Tanker exit could heat up fire season

August 20, 2012 by Mike Collins

It’s been a brutal wildfire season in the western United States. And fewer large air assets are available for firefighting since Aero Union’s Lockheed P-3 Orion tankers were grounded last year.

10 Tanker Air Carrier (see the May 2012 AOPA Pilot article here or view the accompanying video on AOPA Live here), has modified the Douglas DC-10 for use as an airborne firefighter. Both of its former airliners have seen some service during this year’s fires. (Evergreen Aviation has modified a Boeing 747 for use as a tanker but said it has not been activated for service by the Forest Service.)

10 Tanker has invested millions developing, demonstrating, and deploying its technology. But the company says that its business model is viable only if it gets an exclusive-use contract from the Forest Service. An exclusive-use contract would provide more financial stability by paying the company to have the aircraft standing by and ready for almost immediate dispatch (the contract provides an amount per flight hour, as well). However, 10 Tanker has only received “call when needed” contracts—there’s no guaranteed payment, but the company agrees to respond within 24 hours of a call if aircraft are available (in this scenario the hourly rate is much higher).

“If used properly, [exclusive use] costs the government less to get the job done,” said Rick Hatton, 10 Tanker’s president and CEO; the cost per gallon of suppressant delivered is significantly lower, and high volume combined with short turnarounds can put more suppressant on a fire quickly. Without a multiyear exclusive-use contract, he said the privately funded company may well have to ground the airplanes altogether.

Evergreen notes in its statement that one reason the 747 is not flying is that the U.S. Forest Service’s specification for Next Generation Air Tanker aircraft limits tank size to 5,000 gallons–the 747 can carry 20,000 gallons, and the DC-10 tanker’s capacity is 11,600 gallons. The situation has prompted both companies to ask the public to contact their representatives in Washington, D.C. and ask them to examine current Forest Service policies regarding what it calls very large air tanker (VLAT) aircraft.

The call to action on 10 Tanker’s Facebook page is direct, and blog posts elsewhere indicate that absent a more suitable contract, the company could ground the aircraft in November. People in several towns credit the orange-and-white tankers with saving their homes–and I expect that some of them already have written their senators and representatives. 


6 Responses to “Tanker exit could heat up fire season”

  1. Kevin Collins Says:

    FYI, the residents of Northern California in and around Manton, Shingletown, Viola, and Mineral will likely add their voices to the fight. Tanker 10 is fighting the Ponderosa fire in that area. Check out the pictures at the link below.

  2. Alex Kovnat Says:

    I believe the cost of converting and operating retired jetliners, and the cost of setting up the infrastructure (i.e. providing enough fire retardant at the airports from which these aircraft operate) must be compared with the cost to our society resulting from wildfires.

    I used to tell people, seriously but also somewhat in jest, that you could bomb forest or wildfires into submission with mass-produced World War II B-24 Liberator bombers if you could get enough aircraft, pilots, supporting crews and of course, enough fire retardant. After all, what’s a wildfire going to do to you? Send up squadrons of Messerschmidt 109G’s? Fire at you with 88 mm flak cannon? Today we have numerous aircraft options. The C-130 four engine turboprop cargo aircraft is the Liberator of our time: producible in large quantities and a proven design. Among the many purposes to which the C-130 has been applied, is bombing forest fires. Then there are DC-10 airframes which could be converted for fire-bombing, plus 747 aircraft no longer in use hauling passengers or commercial air freight.

    I would like to see a joint effort involving the U.S. Air Force, the Air National Guards of states affected by forest- and wildfires, the airline industry (to provide the pilots in case of a real BIG fire emergency), aircraft manufacturers (especially Boeing), the FAA and the U.S. Forest Service to expedite conversion of retired jetliners to fire retardant bombers, and setting up the infrastructure. Sure, this will be expensive but again, how many billions of dollars of damage can we prevent by proceeding with the effort I just described?

