VICTORVILLE: Nation’s biggest air tankers moving to Wyoming

VICTORVILLE: Nation’s biggest air tankers moving to Wyoming

22 May 2013

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USA — The owners of the nation’s two largest fire bombers — both converted DC-10 jumbo jets — are moving their corporate headquarters from Victorville to Wyoming, company officials say.

The move will occur in the next month or two, said Rick Hatton, CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

“We were here initially, because this is where we modified (the first) airplane,” Hatton said of Southern California Logistics Airport. “That was eight years ago in 2005. Then, Cal Fire set up a temporary (reloading) base here and gave us a very nice contract in 2006.”

Cal Fire and 10 Tanker have maintained a close relationship since then. But the state’s budgetary problems have prompted the firm to search elsewhere for work, especially with the U.S. Forest Service, historically the nation’s major client for large air tankers.

Earlier this month, Forest Service officials announced they intend to award contracts for seven “next generation” air tankers, including one of Hatton’s enormous three-engine DC-10s. Both planes hold 11,600 gallons of fire retardant – nearly six times the capacity of most of the nation’s current large air tankers.

The second DC-10 also is expected to stay busy because the firm continues to have a “call when needed” contract with Cal Fire. Because of the stand-by nature of that contract, the company has 24 hours to respond to a fire call, rather than the 30-minute deadline required by a full-time seasonal agreement, known as an “exclusive use” contract.

Located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the firm’s new headquarters will be at Casper, Wyo., roughly a two-hour DC-10 flight from Victorville.

“Without an ‘exclusive use’ contract with Cal Fire, the need to be here is diminished,” Hatton said. “We don’t want to be thought of as only a California asset.”

Although Casper would be the corporate headquarters, the planes wouldn’t necessarily spend much time there. Large air tankers working for the Forest Service tend to be a migratory fleet because different portions of the country experience their fire seasons at different times of the year.

For that reason, Hatton says, the corporate move to Wyoming shouldn’t have a major financial impact on either Victorville or Casper. Thirty to 50 percent of the cost of a tanker operation is fuel, he said. And since the planes are away from their corporate home most of the time, the fuel and fire retardant are purchased elsewhere, he emphasized.

Both planes travel with a three-person flight crew and at least one mechanic. Because of the seasonal and migratory nature of their work, few 10 Tanker workers live near their corporate headquarters, Hatton said.

The Forest Service has roughly 40 large air tanker bases, and Hatton says most of them – including one at San Bernardino International Airport — could be used by DC-10s.

Both of his big birds require roughly an 8,000-foot-long runway, a parking ramp spacious enough and strong enough to accommodate a jumbo jet, and fire retardant loading equipment.

Because of its tremendous capacity, a DC-10 could be especially important to the Forest Service.

In February 2012, the agency sent to Congress a modernization strategy that calls for 18 to 28 modern large air tankers. Yet, so far this year, only eight planes are under contract – all considered old “legacy” aircraft.

And of the seven “next generation” planes selected for contracts, six have never flown as air tankers.

The DC-10 is the only air tanker of the seven that is known to be mission-ready, Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said in an email.

“It has been flying wildfire suppression missions for the U.S. Forest Service on a call-when-needed contract for the last few years,” she said.

Under the contract specifications, Jones said, the six other “next-gen” tankers will have 60 to 90 days to complete the myriad requirements for new tankers.

Those hurdles include installing fire retardant tanks, successfully demonstrating the tank design during drop tests, winning approval from the Interagency Air Tanker Board, obtaining Federal Aviation Administration certifications and approvals, and developing an air tanker maintenance and inspection program.

But there is no guarantee that any of the six will obtain all of those approvals this year.

As a hedge, the Forest Service is banking on a fleet of reserve aircraft, including eight 3,000-gallon military C-130H and J model Hercules — and eight 2,100-gallon Convair 580s that are under contract with Alaska and Canada, making their availability “iffy” for fires in the lower 48.

If at least most of the seven “next generation” tankers actually are issued contracts – and meet all the requirements to fight fires this year – it would mark a major step in the modernization of the Forest Service’s tanker fleet, which has been in crisis for a decade.
The agency temporarily grounded its entire fleet in 2004. The action was prompted by crashes two years earlier of a Lockheed C-130A Hercules and a Consolidated Vultee PB4Y-2 Privateer, both of which lost wings in mid-flight due to metal fatigue. Five crew members died.

Caught on video-tape, those disasters prompted a major safety review by a blue ribbon commission that found that 136 crew members had died in aircraft accidents between 1958 and 2002.

“The aerial firefighting community acknowledged to the panel that its safety record is abysmal,” the committee bluntly reported.

Shock waves from the report helped spur the Forest Service toward modernization, initially pledging to transition from aging piston-engine planes to larger and presumably safer jet-powered tankers by 2008.
It still hasn’t happened.

And because the Forest Service’s fleet of large air tankers – once numbering 44 planes – clearly couldn’t be replaced quickly, Cal Fire turned to the DC-10 as its “big gun” in 2006 to augment the state’s fleet of S-2T Tracker air tankers, each of which carries only about a tenth of a DC-10 payload.

“You’d never see a fleet of 20 of these things,” Tony Kern said of jumbo air tankers in 2003, when he was head of aviation for the U.S. Forest Service. “But you might see a fleet of 10.”

A decade later, 10 Tanker is still fighting to expand to perhaps five DC-10s. Their goal: Use a handful of huge airplanes to snuff small fires before they get big – and disastrous.

“I think it would be a very sensible thing for this country to have … five or six strategically located throughout the country,” said Hatton, the man whose jumbo tankers broke the size barrier. “More is better. It’s not complicated.”

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