The MD-87 is a variant of the MD-80, a twin-engine jet, and as an airliner carried 114 to 139 passengers. It was produced from 1987 to 1992 and cruises at about 500 mph, similar to the BAe-146. There are estimates that the MD-87 will carry 4,000 gallons of retardant, but that is not confirmed.

Neptune and Minden previously held the only exclusive use contracts this year for large air tankers. Neptune now has seven P2Vs and one BAe-146 under contract, and Minden has two P2Vs, however one of Minden’s P2V’s was damaged June 3 when the the landing gear failed to fully extend while landing. On the same day, two pilots were killed when one of Neptune’s P2Vs crashed in Utah. Neptune’s Tanker 40, the only BAe-146 presently working as an air tanker, began service in the fall of 2011 and is still under interim approval from the Interagency Air Tanker Board.

Minden has been working on converting a BAe-146 into an air tanker for quite some time, and in January they expected to begin “running water through it”. As far as we know they have not started the drop tests administered by the Interagency Air Tanker Board which are required before it can be fully certified. Minden’s version has a gravity tank, while the Tronos/Neptune design uses gravity aided by positive air pressure in the cabin of the aircraft to help push the retardant out of four nozzles.

Neptune leases their existing BAe-146 from Tronos, a Canadian company, and has said they plan to eventually replace all of their P2Vs with the quad-jet BAe-146s.

Conspicuously absent from the list of new contracts were the Very Large Air Tankers, the DC-10 and 747.

Below are the descriptions of the MD-87 and the BAe-146 from the January, 2012 U.S. Forest Service Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy. (Note: I don’t know where the USFS got the “380 mph” speeds for these two aircraft. This differs from Wikipedia, and also the real world. Even if they meant knots, they are still wrong. On June 11 Tanker 40 cruised at 492 mph and 25,000 feet on a short 37-minute hop from Winslow, AZ to Albuquerque, NM. This 112+ mph error for both aircraft is not insignificant and calls into question some of the other data in the report.)


MD-87 (Boeing). This aircraft is no longer in production and would only be available as previously-used. This aircraft has a speed of 380 mph; carries approximately 4,000 gallons of retardant; has 2 turbo fan engines; and was designed for commercial passenger transport, a mission that is not comparable to the maneuver load impacts of an airtanker in the wildland firefighting environment. Original manufacturer support for this aircraft has not yet been obtained. This aircraft has not gone through the required testing, evaluation and application phase for the airtanker mission, but it would be expected to meet agency and FAA airworthiness and safety requirements. The MD-87 will not be capable of multi-role missions.


BaE-146 (British Aerospace). This aircraft is no longer in production and would only be available as previously-used. This aircraft has a speed of 380 mph; carries 3,000 gallons of retardant; has 4 turbo- fan engines; is supported by the original manufacturer; and was designed for commercial passenger transport, a mission that is not comparable to the maneuver load impacts of an airtanker in the wildland firefighting environment. It has been evaluated for the airtanker mission and one variant recently passed the required retardant drop tests to perform as an airtanker; and has met agency and FAA airworthiness and safety requirements. It has been approved by the Forest Service as an airtanker. The BAe-146 will not be capable of multi-role missions. One BAe-146 airtanker (T-40) is currently on the existing airtanker contract.

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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. Google+

50 thoughts on “USFS awards contracts for seven additional air tankers”

  1. Thanks, Bill! I was confident that you’d be able to get to the truth behind that rumor. But you don’t state your source for this information- where did you get your facts?

  2. Hey Bill a quick question for you. It was my understanding that all of the next gen air tankers are required to fit in to the current tanker bases I know for a fact that an MD-87 will not fit in to some bases here in California such as Fox and Ramona. Could you please clarify that requirement?

  3. Conspicuously absent from next year’s available tankers: 10 tanker…
    Hope this doesn’t bite the USfS in the butt.

  4. So, pretty much everybody who applied got a contract. Even those with planes that exist in concept only and those who have been flying almost a year but have yet to receive full approval in their role.
    The exception, as Nate mentioned, is Coulson, who applied with a Last-Gen airtanker without the stipulated OEM support. Seriously, what did they expect?
    I have some thoughts as to which of the options will perform best and which will offer little improvement to existing types.

