Minden Air’s BAe-146 air tanker program suspended

(This article was first published at Fire Aviation.)

Minden Air Corp aircraft BAe-146 T-46 T-55
Left to right: Tanker 46, a second BAe-146, and Tanker 55 (a P2V) at the Minden Air Corp facility at the Minden, NV airport. Photo: Google Street View, April, 2015. Tanker 55 was damaged in 2012 when it landed with only partially lowered landing gear possibly due to a hydraulic system failure.

For more than 15 years Minden Air Corp has been working on the concept of transitioning from their Korean War vintage P2V air tankers to a jet, the BAe-146. They acquired two or three of them and had nearly completed their work on what was going to be Air Tanker 46 when they ran out of money. Problems with hydraulic systems led to landing gear failures on two P2Vs, T-48 and T-55, taking out Minden’s last two operational air tankers, which no doubt affected their incoming revenue stream. Thankfully there were no serious injuries reported in those two accidents, unlike the crash of the company’s T-99 on October 3, 2003 that killed the two pilots, Carl Dobeare, 54 and John Attardo, 51. A lookout staffing a fire tower saw that P2V fly into a cloud bank as it was preparing to land at San Bernardino. It did not emerge and shortly thereafter they saw what appeared to be smoke at the top of the cloud. The NTSB described it as “controlled flight into mountainous terrain”. The two pilots had a combined total of more than 15,000 flight hours.

In October AvGeek filmed a report about Minden Air Corp at the Minden Airport 45 miles south of Reno, Nevada.

Tim Cristy, Flight Operations for Minden, said in the video when explaining why the conversion of T-46 came to a stop, “We ran out of money. Well, the engineering got expensive as all get-out”.

We attempted to call Mr. Christy and Minden’s CEO, Len Parker, to get more information but the number we had used before no longer works.

The T-46 project had progressed to conducting a grid test, which involves dropping retardant over a grid of more than 3,000 cups on the ground. In the video Mr. Cristy said the test went well. We are not sure if the aircraft ever received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA which is a major hurdle to overcome in addition to approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board. After that they would have had to deal with the bewildering and unpredictable Forest Service contracting system before they ever received a dime from their large monetary investment.

retardant tank inside Minden's T-46 air tanker
The retardant tank inside Minden’s T-46. Screenshot from the AvGeek video.

The video below, published June 17, 2014, shows T-46 making its first test drops of water and retardant.

minden air corp bae-146 p2v air tanker 46
Tanker 46, a second BAe-146, and Tanker 55 (a P2V) at the Minden Air Corp facility at the Minden, NV airport. Photo: Google, June, 2018.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Brian.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Air Tanker 48 lands on collapsed landing gear at Fresno

Tanker 48 Fresno landing gear problem
Tanker 48 at Fresno, June 15, 2014.

Minden Air Corps’ Tanker 48 was involved in an incident at Fresno, California on June 15. While working on the Shirley Fire near Lake Isabella, the 53-year old P2V experienced a problem with the hydraulic system and diverted to the long runway at Fresno. According to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, the nose wheel collapsed upon landing. There were no injuries to the crew.

Below is a video report from Fresno’s KMPH:

(The video is no longer available at that site, but here is another link to it.)

Tanker 48 at Rapid City
File photo of Tanker 48 at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Minden had a serious incident with another of their P2V air tankers on June 3, 2012 involving malfunctioning landing gear. In that incident only one main landing gear and the nose gear were able to be lowered and locked on Tanker 55, leaving one main landing gear up or not locked. The aircraft landed at Minden on just two of the three landing gears. The pilots skillfully put the aircraft on the runway, finally skidding it to a stop after sliding off the runway into the grass. The crew walked away, but the tanker was heavily damaged and has not been repaired.

T-55 landing at Minden
T-55 landing at Minden in 2012 on only two of the three landing gears.

Below is a video of that incident in 2012.

The same day Minden’s T-55 crash-landed in 2012, Neptune’s T-11 crashed while working on a wildfire near the Nevada/Utah border killing Capt. Todd Neal Topkins and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless. Both were from Boise.

The crash of Tanker 55 in 2012 left Minden with only one air tanker, T-48. For several years they have been working on converting a jet-powered airliner, a BAe-146, into an air tanker. That project is nearing completion and in the next few weeks or months may receive all of the approvals necessary for it to drop retardant on fires.

On June 26, 2010 air tanker 44, a P2V operated by Neptune Aviation also experienced a hydraulic failure upon landing, had no brakes, and went off the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado (map). Both pilots self-evacuated and were walking around when the fire apparatus arrived to put out a fire in one of the engines. Neptune repaired the aircraft and put it back into service.

Ten things I think I think

As the Aerial Firefighting conference winds down at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, these are the 10 things I think I think (with apologies to Peter King).

