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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

WILDFIRES: Forest Service plans to add 7 “next-gen” air tankers

 In an apparent death knell for piston-engine air tankers, the U.S. Forest Service says it intends to award contracts for seven “next generation” air tankers.
10 Tanker Corp. Tanker 910
Photo: Mike Eliason
 The group includes a Victorville-based DC-10 jetliner-turned-air tanker and a former Navy C-130 cargo plane that’s being converted in San Bernardino.
“She is going back together now and have targeted mid-June for test flights with (anticipated) contract start for July 1st,” Wayne Coulson said in an email about his four-engine C-130Q Hercules.
Fatal crashes in recent years initially prompted the Forest Service to initially ground most of its air tanker fleet — once numbering 44 aircraft. Then it decided to modernize.
But so far this year, contracts have been issued only to eight of the old “legacy” tankers, which the agency clearly want to stop using.
So officials announced Monday, May 6, they plan to award contracts to the first crop of “next-gen” tankers. Five firms were named as the intended recipients of contracts for seven airplanes.
The group includes Coulson’s C-130 and a DC-10 belonging to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, which bases two such jets at Southern California Logistics Airport, the new name for the old George Air Force Base.
If all works as planned, this year’s fleet — young and old — would total 15 airplanes.
Eventually, the Forest Service says, the fleet will total between 18 and 28 air tankers, the number recommended in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy that the agency sent to Congress in February 2012.
Although some of the seven tankers mentioned Monday are propeller-driven, all have jet engines, which have far fewer moving parts than piston engines and presumably will be safer and more reliable.
And each plane is supposed to have a capacity of at least 3,000 gallons — about a third greater payload than the legacy planes now in use.
Of the new group, the only one that is ready to fly is the DC-10, which dropped fire retardant Saturday during two flights over the 3,100-acre Summit Fire in Banning. Those flights were conducted under a separate contract that calls for the jet to be used on a call-when-needed basis.
A full-time contract would make the DC-10 available for launch on only 30 minutes notice — as opposed to its current 24-hour deadline — for 160 days a year, which means the entire California fire season.
“They will also have more incentive to use us,” said Rick Hatton, of 10 Tanker Air Carrier. “It’s like a house you’ve already rented: You’re probably going to use it.
“So it’ll be used sooner. And sooner is always better when you’re trying to contain a fire. When a fire ‘gets away,’ the (suppression and damage) costs are huge.”
For Hatton, the Forest Service announcement was a great relief. His enormous 11,600-gallon Tanker 910 has been battling fires for eight years, but mostly for Cal Fire, and always on a call-when-needed basis, so he never knew how much money he’d make in a season. Now the firm will have a steady income.
Hatton believes there also will be a payoff for the public and the Forest Service.
“We came along with a game-changer that was kind of a leap in the quantity (of fire retardant) we could bring,” he said. “And the response was, ‘Gee, we don’t need all that.” But we’ve started to overcome that.
“It brings more retardant, more cheaply, and more safely to the containment effort. It’s like using a dump truck instead of a pickup truck to move dirt. Sure it costs more. But it doesn’t cost more per ton — or gallon — delivered.”

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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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