    No Q-400s? The best option of the bunch is conspicuously absent. I guess Cost trumps Effectiveness.

    1. It seems a bit risky to go with an entire fleet of jets. Also sad that Coulsons C-130 a proven airtanker and certerfied tanking system and most cost efficient with gallons delieverd got the boot.

  5. He dc-10 or the evergreen 747 could fly today if the money was there. The DC-10 helped stop a new fire in Az and dropped on NM in the same day. If the 10 had a contract it would give us two aircraft on stand by
    With two crews hired for the stand by time. Evergreen has spent 50 M to make the 747 work and has never had a chance to see if it works? They say they can fly into a airport and set up with limited support on the ground, saw an air force base that can handle the aircraft. It would be nice to give them a chance for at least one season.

  6. Disappointed….To be honest, I hope it does “bite the USfS in the butt” The folks I really feel sorry for are those who will lose their property, homes, God Forbid; their lives: wondering why that “DC-10” is not coming to help them……..they will not even know that it is no longer in service because the average joe public has no clue about what the FS is doing to the Air Tanker Fleet!

    1. Rebel – I’d normally agree with your comments about “those who will lose their prorerty, homes …” except that today I was out and about in the area around Lake Almanor in northern Cal and saw some incredible WUI where it appeared that absolutely nothing had been done to implement “FireWise” concepts. Where and when do we as US taxpayers draw the line and tell these folks not to expect the Feds to provide crews, engines and yes, even aircraft, to protect them when they bury their heads in the sand/volcanic dust and refuse to make even minimal efforts to help insure their own safety?

  7. Rileymon you would have to ask them I guess. I wish I had all the answers but alas I do not. Just thinking about the folks, the average joe public who don’t know all that goes on behind the scenes and who have to endure a tragedy such as a wildfire wiping out everything they have. That is on my mind tonight. I’m sad.

  8. its a pure shame that a (VLAT) very large airtanker as the 10 ten tanker air carrier can not get a contract. this DC-10 has flown on over 340 missions and has a proven track record of pure success. i have witnessed both DC-10’S in action on the same day on numerous occassions fighting enormous wild fires in southern calif. this aircraft is a proven asset and a gods blessing to have at a moments notice. instead of being airborne in 30mins or less now its a 24hr call back.a raging wildfire can turn everyone’s world upside down in 23 1/2 hrs. somebody up in DC, better wake up before its to late.

  9. The problem I see with the DC-10 is the size. It works great if you have access to a large tanker base, I’m pretty sure that the DC-10 can’t operate out of the Prescott or Winslow tanker bases in Arizona, only out of Mesa Gateway / Willie.

    The DHC-8 was probably the best option, but I don’t know what’s the airframe cost or the delivery times. However, there are enough Quadrapuffs (BAe-146/Avro RJ) and MD-87s for this. I don’t know the numbers of the QP’s, but I do know that there are several MD-87s listed as stored that are former Spanair and SAS birds, there are pictures of them in Kingman, and I do know that at least one plane was still in Kingman a month ago.

    The MD-87 is not a very desirable airframe for airline operations, and I’m sure that more airframes will be available eventually (as if there weren’t enough).

    The BAe-146 is significantly better, but I do expect the planes to be eventually replaced with more efficient planes and there will also be airframes available for this.

  10. I think all will be surprized on how long the STC process is going to be for the next gen tankers that have not even flown. The process is not like it used to be. Just ask 10 Tanker or Evergreen. Expect 2 years min and a whole lot more money than they think. The VLATs should be given their own contract and now…

  11. What is the difference for 2013 compared to 2012’s failed Fed air program? Seven (maybe) new generation of unproven air tankers. What happens when those “cracks” start to appear. Isn’t the next generation all the same aircraft? Seventy-five SEATs on CWN where are those guys? (Just 3 P) In the Winter of 1980 while working on a masters degree a fire/aviation student at the National Fire Academy / University of Maryland authored two papers (reports) that where accepted and published. Use of Agricultural Aircraft for Fast Response to Wildfires and Jumbo Jets for protecting the WUI. Amazon carried both publications in their inventory for several decades. Some of the answers have always been there.

