Due to an unusually high level of bushfire activity Australia has contracted for two additional air tankers to assist firefighters on the ground. Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), said the aircraft were added using the NAFC’s system of Enhanced Call When Needed (EWCN) contracts.
On November 12, U.S. time, Tanker 911, a DC-10, was loading spare parts onto the aircraft and is expected to be fire-ready in Richmond, New South Wales on November 16. It is supplied by Agair/10 Tanker. The DC-10 is considered a Very Large Air Tanker and can carry up to 9,400 gallons (35,582 liters).
The other EWCN air tanker added to the fleet is a Coulson C-130Q with an enter on duty date of November 29, also at Richmond. It usually carries around 3,500 gallons (13,248 liters).
There are also changes on the rotor wing side. One of the most significant additions is a ECWN contract for a Blackhawk with long line bucket based at Toowoomba in Queensland. The helicopter is suppled through Kestrel Aviation (who are partnered with BHI2/Brainerd).
Recent additions bring the total number of firebombing aircraft in Australia to 63 fixed wing and 45 rotor wing. There are an additional 51 aircraft used for other fire-related missions.
The list of large and very large air tankers has changed since 2018. The number on the very coveted exclusive use (EU) contracts is the same, 13, but there are three fewer on call when needed contracts (CWN), 8. This could change later in the year but today there are a total of 21 air tankers on both types of contracts, down from 24 last year.
Aero Flite, Aero Air, and Neptune all swapped out some EU aircraft but each still has the same number of allocated slots.
On the CWN list, Aero Flite went from four to one aircraft and Coulson dropped their L-382G and substituted a B-737 which began working in North America for the first time last week. Neptune swapped some of their BAe-146s but 10 tanker did not make any changes on either list.
Today when we asked Kaari Carpenter, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service, when the agency was going to offer air tanker contracts based on the call when needed solicitation issued May 30, 2018, she said, “We expect an award on this contract very soon.”
The 2019 wildfire season has been much slower than average so far this year, which is fortunate considering the small number of air tankers available on Forest Service contracts — from 44 in 2002 on EU contracts down to 13.
So far this year a total of 3.6M acres have burned in the U.S., compared with 4.6M for the average to date. It has been far busier than usual in Alaska accounting for 2.4M acres, two-thirds of the U.S. total. Only 1.2M acres have burned in the other 49 states — which I estimate is approximately one-third of the average.
We believe this to be Air Tanker 137, a Boeing 737 operated by Coulson — seen on one of its first drops on a fire in North America after completing its contract in Australia. https://t.co/dAhV7GeNSu
— Wildfire Today 🔥 (@wildfiretoday) August 12, 2019
On July 30, 2018 an engine on an MD87 air tanker failed while taking off at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire. The reports at the time was that it failed after takeoff, but in this video that just came to light filmed by Harold Komm, Jr. it appears that the incident occurred during takeoff while the aircraft was approximately half or two-thirds of the way down the runway. At 0:52 in the video below, smoke or debris can be seen in the vicinity of the tail of the aircraft. Then the engine noise decreases as the takeoff continued. When it finally became airborne dust is kicked up at the end of the runway.
The flight crew deserves high praise for getting the plane into the air and then landing safely. An engine failure at that point is one of the worst times for it to happen.
The aircraft was Air Tanker 101, an MD87 operated by Erickson Aero Air. Mr. Komm said that after takeoff the plane flew out to the designated retardant jettison area about seven miles northeast of the airport so it would not have to land with a full load of retardant.
Seven fires were discovered after the incident within a five-mile radius of the airport. One of the firefighters was injured while suppressing the fires.
Mr. Komm said he just recently found a report of the incident on Fire Aviation and offered to allow us to publish his video. We had to edit the audio to remove some unwanted background noise unrelated to the aircraft, but other than that and adding titles at the beginning and the end we didn’t change the video. He told us, “I had talked to Erickson Aero Air HQ in Oregon to make sure it was ok for me to distribute and the only thing was that I had to forward a copy of the video to the lead mechanic. I got some cool swag from Erickson Aero Air for being in the right place and time doing the video.”
