Does the DC-10 air tanker deliver retardant at a lower cost than a BAe-146?

DC-10 air tanker cost per gallon to deliver retardant

One of the likely reasons that the US Forest Service refuses to offer an exclusive use contract for a Very Large Air Tanker such as Evergreen’s 747 or 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 is the agency assumes they cost more than smaller “large” air tankers like the P2V or BAe-146 that have a capacity of 2,200 to 3,000 gallons. Rick Hatton, the president of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, is attempting to change that perception. The company has a very popular page on Facebook that has accumulated over 9,000 “likes”. Today they posted an infographic claiming their two DC-10s can deliver retardant at less than half the cost of a BAe-146; about $4 a gallon for a DC-10 versus about $8 a gallon for a BAe-146. These prices do not include the cost of the retardant itself, just the costs for getting the retardant to the fire. In September, 2010, the price of retardant on the Fourmile Fire near Denver was $1.97 a gallon.

DC-10 air tanker cost per gallon to deliver retardant
DC-10 air tanker cost per gallon to deliver retardant. Credit: 10 Tanker Air Carrier. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)

There are many costs and variables that go into calculating the cost per gallon for delivering retardant, including daily availability rate for the air tanker, hourly rate, fuel costs, turnaround time for each aircraft, and retardant capacity of the air tanker.

Mr. Hatton told Wildfire Today that for their calculations they assumed a one hour turnaround time (very quick for a DC-10 which has to wait while 11,600 gallons of retardant are transferred into its tanks), a typical fuel burn, contract prices for fuel, both aircraft were on exclusive use contracts, and at least 11,600 gallons were delivered.

The most important variables are the daily and hourly rates for the air tanker. We asked Mr. Hatton what the rates are for his DC-10s and he did not answer. So it is impossible to verify his conclusions without knowing the costs for both aircraft.

According to the Billings Gazette, in 2012, the 50-year-old P2V air tankers, which can carry about 2,200 gallons, have an average daily availability rate of $10,000, plus an hourly flight rate of $5,750. The BAe-146 jets with a 3,000-gallon capacity have a daily availability rate of $23,500 and an hourly flight rate of $9,520.

On the Fourmile Canyon fire west of Boulder, Colorado in September, 2010, the cost of delivered retardant by large air tankers on the fire, P2Vs and P3s, was $3.55 per gallon. This included the cost of the retardant which was $1.97/gallon. So the cost of just the delivery of the retardant was $1.58 per gallon.

The round-trip time for each air tanker to drop, reload, and drop again on the Fourmile fire was 0.55 hour. This is extremely quick and is due to the fact that the air tankers were reloading at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near Boulder, Jeffco air tanker base, about 15 air miles from the fire. This helped keep the cost per gallon of delivered retardant lower than on your typical fire, which is normally much more than 15 miles away from the reload base. Usually an air tanker spends at least 15-20 minutes on the ground, which includes landing, taxiing, refilling with retardant, taxiing again, and takeoff. If they have to refuel, it takes much longer. If as in Mr. Hatton’s calculations you assume a 1 hour turnaround time, it would have added approximately $1 a gallon to the costs on the Fourmile Canyon fire.

I am not saying that the cost of a delivered gallon of retardant is the most important factor in awarding or not awarding an exclusive use contract for an air tanker. You should also consider the age, safety, and dependability of the aircraft, as well as the exposure to risk –how many hours will be spent in the air flying low and slow over mountainous terrain in turbulent and smoky conditions. And, how many gallons can be delivered in a given length of time, to help achieve, working with firefighters on the ground, fast, aggressive initial attack on new fires with overwhelming force.

As William Scott said in his talk about wildfire arson and economic terrorism, the land management agencies “suffer from a culture and attitude of what firefighters call ‘cheapism’, the idea that we can fight wildland fire on the cheap. And that’s no longer acceptable.”

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+

16 thoughts on “Does the DC-10 air tanker deliver retardant at a lower cost than a BAe-146?”

  1. I think we should encourage ‘cheap’. I think if there were zero suppression efforts on the trinity ridge fire and mustang complex we would have saved approximately 70 million bucks, and the fire size would be the same it is today. If folks chose to build in the woods, it shouldn’t be the governments responsibility to save the homes while carrying the financial burden and risking the lives of firefighters. Houses can be rebuilt.

    The availability rate is the major missing figure here. They make lots of money siting on the Tarmac. It is without a doubt the most expensive tool in the toolbox. An hour turn around time is the best case scenario for this bird. A small plane like a cl 415 will outperform every aircraft in terms of gallons delivered in nearly every distance scenario in the lower 48 which is part of the reason they made so much sense to rand…..too bad they are built in Canada.

  2. I don’t think the DC10 is the ultimate initial attack tool
    as sometimes small and close to the fire is better. But i do think it is useful for many reasons…
    We are paying for no tanker in La Grande right now..

  3. NIFC published the 2012 Airtanker/Firefighting Aircraft Fact Sheet that lists the DC-10 daily available rate at about $50,000 plus a flight hour rate of $22,000 on the CWN contract.

    Unknown is what the daily availability rate would be on an exclusive contract for a set period compared to the current CWN contract.

    A summary table of the Next Gen Airtanker Award pricing for Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero-Flite aircraft is available here…

  4. A more useful analysis would be whether the policies and systems used for initial attack are the most efficient and effective means for early control of a fire.