1. I think 150 scoops in a water-scooping CL-215T in a 13-hour flying day is pretty amazing. That’s what a pilot from Spain told me he accomplished on a fire one time before his agency changed the policy of no limit on the number of hours flown to nine hours per day. The average number of scoops he usually completes now is 10 per hour.

basket2. I think the extraction/insertion upside down folding “umbrella” demonstrated by Aviation Safety Tactical today for hauling personnel by helicopter to a remote area is pricey at $75,000 each. A representative said the price will come down if it ever goes into mass production.

3. I think it will be interesting to see if the only purpose-built Type 1 air tanker, the Be-200, ever obtains FAA and Interagency Air Tanker Board approvals. The Be-200 is the Russian-made, jet-powered, 3,170-gallon, amphibious water scooping air tanker made by Beriev. The manufacturer and an American company headed by David Baskett are still trying to push the approval through the bureaucracy. We need more purpose-built air tankers.

4. I think it is surprising that with the highly publicized California drought the two hotels I stayed in while in Sacramento both had high-volume shower heads — the large saucer-shaped versions that Holiday Inn Express advertises on billboards. One community not far from here is requiring residents to reduce their water consumption by 25%, under threat of large fines if they don’t comply.

5. I think I was lucky to be routed into the expedited screening security line at the Rapid City Airport. I was pleased that I did not have to remove the boarding pass from my pocket, take off my belt and shoes, or remove my computer from my carry-on while it went through the machine.

6. I think I miss the days when on a flight we at least were given a tiny bag of peanuts. It is only a distant memory now. How long will it be before they start charging for a soda pop or a glass of water?

7.  I think hotels need more electrical outlets. In order to plug in the coffee maker, I had to crawl under a table and unplug the TV or a lamp that I needed, or carry the machine across the room where there was a vacant outlet. Then there’s other devices that also need electricity, like the computer, camera battery charger, and the cell phone.

8.  I think that since the Lions Gate Hotel at McClellan totally screwed up my reservation, telling me I had none in spite of the printout I showed them of the email confirming the damn thing, I will never go near that hotel again.

9.  I think it is impressive that to get ready for the grid test of their BAe-146 air tanker, Minden Air Corp obtained and pounded into the earth 3,155 four-foot “T posts” to hold the cups that will catch and measure the retardant. The grid test is a requirement to obtain certification from the Interagency Air Tanker Board. The retardant caught in the cups, which are spread over a large area, can determine the distribution of the retardant.

10. Requiring suits and ties for a fire conference is stupid. Hey Tangent Link and conference chair retired Admiral Terry Loughran formerly of the Royal Navy — the 1950s called and they want their “dress code” back.

Video of Tanker 55 landing with malfunctioning landing gear

New4 has a video of Tanker 55 making an emergency landing at Minden, Nevada Sunday with one of the three landing gears disabled. We reported on this yesterday and thankfully, there were no injuries. (Note: the video may not work in Firefox.)

Tanker 55 at Libby Army Airfield, AZ, 6-15-2011, photo by Ned Harris
File photo of Tanker 55 at Libby Army Airfield, AZ, June 15, 2011, photo by Ned Harris

Thanks go out to Eric, who mentioned this video in a comment on another article.

Two air tanker incidents, one crash and one wheels-up landing

Tanker 11
File photo of Tanker 11. Neptune Aviation photo.

Updated at 10:15 p.m. MDT, June 3, 2012

Crash of Air Tanker 11

An air tanker crashed around 1:45 p.m. June 3 while working on a wildfire near the Nevada/Utah border today. Tanker 11, a P2V operated by Neptune Aviation, was working on the White Rock fire which started in Nevada 25-38 miles northeast of Caliente, but the fire burned across the state line into Iron County in Utah, which is where the aircraft went down.

There were two people on board, and it was confirmed late this afternoon by Don Smurthwaite at the National Interagency Fire Center that both of them died in the crash. Fox 13 reports that “Det. Jody Edwards, Iron County Sheriff’s Office, identified the two victims as Capt. Todd Neal Topkins and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless.” Both were from Boise.

The accident occurred at the head of the fire, which made it difficult for rescue personnel to access the crash site.

Tanker 11, registration #N14447, was 57 years old, having been delivered in 1955.

Our condolences go out to the families and coworkers of the crew.

Wheels-up landing, Tanker 55

Another incident occurred today involving a second P2V large air tanker, this time operated by Minden Air Corp out of Minden, Nevada. Our source tells us that only one main landing gear and the nose gear were able to be lowered and locked on Tanker 55, leaving one main landing gear up or not locked. The aircraft landed at Minden on just two of the three landing gears.

The air tanker was making retardant drops on the George Fire within the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California when the crew experienced problems with the aircraft, according to Stanton Florea, a US Forest Service spokesperson. The tanker had been reloading with retardant at Porterville, California, but the pilot decided to fly to the company’s base in Minden, Nevada to attempt to land. After arriving in the vicinity of the Minden airport they circled for 90 minutes in order to burn off fuel. Thankfully, the crew was not injured in the landing.

Tanker 55, registration #N355MA, is 55 years old, delivered in 1957.

News4 out of Reno reported the aircraft was largely intact and described it as a “successful belly landing”.

