Air Tanker Update

Air tanker update

29 August 2011

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USA — It was just two days ago that we wrote an article about air tankers, covering CAL FIRE’s new policy of restricting the use of their S-2s on federal fires and the deteriorated state of the federal air tanker fleet. But yesterday, August 27, there were two significant developments related to air tankers.

CL-215s at San Bernardino

On August 26 late in the afternoon three CL-215s showed up at the San Bernardino airport. They are operated by Aero-Flite, Inc. out of Kingman, Arizona and are working on a federal contract. The company owns operates five CL-215s that have been used in Alaska, Minnesota, and by the Bureau of Land Management. They have already been used on two fires on the San Bernardino National Forest, the Mile and Oasis Fires, refilling at Big Bear Lake.

These CL-215s can scoop up to 1,400 gallons of water from from approved lakes and have the capability of mixing foam concentrate with the water while in flight, making it possible to drop Class A foam on the fire. The aircraft can also be filled with water while parked at an airport.

The primary differences between a CL-215 and CL-415 is that the latter has turbine engines, can hold about 200 more gallons, and has aerodynamic additions to the wings and empennage, or tail assembly.

DC-10 activated by the U. S. Forest Service

Almost two months after awarding a Call When Needed contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier for their DC-10 air tankers, the USFS activated one of the Very Large Air Tankers yesterday. Tanker 910 arrived at McClellan Airport near Sacramento, California at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday and was dispatched to a fire near the Utah/Arizona border at 10:30 am. It made two trips and nine drops. Today it is being used on the Motor fire just outside the El Portal entrance to Yosemite National Park.

Television show about CL-215s

Has anyone else seen the show on the National Geographic Channel called Ice Pilots? It is a reality show about a company in northwest Canada that operates mostly vintage aircraft, including two CL-215s, a Lockheed L-188 Electra, a DC-3, a C-46, and a DC-4. There was a series of shows in which the company had sold the two CL-215s to the Turkish government and were attempting to deliver them to the buyer, flying them across Canada, the north Atlantic, and Europe.

One complicating factor was the lack of any deicing equipment on the air tankers, something they don’t usually need while working on wildfires. Another was having enough fuel to make it across the Atlantic, so the company was carrying flexible fuel bladders inside the aircraft to increase their range.

During the last episode I saw a few months ago the two CL-215s had made it to the east coast of Canada and were waiting for warm weather over the north Atlantic to begin the ocean crossing.

Responding perhaps to the U. S. Forest Service’s reduction of the large air tanker fleet from 44 in 2002 to the 14 that are on exclusive use contracts today, CAL FIRE has distributed a memo laying out in no uncertain terms a policy stating that their agency will put strict limits on the use of the state’s air tankers on federal fires.

If a federal incident requires “load and return” of CAL FIRE airtankers or additional CAL FIRE air tankers are ordered for the incident, the Federal GACC will order federal air tankers(s) from the other California GACC or through NICC as appropriate to replace CAL FIRE IA air tankers. CAL FIRE airtankers should NOT be considered as a replacement for federal aircraft on extended attack or major Federal incidents in California.


The Region Duty Chief shall revisit the use of CAL FIRE air tankers on federal incidents with his/her federal Duty Chief counterpart at least every hour throughout the incident.

CAL FIRE seems to have understandably lost their patience with the lack of initiative and heads in the sand approach the USFS and the other federal land management agencies have adopted in managing the federal air tanker fleet for the last nine years. The federal land management agencies have been irresponsible and have mismanaged the federal fleet. They have taken advantage of CAL FIRE’s resources, while not pulling their own weight, at least in California.

Since the wings fell off two very old military surplus air tankers in 2002 requiring the grounding of over half the fleet, the U. S. Forest Service has commissioned several studies of how to reconstitute the air tanker program.

Last May we wrote this:

The USFS has been studying the issue of replacing the fleet of large air tankers since the “Blue Ribbon Panel”, chaired by former NTSB Chairman James E. Hall, evaluated the air tanker program following the two crashes in 2002 in which the wings fell off very old military surplus aircraft, killing five people. Those crashes resulted in the permanent grounding of about 60 percent of the large air tankers, from 44 in 2002 to the 18 or so we have today.

Now there is still another study going on, this time by the Rand Corporation. It was due in January, 2011, but even Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has had difficulty finding out anything about it. Last week, according to a newspaper article, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, responding three months after her inquiry, said the report would not be completed until August. Will this report simply sit on a shelf next to the last one, or will the USFS actually do something this time?

At a Senate hearing in June, Chief of the USFS Tom Tidwell said:

In the next 10 years more than half of our large air tankers will need to be replaced and we are studying the options and will be making a recommendation to you by the end of the summer.

Well, the latest study is already eight months overdue, but we have been told now it will show up by “August” and by “summer”. Really. They want us to believe them this time. Really. Both August and summer are almost over. These decisions about managing the air tanker fleet should have been made eight years ago. Eight years ago.

We don’t have an adequate number of air tankers for average wildfire conditions. If the predictions for dry lightning across the northwest through this weekend are accurate, that will become even more obvious.

While the overdue study still has not been released, the USFS issued a Request for Information (RFI) on August 3 asking about vendors’ potential interest in supplying “two to eight fixed wing water scooper aircraft”. This may or may not result in any contracts for air tankers:

This RFI is for planning purposes only and shall not be construed as an RFP or as a decision or obligation on the part of the Government to acquire any products or services.

Making decisions is hard, huh?

On June 5, 2011 the U. S. Forest Service awarded a Call When Needed contract for 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, with no guarantee of flight hours or daily availability. CAL FIRE also has a CWN contract for the DC-10′s.

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