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Friday, March 16, 2012

Wildland Fire News: 11 USFS Air Tankers Ready

 Air Fleet Ready, Forest Service Says, and Neptune Aviation Accelerates Air Tanker Readiness For Predicted Early Fire Season
Neptune Aviation Services Tanker 10
Despite seeing its national fixed-wing air tanker fleet shrink over the last 12 years from 43 aircraft to just 11 airplanes, the U.S. Forest Service insists it can successfully fight any wildfire that our mountain communities may face this year.

“I'm feeling cautiously confident about our capabilities nationally, and confident about our assets there locally” for the San Bernardino Mountains, Tom Harbour, director of Fire Aviation Management for the Forest Service, told this newspaper.

Harbour was responding to recent questions about the Forest Service's dwindling number of firefighting air tankers, and their age.

“We do have 10 of the (Lockheed) P2 Neptune aircraft, which are bigger than the (Lockheed) S2s that Cal Fire runs,” Harbour said, “that are in excellent condition and that are ready to go."

 “We also have another (fixed-wing) aircraft available, a newer and larger jet-engine aircraft that will be available,” he added. 

“So we have 11 fixed wing air tankers that are ready to go.” 

 MAFFS: He said the Forest Service has in addition to the larger jet tanker, access to two military C-130s based at Channel Islands that have fire-fighting capabilities, and six additional C-130s around the country for a total of eight additional aircraft. 

“When you look at the (fire fighting) system as a whole, and you see not only what the Forest Service has, with air tankers, large helicopters, (brush) engines, as well as federal, state and local cooperators, we are prepared to respond,” Harbour said.

Air Fleet Budget:  Harbour said the agency manages the air fleet to respond to any wildfire the Forest Service may be called in to help fight. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell earlier this month went before Congress to talk about the status of the fixed wing air fleet. According to Chief  Tidwell, the Forest Service is requesting $24 million in the federal 2013 budget to begin upgrading aircraft and acquiring more tankers. “The chief has submitted a large air tanker strategy,” Harbour said. “It begins the discussion with Congress about what we want. Yes, these are old (aircraft), but we wouldn't be flying them unless they are safe.”

 The Future: One of the newer aircraft the Forest Service is looking at adding to the fleet is the BAe 146, a four-engine jet fixed-wing airplane more usually seen as a passenger aircraft, but that can be configured for an air tanker role. “It can drop around 3,000 gallons, it's a platform that can go 350 mph, and is more fuel efficient,” he said. The BAe 146 was made by British Aerospace, later a part of BAE Aerospace Systems. Production of the aircraft ended in 2003. 

Firefighting Aircraft Contracts:  The Forest Service actually contracts with private companies to provide firefighting aircraft. Neptune Aviation Services, based in Missoula, Mont., is one of two companies the Forest Service contracts with for air tankers. “The BAe 146 offers newer (flight) systems, is more fuel efficient and can drop about 1,000 gallons more than the P2s,” said Dan Snyder, president of Neptune Aircraft Systems. Neptune Aviation, the largest US private operator of fixed wing aerial tankers, is gearing up for the 2012 fire season through an accelerated maintenance and training program, given predictions of earlier than normal wildland fire out-breaks–particularly in portions of the US Southwest.
 Neptune  leased additional hangar space at Missoula International Airport, and increased contract maintenance staff to 30 up from the 10-15 employed in prior years. The contract staff supplements 70 mechanics employed full-time.
Neptune Aviation Services, BAe 146  Tanker 40 
  • Tanker 40 Neptune's BAe 146 is called Tanker 40, and mountain residents may see it flying over the San Bernardino Mountains. “We expect it may be in the area (this summer),” he said. The Forest Service believes the BAe 146 may start entering its air tanker fleet in the near future. “We're going to start that transition over the next few months,” Harbour said. “The BAe 146 is the kind of platform (we're looking for), holds a heavier load, is more fuel efficient, and we have one of those right now.” Harbour said the Forest Service has mutual aid agreements with Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), the county and other firefighting agencies. “Residents will be protected for coming fire season,” he said. “That always is our goal, along with the dedicated men and women of the Forest Service. So residents should feel comfortable about the Forest Service's ability to respond to local wildfires.”

Tags: Forest Service Fire Aviation Management, Forest Service, USFS, Tanker 40
Info sources: - Link
Related stories:
Neptune Aviation Accelerates Air Tanker Readiness For Predicted Early Fire Season
Neptune Aviation Services Press release .pdf - Link 
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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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