When we have additional details about these two incidents, we will post them here.

Large air tankers grounded

All federal large air tankers have been grounded for the rest of the day. Not because of any specific aircraft issues, but in consideration of the crews flying and maintaining the remaining nine air tankers. The air tanker community is small and close-knit.

Other recent P2V crashes

Air tankers operated by Neptune also crashed in 2008 and 2009. Tanker 09 crashed September 1, 2008 as it was taking off at Reno. Tanker 42 crashed April 25, 2009 while it was ferrying from Missoula, Montana to Alamogordo, New Mexico. Three people died in each incident.

Other incidents within the last two years

  • In 2010 a Neptune-operated P2V ran off the end of the runway at Jeffco airport in Colorado after the brakes failed.
  • Earlier in 2012 the crew flying a Neptune-operated P2V  was not able to lower the landing gear using conventional means after having what was described as “a complete hydraulic failure”, forcing the crew to manually extend the gear. It declared an emergency and as it landed at Missoula it was met by fire trucks.
  • A few weeks ago a couple of P2Vs working out of Prescott, Arizona made emergency landings after having engine problems.
  • Earlier this year a 24-inch crack in a wing spar and skin was discovered on Tanker 10, a Neptune-operated P2V. A few weeks ago Neptune told Wildfire Today that they would not attempt to repair the aircraft this year and it would be put into storage.

Nine large air tankers left

Before the two crashes, there were ten P2Vs and one BAe-146 working on federal exclusive use contracts. This leaves only nine large air tankers in the federal fleet, compared to the 44 on contract in 2002. The U.S. Forest Service still has not made any decisions about awarding additional contracts based on their solicitation for “next generation” air tankers which closed in February, 2012. The next-gen air tankers would eventually replace the P2Vs which are over 50 years old.

In December we wrote about possibilities for next-gen air tankers.

Minden’s BAe-146 air tanker to begin tests this month

Minden BAe-146
Minden’s BAe-146 shortly after the company acquired the aircraft. Photo: Minden, used with permission

The Minden Air Corp, based at the Minden-Tahoe airport in Minden, Nevada, is in the final stages of converting a four-engine jet airliner into a next generation air tanker. The BAe-146 was manufactured in 1989 and Minden acquired it, serial number E2111, in January 2009. The new air tanker will be several decades younger than the two P2V’s currently being flown by Minden and the nine operated by Neptune.

Tim Christy, the Director of Flight Operations for Minden, told us that he expects the air tanker to leave the hangar later this month after which “we will start running water through it”. The tank system is conventional, consisting of a 3,000 gallon internal retardant tank and a computer controlled constant flow door system which will rely on gravity, rather than a pressurized system, to force the retardant out of the tank.

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

Mr. Christy said the conversion process is slow. They have to make sure that everything they do conforms with FAA regulations and have been recording every single part that goes on the aircraft.

He said they have a second BAe-146, serial number 2106, which they will convert into an air tanker as soon as they finish the first one. He expects the second conversion to go much faster than the first.

If everything goes well, Mr. Christy hopes to have the first one flying on fires during the 2012 fire season.

Neptune leased a BAe-146 converted air tanker last summer and obtained “interim approval” from the Interagency Air Tanker Board which will be valid through the end of December, 2012. It will not receive full approval from the Board until after it is evaluated sufficiently on actual wildfires and at air tanker bases. There has been speculation that the BAe-146 operated by Neptune uses air pressure or some other pumping system to force the retardant out of the tank, but Dan Snyder, the President of Neptune, told us today that their BAe-146 uses a gravity drop system. This was confirmed by Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service at Boise.  Their aircraft, Tanker 40, made a handful of drops this fall in Texas and a few last month in California. Neptune leases the ship from Tronos, and presently it is back at Tronos’ base on Prince Edward Island in Canada for a major scheduled maintenance which usually takes about 21 days.

Minden owns their BAe-146 and is performing their own conversion, rather than leasing a previously converted aircraft from Tronos.

Here are some stats about the BAe-146:

  • Water or retardant capacity: 3,000 USG
  • Range: 1,800 miles
  • Cruising speed, about 498 mph
  • Typical drop speed expected to be, according to Tronos, 120 knots (138 mph) @ 150 feet (46 meters)
  • Short take-off length and steep field approach
  • Air-brake and flap combination improves low speed maneuverability
  • 387 aircraft were manufactured from 1978-2001
  • Engines: four Textron Lycoming turbofans
  • Passenger capacity as an airliner: 82-112
Minden’s two P2Vs, air tankers 48 and 55, will begin active contracts with the U.S. Forest Service next month, with one starting on February 15 and the second on April 1. Neptune will bring on one P2V in February, two in March, and the other six later.The loss of Aero Union’s eight P3 air tankers after the company went out of business has affected the contracting of the 11 to 12 remaining large air tankers. Mr. Christy of Minden told us that their company at this time is not interested in bidding on the P3s that are going up for auction. Mr. Snyder of Neptune said they have little interest in the aircraft but will probably go down to Sacramento and take a look at them.