  3. Matt Viviano Says:

    It’s simply not feasible to do as Alex Kovnat describes. The continual training of dedicated pilots to fight the fires, and the maintenance on the scores of aircraft would place a big burden on an already strained to the limits budget. Flying a fire fighting tanker takes a whole different skill set than just normal day to day flying. The flames kick up ferocious winds and turbulence that can slam you into the side of a hill in a heartbeat. Also the strain on the airframe as you swoop and dive makes many components fatigue at a much faster rate than their original designer intended. Not to mention all the coordination that has to be done by a spotter plane to keep everyone from running into each other because the smoke makes visibility very poor.

    It is a far more difficult prospect than just converting a bunch of mothballed old planes into firefighters.

  4. Keith Eyler Says:

    The US forest service has a serious shortage of aircraft and can not effectively do initial attack on fires to keep them small in the first place. From 2003 to now the fleet of heavy air tankers has dwindled from 44 to just 8 heavy tankers plus the two DC-10’s. I believe these numbers directly correlate to average size of fires being larger as the forest service lacks the ability to kill these fires early by slowing them down with aircraft to buy the guys on the ground the time they need to get in place to put them out.
    Having flown two seasons for Aero Union I can tell you that the grounding behind the aircraft was not over safety issues, rather a personal agenda of the head of the US forest service tanker program to do a little house cleaning as he saw fit.
    Working with the FAA and the US Forest service Aero Union has an approved plan in place that had began implementation with the first few aircraft to extend the life of the airframes over the next 20 years dedicated to arial fire fighting. All eight aircraft were to be completed by the end of the 2013 season. To say that they are unsafe simply true, rather a diversionary tactic the forest service wants you to think so it could create a crises and attempt to attain billions of dollars from congress to build C-130’s from the ground up at a huge cost to the tax payer. For a quarter of the cost of a single C-130 Aero Union is able to complete the airframe overhauls on all 8 of it’s P-3’s.
    This crises of not having enough air tankers to go around exist, as he will deny, and through multiply studies over the past ten years will show he has had ample time to be proactive to find a solution yet, hasn’t. As for now 7 of the P-3’s sit ready (#8 is all ready modified but needs the funds to be assembled) to fight in Sacramento as fires have raged all over the US this season. In the past few weeks California alone has lost over 1800 homes due to limited resources to fight these fires as the aircraft sit idle over politics and contract disputes.We need the DC-10’s to help with these monster fires… We need these P-3s, the best proven aerial fire fighting platform for initial attack, back on contract to protect private and public lands. How many more homes and lives will it take before the forest service gets their act together?

  5. Charlie Branch Says:

    As a grad of UM’s School of Forestry, I have been an observer and agree with smokejumpers and forest ecologists that decades of rapid response fire suppression lead responders to conclude that they’ve “been their own worst enemies” as the practice has built up fuels on the ground to levels that may easily “blow up.” In 2007, a pilot with California Division of Forestry, “CalFire” said that California no longer has a fire season, as they’re busy year-round.
    Neptune Aviation had plans with Bombardier to modify a number of Q200 aircraft as airtankers, but I have yet to see one. Apparently the wheels at USFS still desire to convert to an all helicopter fleet, looking at speed rather than range. A classmate researched helicopter vs. mule freighting in the Northern Region in the mid-1970s, concluding that helicopter operations require more roads and closer support facilities than do mules or fixed wing aircraft, for overall greater costs.
    The blowup at Storm King was an embarrassment and resulted in bumping the death benefit up from $200. The feds can fall back on the judicial decision that they are only responsible for protecting “public safety” and not the safety of individual lives or property.

  6. Duncan Holland Says:

    I flew the PB4Y-2 Airtankers for H&P back in the late 90’s. It was otherwise known as the Navy Liberator. The numbers are even worse than Keith has stated. Up until 2002 there were actually 56 airtankers nationwide, not the often quoted 44. The number 44 is used to make the loss seem smaller. 44 is the number AFTER T130 and T123 crashed in June and July, respectively, of 2002. The crashes and the subsequent grounding of those remaining types PB4Y-2 and C130A left us with 44.

    Keith is right. It has all been part of an agenda by those at the top. Shut DOWN the civilian airtanker industry. They were thwarted in their plans when the military declined to step into the role. Now they are scrammbling. The quickest fix is to let the Canadian companies come in and take over the facilities and aircraft that remain. NAFTA allows them to skirt the EPA and FAA requirements that shut down the american companies.

    Its what they tell me we all voted for.

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