A P3 Orion air tanker is being resurrected

It may be airworthy again by the end of this year.

Above: Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field May 17, 2017. Airstrike photo.

(Originally published at FireAviation.com August 8, 2017)

Another one of the P3 Orion air tankers formerly operated by Aero Union has been sold. Tanker 23, N923AU, was purchased by Airstrike Firefighters LLC, a new company with Aero Union roots that was incorporated September 1, 2016. One of the founders of the company is Bill Douglas who is serving as the President. He told us that he worked for Aero Union from 2005 until 2009 where he was an investor and the CFO.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field July 11, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento where they are concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program. Before acquiring the aircraft Mr. Douglas consulted with Avenger Engineering, a company that has had a hand in the development, design, and maintenance of many water and retardant delivery systems and type certificates for firefighting aircraft including the P3. One of their goals is to complete all of the work and inspections that the U.S. Forest Service and the Interagency AirTanker Board requires for contracted air tankers.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23’s retardant tank at McClellan Air Field July 24, 2017. Airstrike photo.

Mr. Douglas expects Tanker 23 will be physically ready to fight fires by early to mid-fall of this year. Then, of course, the aircraft and pilots will need to be inspected and carded and it will need a contract. Even though it will have the same constant flow 3,000-gallon RADS II retardant delivery system that it used for years and is the gold standard for air tankers, Airstrike is not sure if it will be required to retake the grid test. Like the owners of the 747 SuperTanker found out, even though the system had been approved before, some of the standards and test procedures have changed in recent years which meant the 747 had to repeat some of the tests or take new ones only recently developed.

P3 Orion air tanker
Tanker 23 at McClellan Air Field. Airstrike photo.

In late 2013 the eight Aero Union P3 airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company’s financial problems.

Of the eight P3’s UAC acquired, one was sold to Buffalo Airways, T-20 is in Tucson and may or may not be scrapped, T-21 is also in Tucson and is designated as scrapped, and Airstrike bought one, leaving UAC with an inventory of five. Mr. Douglas said he is in discussions with UAC about the possibility of purchasing the remaining fleet.

Tanker 20 at Tucson March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.
T-21 at AMARG in Tucson, March 5, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

At the time of the Aero Union bankruptcy Tanker 20 was in Canada in the middle of heavy maintenance, partially disassembled. Then when the company lost their USFS contract in 2011 and later went bankrupt, that process stopped and it sat there for a while until UAC had it shipped on a truck as a wide load from Halifax to Tucson. There has been talk about converting it to a simulator.

We have reached out to Buffalo Airways a few times since they bought their P3 in 2014, but owner Joe McBryan, the “Ice Pilot” reality show star, has not been willing to disclose to us the status of Tanker 22.

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan (right) of Buffalo Airways, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base March 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The P3’s that are now owned by UAC were manufactured between 1962 and 1965 and have less than 20,000 hours, according to Bradford Beck, the President and COO of the company.

Air Spray hires former Aero Union employees

As Wildfire Today told you on October 2, a Canadian company, Air Spray, has opened a facility in Chico, California which will be used for converting air liners into air tankers. They have already acquired a used BAe-146 and intend to convert it into a next-generation air tanker.

The Chico ER reports that Air Spray has hired eight former employees of Aero Union, a California-based company that went out of business after the U.S. Forest Service cancelled their contract for supplying eight P-3 air tankers, citing safety concerns.

Not only is Air Spray employing former Aero Union workers, but they have leased from the city of Chico one of the hangars formerly occupied by Aero Union.

Air Spray Aviation Services operates Lockheed L-188 Electra “Longliner” air tankers and Turbo Commander 690 “Bird Dog” aircraft in Canada. When they complete the BAe-146 conversion in Chico, they expect to begin other conversions at the facilty.


Thanks go out to Brian

Aero Union says P-3 air tankers could be available in 4 to 6 weeks, if requested

Aero Union's P-3s at McClellan
Aero Union’s P-3s at McClellan. Aero Union photo

Four employees of Aero Union contacted Wildfire Today and followed up with a letter, saying the company still exists, in spite of the attempt to sell their assets in a February auction. The air tankers and the items related to the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) did not sell in the auction. Aero Union still controls the assets and they have not been turned over to a bank, according to Thomas F. Dooney, the Chief Financial Officer, who called us and signed the letter along with Leigh Ann Ackermann (Director of Operations), and two Co-Directors of Maintenance, Jerry Edwards and Mike Prunty.

CNN did a story on the state of the air tanker fleet (below) and pointed out that the Aero Union P-3 air tankers meet the FAA standards but “sit idle because they don’t meet US Forest Service requirements”.

The Forest Service cancelled the contract for the company’s eight P-3 air tankers saying that the company did not meet the safety standards which were specified in the contract. The USFS requires a Continued Airworthiness Program be followed for the air tankers they have under contract, all of which are at least 20 to 50 years old. The last P-3s were produced in 1990, and 8 of the 9 large air tankers remaining under exclusive use contracts are P2Vs that were built in the 1950s.