  12. Hi guys coulson isn’t the only company to get the shaft. More importantly we should not focus on the next gen aircrafts but the Jeremy ones we have flying now. Appanrently no one realizes or is talking about most of the p-2s will be downed next year for high time on there airframes. There continued airworthiness program has them down after this season. So maybe they should of awarded a few more contracts than 7? By the way the reason the Dc-10 and the 747 can’t get a contract is because they cost so much money to operate. Not just a little bit more but millions more!

      1. Anyone who thinks that the costs for VLATs is not a part of the problem for their IA use are kidding themselves.

        I wonder if the VLAT folks would consider doing what the “Type 1 Helitanker” folks did when they initially introduced their platforms for IA?

        Essentially, they provided the AC without a daily availability (or with a marginal availability) charge at numerous bases, but only charged for actual flight hours and use.

        After the value and need was understood on the ground by firefighters and fire managers, they then quickly became a needed national resource.

        It was a big gamble for them, but eventually the IA Type 1 helicopter got accepted… and got contracts… even with such places as L.A. County Fire Department (LACoFD) and Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD).

        Something to consider… especially in a busy IA year.

        1. Ken – that touches on something I was wondering. Are IC’s requesting VLAT’s? Do THEY want them? I know a lot of self-proclaimed experts, and a lot of civilians want them because they look impressive, but are the IC’s who are ordering resources asking for them and getting UTF’d? Or does the USFS look at the history, see that no one is asking for them, and therefore see no reason to spend the big bucks to put them on contract? If no one is going to request a resource, there’s no reason to spend the megabucks to contract them, but if there’s a need/desire among those who would order them up, then they should be available.

  13. Just like Gary says

    It is going to take some time for the STC (Supplemental Type Certificate) to accomodate going from an airliner series to an airtanker. Mr Snyder will able to this BUT it ought to take 6 months with NASA help to REALLY ascertain drop patterns by the IATB.. That process by it self does not truly represent the true operating environment.. IATB MIGHT think so but the fire weather environment does not have cups in the field to “measure'” to reflect how much retardant fills cup….there are way too many wind variables and speed variables that it sure seems silly for the IATB to “certify” an aircraft for a period longer than a year.

    That bill ought to be on the LMA’s not on the operator. The USFS wants these requirements?? then PAY for the jet fuel to get your “studies” accomplished and pronto!

    Also… is the 310-1 going reflect more current skills needed than DIVS for the ATGS operating environment? It had better….’cuz things are going to happen faster with arrival times with JEEEET aircraft that most DIVS skills have currently, that will need to reflect MORE CURRENT skills in the FTA other than DIVS.

    That needs to be corrected also in the training program.
    But there will be hardliners that won’t believe that at all!!

  14. Air Tanker 911, a DC-10, has been dropping retardant on the High Park fire just west of Fort Collins, US for the last couple of days. The same aircraft has been dropping retardant on fires in New Mexico and Arizona this month as well.

    This website has photos of it dropping retardant on the Wallow fire near Greer, Arizona on June 11, 2012:

    I live in Grand Junction, Colorado (near the Utah border), and today I saw a Convair 580 (one of three just loaned from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre) flying over my house. Another two CV-580s were recently transferred from Alaska.

    1. To Jon A,

      Not sure where you’re getting your info, but it’s pretty much all incorrect.

      The DC-10 has not been on the High Park fire at all.

      There have been four, not three, CV-580s transferred to the US by CIFFC: two from Saskatchewan (In Boise – maybe GJ by now?) and two from BC (at Jeffco). There is a fifth Convair at Jeffco. It’s a spare aircraft for three agencies (AK, AB, BC), and it was sent down on a spare AK state contract.

      AK contracts two CV-580s and they remain in Alaska. They will certainly head south once the northern fire season is wrapping up.

