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.