The U.S. federal government has taken steps over the last 16 years that have reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 44 in 2002 to 13 in 2018. After the wings fell off two air tankers in 2002 killing five crew members, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the program, began cancelling contracts for World War II and eventually Korean War vintage aircraft that had been converted to fight fire.
There was no substantial effort to rebuild the fleet until 11 years later when the USFS began awarding contracts for “next generation” air tankers. A few years after that the last of the 50-year old P2V tankers were retired. Following the half-hearted attempt at rebuilding the program, the total number of tankers on contract rose to 20 in 2016 and 2017, but by 2018 had dropped to 13.
The policies being implemented recently could further reduce the number in the coming years.
In 2016 the USFS awarded a one-year exclusive use contract for two water scoopers, with the option for adding four additional years. In 2017 at the end of the second year the USFS decided to not extend the contract for 2018. But during the 2018 fire season they hired the scoopers on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis. An analysis Fire Aviation completed in February, 2018 found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than Exclusive Use aircraft that work for an entire fire season. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.
The practice of advertising one-year contracts is now metastasizing, with the solicitation issued by the USFS on December 3 for one-year contracts for “up to five” large air tankers. These potential contracts also have options for four additional years, but could, like the scoopers, be cancelled or not extended at the discretion of the USFS. If the agency decides to award contracts for five aircraft, it would bring the total up to 18.
Earlier this year the USFS shut down the program that was focused on converting seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers. Now they are being moved to the aircraft boneyard in Arizona until the planes can be transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as required in legislation in August. From 2016 to the summer of 2018 one of the HC-130H’s was used occasionally on fires with a borrowed retardant tank temporarily installed.
Most air tanker operators in the United States prefer to buy retired airliners like the BAe-146, DC-10, or variants of the C-130 and convert them to carry and dispense retardant. Retrofitting alone runs into the millions. Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.
Below is an excerpt from the Missoulian:
“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”
Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.
The province of Manitoba just awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.
If the occurrence of wildfires was rapidly declining, reducing the air tanker fleet would make sense. However everyone knows the opposite is happening.
(The two charts below were updated February 2, 2019)
In the late 1980s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 30 acres. That has increased every decade since, bringing the average in the 2010s up to 101 acres.
More acres are burning and the fires are growing much larger while the Administration and Congress reduces the capability of the federal agencies to fight fires.
For the last several years Congress has appropriated the same amount of funds for the U.S. Forest Service, for example. But meanwhile, it costs more to pay for wages, fire trucks, office expenses, travel, and more expensive but safer more reliable air tankers. This leaves less money for everything including vegetation management, prescribed burning, fire prevention, salaries, and firefighting aircraft.
In 2017 the number of requests for Type 1 helicopters on fires was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017, 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.
Aircraft can’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and put them out.
It might be easy to blame the USFS for the cutbacks in fire suppression capability, but a person in the agency’s Washington headquarters who prefers to not have their name mentioned said it is a result of a shortage of funds appropriated by Congress. The Administration’s request for firefighting in the FY 2019 budget calls for 18 large air tankers and intends to maintain the 18 percent reduction in Type 1 helicopters, keeping that number at only 28 for the third year in a row.
What can be done?
These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.
In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.
Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) has virtually settled on its lineup of the country’s firefighting aircraft for the 2018-2019 bushfire season which is getting underway. It was just a few years ago that they had no large air tankers, but this season they will have six privately owned large air tankers on contract, including three RJ85s, two C-130Qs, and one 737.
Large air tankers:
RJ85, T-165 (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Sydney (Richmond) – already in place;
B-737, T-137 (Coulson) based in Sydney (Richmond) – subject to regulatory approvals;
RJ85, T-166 (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Sydney (Richmond)/Dubbo;
C-130Q, T-134 (Coulson) based in Sydney (Richmond) – already in place. (This is an “extra” for the 2018-19 season only, considering the predicted above-normal potential of the fire season on the east coast of Australia);
RJ85, T-163 (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Melbourne (Avalon);
C-130Q, T-131 (Coulson) based in Melbourne (Avalon)
In addition, NAFC will have 51 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) on contract across the country, including 2 amphibious water-scooping Fire Bosses. Another 8 SEATs have been contracted directly by State agencies. The SEATs can also be supplemented by other aircraft on Call When Needed (CWN) arrangements if required.
