Aerial Firefighters Moving Toward Large Air Tanker Modernization

The devastating wildland forest fires in recent years have focused increasing attention to the nation’s aging and dwindling fleet of large fixed-wing airtankers used as an initial attack tool for wildland fire containment.  In fact, the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has long recognized that the 11 remaining large air tankers– former US Navy P2V aircraft, specially modified for dropping fire retardant–are stretched thin and nearing the end of their service lives.  With a 50-year average age of aircraft, there will not be any large airtankers for wildland firefighting by the end of the decade unless the fleet is modernized and increased in numbers.

The US Forest Service (USFS)–the agency that oversees wilderness protection–has also known for years that indefinite deployment of the current large airtanker fleet is not an option.  But it was only on March 6, in a prepared statement to Congress, that USFS Chief Tom Tidwell reported that his agency’s diminished and aging fleet of contractor-available, contractor-operated airtankers is insufficient to combat the nation’s increasingly severe fires.  Just a month prior to that–on February 10–the USFS released its “Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” and has sought proposals from private industry for next-generation large airtankers.  Yet, well before this document was made public, the AHSAFA members were already taking the first steps toward bringing in newer aircraft, which would be mission-ready well before the last of today’s large airtankers are finally grounded.

Given the current fiscal realities, the aerial firefighting industry is not asking the US Government to buy, own or operate a single large airtanker.  However, in order to enable the remaining private operators to retire their legacy aircraft and cover development costs of replacement equipment, the USFS will have to consider funding operational contracts of as much as 10 years, instead of the standard five-year contracts, or sporadic Call-When-Needed arrangements.  It is unrealistic to expect an operator of multi-million-dollar air tankers to provide reliable response and service levels, as well as maintain aircraft airworthiness and crew currency, on a call-when-needed basis, or with short-term contracts.

Tom Eversole, Executive Director of AHSAFA stated “At the same time, the Forest Service must understand that any new contracts would have to reflect the higher costs of operating the newer, more capable large airtankers now being proposed”.

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association is actively working with the USFS to bring a modern airtanker platform on line.  In doing that, industry has focused on a number of candidate aircraft.  All would derive from late-model or currently produced commercial or military aircraft, since no U.S. aircraft manufacturer is offering a purpose-built, large airtanker.

At a minimum, the USFS requires that any large airtanker have a capacity of at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant chemical, and be turbine engine powered.  To date, a modified four-engine BAE 146 regional passenger jetliner has been successfully demonstrated by one operator–Neptune Aviation–under real world wildland firefighting conditions, and interim approval gained last year from the government’s Air Tanker Board.  Neptune Aviation is also the operator of nine of the remaining P2V airtankers, and is focusing on the BAE 146 as a replacement aircraft.

Some discussions have also surfaced about using Air National Guard operated C130s, equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems (MAFFS).  This has been done in the past.  But those aircraft, while useful in a sustained attack mode, require 48 hours from call-up to arrival on station, making them unavailable for the important initial attack phase of wildfire fighting.

As the industry moves ahead with proposals for modern large airtankers, AHSAFA applauds the USFS for publicly recognizing they are currently dealing with insufficient numbers of aging air tankers, and the systemic problems related to dispatching and utilizing those resources effectively.  With continuing drought conditions throughout much of the country, along with the growth of the urban-wildland interface, AHSAFA believes that U.S. fire agencies and the airtanker operators have a new opportunity to work together to build an effective airtanker force for the 21st century.