  15. Bill,

    This is a cheap plug for a historical wildfire site that many of us are developing / contributing to, but I thought folks would appreciate some history about when “the airtanker became a practical working tool”. Post or not. We all appreciate WildfireToday.Com.

    As the season develops and expands (and we have OT), we will have the following videos converted and paid for by our volunteer contributors:

    1.) Smoke-Jumpers, 1965 (11 min’s)
    2.) Air Tanker Attack, 1960 (unknown min’s)
    3.) Fire Weather, 1964 (28 min’s)
    4.) Fire vs. Fire, 1966 (26 min’s)
    5.) California Fire Disaster, 1970 (35 min’s)
    6.) Introduction to Fire Behavior, 1960 (16 min’s)
    7.) The Marble-Cone Fire, Los Padres NF, 1977 (25 min’s)
    8.) Red Flag Fire Alert, 1976 (18 min’s)
    9.) Soldiers of Fire, 1970 (12 min’s)
    10.) Fire Scenes at San Bernardino, 1958 (10 min’s)

    Sorry for the attempted shameless plug. We hate to keep paying for the preservation of these videos from the National Archives without folks watching them and learning from the past.

  16. Would someone who understands this crap explain to a groundpounder why we are screwing with these airliners that are made to fly high and fast and not developing or enhanceing C-130s and C-141s which were made to fly low and slow.I watched a DC-10 on the Magnolia fire north of Houston last year and the damn thing dropped so high it was almost useless.And that was on flat ground! give me 3,000 low and slow where I need it not 10,000 all over everywhere

    1. The DC-10’s drop speed is only ten to 15 KTS higher than a P-2V in most cases. We were told to drop higher than normal on some targets of the Magnolia fire due to the fact that we couldn’t communicate with the ground for line clearance. I’m curious if the Magnolia fire was the only time you witnessed a DC-10 drop.

      1. It was, I would not suggest that a vlat is a bad idea only that if we can’t have everything I would rather see several C130s built from the ground up than one giant that has more limited versitility. Just can’t see a DC-10 coming down a side canyon off Lake Chelan

        1. The DC-10 has successfully made drops on the steepest vegetated slopes in the US (San Gabriel Mts. in Southern California)… The fact that “we could have 40 C-130’s” is beside the point. We don’t. The company produced an airtanker that passed all of the FAA and ATB tests. Last I checked, the BAE 146 has not…. Yet it’s on contract. Throw that on top of the fact that we ordered foreign tankers before mobilizing a “contracted” American tanker….. IT IS PRETTY FREAKING PATHETIC THE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA NEEDS THE HELP OF OTHER NATIONS TO FIGHT FIRE @ PL 3…..
          Canadian tankers: 5. US Tankers: 8???. Glad they are here, and they are doing a great job….. However, I don’t think ANYONE should be questioning the VLAT’s ability or cost, at this point. Instead they should be glad that we have, quite frankly, anything at all given the astonishingly, mindbogglingly pathetic job the USFS has done with the LAT’s lately.

  17. Yesterday on the Kaibab (Grand) two seats and the DC-10 made the initial attack on a fire with a rapid rate of spread. Two T3 helicopters were also on the fire. Tanker 911 made two sorties. Fire spread stopped at 481 acres as the sun set. That is how it is done! Cost, millions of dollars in suppression saving.

  18. Regardless if it is an “airliner” or ag plane, a retardant drop is nothing more than a approach to land with a go-around. The real heros in aerial fire fighting usually on large fires are the F.S./B.L.M. lead pilots. They set the stage for the drop. Once connected the radio chatter is constant, airspeed, altitude management, discussing the flight path, what to anticipate for turbulance on final(add a few knots if its really rough) target identification, coverage level, duration of door opening, into the smoke CLIMB (DC-10 and P3’s) are like rocket ships. Break left or right for the escape. Look for burning embers on the flight deck (outside ram air) load and return. As you follow the lead always have him/her insight centered in the windscreen. In doing this usually the tanker will be slightly below the lead do to the angle of attack of the tanker. If a drop seemed high it was what the “director” wanted.