    The total cost of service delivery including aircraft, ground infrastructure and retardant and suppressant must be in the equation as well as the tactical application of aircraft.

    This analysis is way too simple for jurisdictions to make a meaningful cost analysis of efficiency of application of an aircraft.

  5. I remember Cal Fire did a study and it was very favorable to the Dc 10 cost on exclusive basis. The fill rate for all aircraft is really the same. Same fill hoses, pumps etc.The plumbing is the same. In reality it might be less in the VLATS. Hooking up and unhooking hoses once vs 5 or even 20 times plus taxi time takes a lot of time. Tankers that take less gallons take less time to fill but then again they are taking less gallons. Is it cheaper to have a semi carry the load or a bunch of pickup trucks? It probably depends on how much needs to be moved.
    I can also see that the risk numbers really go up with the number of trips. What is that worth?
    In many cases less trips also means the need for overlap of costly retardant or chances of a gap in the line. I think these planes can do a lot more than people think and should be in the tool box at a cheaper exclusive rate instead of on the edge of extinction.
    Its not a apples to apples comparison to use the CWN VLAT price vs a LAT EXCLUSIVE price.

  6. Agree, comparing a CWN contract and an EXCLUSIVE isn’t apples to apples. I guess for the calculations 10 TAC did to make the graphic they were comparing costs as if both were on EXCLUSIVE contracts. Who knows what those numbers are.

    One thing about the turn times- an hour probably isn’t realistic given the limited reload bases for the 10. But on the other hand, which other aircraft can load from a base and fly 3 hours to drop that many gallons, even if it is just once that day?? If no air tankers are available for that fire, the 10 can fill the need from a long ways away.

    As most have said, they are tools in the tool box. I think it’s been shown that the limitations many thought the aircraft would have don’t exists. It’s capable. Finding the right places to use it most effectively and economically is what needs to be done next.

  7. CalFire didn’t blunder its way into using the DC-10. The decision to use the DC-10 on exclusive use (immediate need) was based on containing evolving new fires before they cost tens of millions to suppress, cause loss of life and property. Numerous studies that have been conducted by Cal Fire. These reports reflects that the DC-10 when used (before the barn burns down) is a cost effective aviation assest. That Simple! Cal Fire is one of the largest and IS the most diverse all risk fire departments in the world. Established in 1885, delivering water enhanced chemicals on wildland fires since about 1954, you would think that Cal Fire has a pretty good idea on what works (quick I.A. S-2 & DC-10) and what doesn’t (MAFFS.) If you are concerned about cost to the taxpayer look at the cost per gallon delivered by MAFFS.

  8. I think we all forget that LAT’s are suppoosed to be for intial attack. If we had 20-30 of them there would be no need for the DC 10s with limited availability to air tanker bases.

  9. Per-gallon delivery is just one part of the equation. Retardant that doesn’t go where it’s needed at the right time isn’t worth anything. I’m retired, out of the game, and have never worked with any of the jet-engined LATs, but it’s hard for me to imagine that they have the maneuverability required to get down into tight spaces on short flanks and put in the lines needed for initial attack fires.

    But the public sure likes to see them on fires that have already gone over the hill. The days may be gone where there are numerous prop-driven LATs scattered all over that can get to fires while they’re still small and effectively box them in quickly.

    I guess that was just another ‘good ol’ days’ rant.

  10. Since when has there only been just 1 or even 2 drops only used on a IA. So you only need about 2000 gallons. Ive seen the DC10 use its whole around a fire on IA. One flight used on the fire. Done. Not saying the DC-10 replaces everything. Please dont think it can not ever be used for IA. Seen it in IA action in TX, WY, ID, n CA. In Tx went to fire, got diverted for an IA. Boxed n fire still had 6000 gallons left n went to its original fire that it was assigned too.

  11. I have mentioned in the past on these pages that my aviation guru (40 years experience) says the DC 9 is a far superior platform as an air tanker than the BAe 146. The DC 9 engines are bomb proof, the air frame is excellent and parts are readily available.

    It would be interesting to see someone run the BAe 146 numbers against a theoretical DC 9 tanker.

  12. If the MD-87’s that were contracted for next year get completed, you’ll have a reasonable comparison. The MD-87 is based off the DC-9 design.

  13. Just would like to see how full proof those engines are if retardant gets sucked in them. Since those engines are in the back. From what ive heard, the jettison ports are in front of the wing on the bottom of the fuselage

  14. The answer is …”Toolbox concept”;
    IA(Initial Attack) is the best tactic but in EA (Extended Attack) phase you need to build Reatardant lines. That’s where larger Tankers have an advantage.

    The 2 DC10’s have been used because the LAT (large air tanker) fleet is reduced to a minimum. Good timing…
    With 50 Large Air Tankers(2500-3000 Gallons) running around the West for IA and EA, not sure the VLAT’s would be used as much though…
    Still, DC10’s can build long retardant lines which helps other Tankers to be back at Base, available for IA or fill gaps.

    Scoopers; sure, there’s a need for it. Just another tool in the Tool Box.
    But they drop water so same role as Helicopters.

  15. 11,000 gallons at $2 per gallon is $42,000 per load. Time and time again I have seen them drop from too high in rugged terrain with the entire load ($42k) drift into the black or just turn to sprinkles in the wind. That does not include the flight time cost. While it may work for some fires in certain terrain and wind conditions, when a load does not go where intended, it is a waste of money ten times greater than when the same thing happens to an S2.

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