There will be 77 Helicopters of all types for a variety of roles across the country. This includes six Erickson S-64E Air Cranes, as well as five Type 2 /Type 3 helicopters that will be specially equipped for intelligence gathering, with gimbaled sensors and on-board image processing, mapping, and transmission gear.
This season one Type 1 helicopter (a Coulson S-61) based at Ballarat, Victoria and one Type 2 helicopter (a Kestrel Aviation Bell 412) based at Mangalore, Victoria will have a Night Vision Imaging Systems or Night Vision Goggles (NVIS/NVG) for water dropping. Several other Type 2 and Type 3 helicopters based in Victoria and New South Wales will be capable of NVIS mapping, reconnaissance, supervision and aerial ignition.
“We aim to continue and extend the helicopter NVIS firebombing trial in Victoria, operationalizing the learnings from the Victorian trial earlier this year, but it will be in small, careful steps” Richard Alder, General Manager of NAFC said. “At this stage”, he continued, “it is anticipated that night firebombing will only occur on fires where the aircraft crew has operated during the day – so at this stage there won’t be any initial attack at night.”
Night flying air tanker
Mr. Alder said they may experiment toward the end of the 2018/2019 bushfire season with a fixed wing large airtanker (the C-130Q, T-131) using NVIS/NVG, but there is much work still to be done to design the trial and obtain the necessary regulatory approvals.
On Thursday the Departments of Interior and Agriculture briefed members of Congress about the outlook for wildfires in 2018.
There was a lot of talk about being more aggressive about attacking fires, firefighting aircraft, forest health, dead trees, logging, and reducing fuels in forests.
In response to a question by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell about expanding the use of drones on fires, the Secretaries of the two Departments announced that they would sign an agreement to more easily share resources and technology between the two Departments, including drones.
During her prepared remarks, Interim Chief of the Forest Service Vicki Christiansen said the Forest Service had “hundreds of aircraft ready to respond” to fires. The fact is, in addition to helicopters, in 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts. This year there are 13, with another 11 on call when needed (CWN) agreements plus one HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft outfitted with a temporary MAFFS tank. The Forest Service wants to get rid of the Coast Guard HC-130H currently being used and the other six that Congress directed them and the Air Force to convert to air tankers.
Randy Eardley, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, told us today that no EU contracts for Single Engine Air Tankers have been awarded yet this year, but there is an existing CWN contract for SEATs which will be used. It is unlikely that an EU contract will be awarded, for the second year in a row. Before 2017 there were typically 33 SEATs on EU contracts every year. Approximately 10 have been working on a CWN basis in Texas and the Southwest during the last month or two.
A few of the politicians at the briefing criticized the reduction in the number of air tankers. At 16:00 in the video, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden expressed his concern.
Last week we were hearing in rural Oregon that there wouldn’t be enough air tankers on exclusive use contracts at the Forest Service…. What is the Service doing to ensure that the all call when needed air tankers are going to be there in terms of these fires.
Ms. Christiansen responded to the Senator:
Senator Wyden, I can assure you we will have the same number of large air tankers, 25, available to us on contract or agency operated. That’s in addition to the specialty that the Department of Interior provides in Single Engine Air Tankers and then we all have a selection of rotary helicopter resources. So we are confident in our ability to field the large air tankers and the other aviation assets. As I said before, we are always evaluating the mix of exclusive use and call when needed. Call when needed can be available within 30 minutes but often certainly within a couple of hours. And our predictive services I have great confidence in that we will bring those call when needed resources on as we anticipate the need expanding. It all happens out of our Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
Call when needed contracts for large air tankers specify that the aircraft should be able to be activated within 48 hours. And it is not as simple as a dispatcher making a phone call to the vendor, it must be handled by a contracting officer. But after being activated, they can remain in that status for an extended period of time, even if it is raining, and be subject to the same dispatch standards as exclusive use aircraft.
The quality of the video and audio below is very poor, but at least 90 percent of the audio is comprehensible.
The article was revised to clarify that while it is unlikely that an exclusive use contract will be awarded this year for SEATs, an existing call when needed contract can be used.