    1. Nothing but an approach to landing with a go-around?


      Except for the fact that…

      There is no runway.
      Your not in the airport environment.
      No vertical guidance.
      The airplane is configured differently than for a landing.
      Your not stabilized by 500 feet. (standard for airline operations)
      There is a huge change in weight / CG.
      Most likely a higher density altitude than most airports.
      The pilots have probably never made an approach to land on that ridge before.
      Turbulent wind conditions.
      Smoke / reduced visibility.

      Shall I continue? I could go on all day.

      O, and should I mention that takeoff and landing is by far the most dangerous segment of the flight under normal operations?

  19. If any lead pilot thinks he/she is a hero, they need another job. Nobody wears a cape in this business and the hero mentality is often more hazardous than the job itself.

  20. The 10 made 3 drops on the Poco fire yesterday and is in their first run of the day today on the same fire…

  21. OUCH! People are thinking, that is very good. The answer for protecting our national resources and taxpayers lives and property is; DON’T count on the goverment or any fire agency to save you. Do your “homework”, clear your property for fire, install a water system for fire, think what if???
    As we all hate goverment growth, this country needs to have an National Aerial Fire Fighting Agency (N.A.F.A.) to plan execute and administer a wildfire aviation agency that will not cost the taxpayers money but save billion of dollars. This agency should and will reduce personnal suffering and save lives, protect property and resources. The retired experts (yes even some tanker pilots) are out there. This is what Congress should set sail with at full speed. As for lead plane folks, that is my just my humble opinion. No more no less.

    1. Johnny Coldwater, the last thing we need if we despise government growth is to create a new layer of bureaucracy in the form of some NAFA concept. With the patchwork nature of land management in the US (it’s not going to change), we are stuck with the existing system – as hopelessly inept as it is.

  22. “a retardant drop is nothing more than a approach to land with a go-around.”
    What kind of BS is that!
    whoever says that or think that has obviously no idea about this flying mission and didn’t look recently at the long list of pilots who didn’t return…

    – surprizing that the MD87 or RJ85 haven’t flown yet but got awarded a contract.
    – USFS didn’t push for a Dash8 Q400 demo, why?
    – Coulson C130/Rads is reopening the door for a top LAT; the Herc’! but not considered by USFS. Unfair and not smart.

    1. It’s not uncommon for an untested product to receive a contract before actually existing; isn’t this pretty much how every new airplane type – civilian and military – is procured? Boeing or Airbus states they can build and deliver a shiny new plane and hey presto, they receive hundreds of orders based upon a paper (OK, computer) drawing. It’s no different in the airtanker world.
      I have my concerns about the feasibility of the MD87 but can’t pooh-pooh it until it’s had a chance to prove itself. The “Aeroflite” concept on the RJ is proven already on the Q400. No reason why it won’t work well.
      I question also why the Q400 wasn’t awarded a contract (price of each unit?) and why the Neptune BAe146 was, considering the negative feedback on the quality of the retardant pattern on the ground.
      One can merely wonder.

    1. One of the successful proponents. The company bid at least two aircraft types. Sorry, as I don’t speak for the company nor am familiar with explicit details of the bid, I won’t say more. It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out though.

  23. Airline, cargo and maritime patrol airframes are simply not built to spend extended time in heavy low level turbulence. So you have to make high drops or have the wings fall off. Sadly, we’ve seen lots of that.

    The low level WWII bombers had the strength; so do the various modern ground attack fighter/bombers which are seriously short in water capacity and seriously steep in price.

    About the only available fixed wing aircraft that can take the stresses are agricultural turboprops.

    Congress / Forest Service is far, far too cheap / cash starved to commission the design of twin turboprop tankers.

    The Russians do have some designs. They usually overdesign their structures and make them simple to maintain. We don’t hear of many structural failures in Russian civil aviation; mind you, they have lots of other problems.

  24. July 6 2012 There are 46 Single Engine Tankers available, 41 802’s, 4 M18’s and 1 Thrush, some are on state exclusive use contracts. There are not 75 on Fed. CWN

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