The employees that contacted us said the USFS has recently indicated a willingness to consider the P-3 under a “legacy contract” in 2013, for older, not “next generation” aircraft. The four of them said some of the eight Aero Union P-3s could be flying over fires in 4 to 6 weeks if they had a contract with the USFS. In order for that to happen some financial issues would have to be resolved and maintenance would have to be done on some of the aircraft. Seven of them are sitting at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, and one was in the middle of major maintenance when the contract dispute occurred and is still torn down.

However, the P-3 appears to meet the USFS specifications for their next generation air tankers, which require turbine engines, a cruise speed of 300 knots, and a 3,000-gallon capacity.


With Aero Union gone, what is the future of the MAFFS?

MAFFS 5 Peterson AFB Colorado, 9-9-2011
File photo of a MAFFS II unit being loaded into a C-130 at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, September 9, 2011. Air Force Reserve photo.

The military C-130 air tanker that crashed in South Dakota Sunday, killing four and injuring two crewmembers, was carrying one of the nine Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems II (MAFFS II) that exist. The MAFFS II hold 3,000 gallons of fire retardant which is pumped out the left side paratroop door using compressed air generated by an air compressor built into the system. The U.S. Forest Service had these and the eight first generation MAFFS built by a contractor, Aero Union, which had been converting aircraft into air tankers for decades.

But after the USFS cancelled their contract for the company’s eight P3 air tankers over a safety inspection issue, Aero Union closed their doors, laid off their employees, and a bank took over their assets, including the aircraft and everything related to manufacturing the MAFFS. The bank attempted to sell them at an auction in February, but the aircraft and the MAFFS items were not bought.

The MAFFS units are very specialized, complex systems. Without Aero Union around to provide repairs and parts, now there is a question about how to maintain and repair the systems.

Mead Gruver, a reporter for the Associated Press working out of Cheyenne, Wyoming, has been closely following what I am calling the Air Tanker Crisis and the management of what is left of the air tanker fleet, down to nine full time large air tankers after being cut by 80 percent since 2002. Here is an excerpt from an article he wrote today about the MAFFS:

…Forest Service officials insist the system is and will remain viable for years to come.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has contracted technicians in California, Wyoming and Idaho to maintain the MAFFS. An in-house engineer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, can help troubleshoot any bugs, Fisher said.

“In any new system you’re going to have some issues come up, and we’ve been able to work through them,” [Scott Fisher, MAFFS coordinator for the Forest Service] said.

Aero Union’s last chief executive, Britt Gourley of Seattle, declined to comment on the system’s continued viability.

“I may have my personal opinions, but I keep them to myself. I don’t know. I wish the Forest Service well and wish all the folks involved well,” Gourley said.


Thanks go out to Chris and Al

Senators ask for GAO evaluation of USFS air tanker strategy

On March 25 I sent emails to four Senators, one congresswoman, and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. I took advantage of my right, and my responsibility, as a citizen to express my opinion on the pitiful state of our air tanker fleet. And I was not shy, which will not surprise the regular readers of Wildfire Today, about providing my analysis of how we got to this point, with the fleet only a shell of what it was 10 years ago, reduced by 75 percent. The land management agencies, and especially the U.S. Forest Service, own this debacle.

In addition to the Senate committee, which holds regular hearings in which wildfire issues are discussed, the recipients of my letters included Senators Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski.

It is probably a coincidence, but on March 27 and 28 numerous media outlets ran stories saying that four senators sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking the agency to review “the nation’s depleted fleet of firefighting aircraft and the remedies needed in the face of increasingly severe fire seasons.”

The senators that signed the letter were Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

If there are going to be any significant improvements in the air tanker fleet, it will have to be a political solution. The land management agencies, and especially the U.S. Forest Service, have proven that their strategy is “sit on our hands and make no tough decisions”.

If you have an opinion on this issue, let your senators and representatives know.

Here are some excerpts from the Associated Press article that appeared in newspapers and web sites around the country.

A group of Western senators says the U.S. Forest Service may not be moving quickly enough to build up and replace the fleet of aging planes that drop fire retardant on wildfires.

The senators asked the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday to evaluate whether the Forest Service has done a good job of analyzing the types and numbers of aircraft needed, the cheapest way to get them, new technologies, and where the planes will be based.

“Concerns have increasingly been raised that the federal agencies responsible for responding to wildland fires _ the Forest Service and four agencies in the Department of Interior _ do not have the appropriate number and mix of aircraft that will be needed for wildland fire suppression operations,” said the letter signed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.


Last month, the Forest Service adopted a new strategy for replacing the fleet with newer, faster and more cost-effective planes.


Wyden complained that the Forest Service’s strategy is woefully lacking in specifics that would allow comparisons of different types and costs of aircraft so choices can be made. Meanwhile, a “perfect storm” is shaping up of dry weather and thick stands of forests that have not been thinned.

“Trying to get these tankers and the fleet ready for serious fire seasons seems to be almost the longest running battle since the Trojan war,” he said. “The West doesn’t have the luxury of just sitting around while everything goes up in smoke.”

More information:

Thanks go out to the numerous people who let us know about the article.