Wildfire suppression crews in the United States are about to get some new aerial firefighting tools as the US Forest Service (USFS) continues to upgrade its initial attack capability.
Three significant milestones occurred in August that will see a much greater role for Canadian companies battling U.S. wildfires.
These milestones include the first flights of two next generation air tankers – Conair’s Avro RJ85 and Coulson USA’s Lockheed C-130Q – and the US Forest Service’s surprise solicitation for a Bombardier 415 amphibious water scooper aircraft.
The North American wildfire season is longer and more intense as a result of climate change.
In May 2013, the USFS awarded contracts for seven new generation air tankers to five companies, triggering a flurry of activity to get six of the seven aircraft modified, certified and into action.
These aircraft will supplement nine air tankers (seven Lockheed P2V Neptunes and two BAe 146-200s) on USFS exclusive use contracts, and 34 Type 1 heavy-lift helicopters capable of carrying at least a 5,000-pound payload and 700 US gallons of retardant.
Eleven additional Canadian aircraft – two Bombardier 415 scoopers and nine Convair 580 air tankers – were also working in the U.S. as of late August.
In early August, the USFS invited operators to bid on a five-year contract for a turboprop amphibious water scooper aircraft (AWSA) with a 1,600 U.S. gallon capacity, which narrows the aircraft choice to the Bombardier 415.
The contract represents a major breakthrough for the Canadian aircraft manufacturer, which (together with predecessor Canadair) has been trying to secure a USFS contract for the piston CL-215 or turboprop 415 for more than 40 years.
“This year we worked hard to convince the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of the benefits of the 415, and now the Forest Service has become the latest advocate for water scooping technology,” said Benjamin Boehm, vice president sales and marketing for Bombardier’s Specialized and Amphibious Aircraft Division.
“The operator of this aircraft is going to have an opportunity to demonstrate that an amphibious water scooping aircraft can provide a more rapid response than a [land-based] air tanker [that must reload at an airport], and the 415 will also give the USFS the capability to directly attack a wildfire, not just build fire lines.”
Aero-Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz., operates three CL-215s on contract in Alaska for the BLM, and crews two CL-215s owned by the State of Minnesota. Los Angeles County annually contracts Bombardier 415s (and CL-215s) from Quebec, with two arriving in California in August, a month earlier than usual.
Boehm declined to identify the companies seeking a 415 for the USFS bid, but said, “Our objective is to sell aircraft.”
Boehm forcefully shot down recent speculation on an Aviation Week blog that production of the Bombardier 415 was nearing an end.
“This aircraft is not at the end of its production life. We have a large number of sales campaigns underway around the world; and in fact, see an expansion of the market for the 415 globally and especially in Latin America and Asia.”
“Today, governments recognize the need to control wildfires that impact air quality in their cities and neighbouring countries, and the importance of forests for greenhouse gas conversion is known.”
Bombardier has booked orders for 84 Bombardier 415 water bombers and four 415 MP maritime patrol aircraft.
Conair Avro RJ85
Conair Aviation first flew its prototype Avro RJ85 air tanker conversion at Abbotsford, B.C., on Aug. 21.
The U.S.-registered aircraft (tanker 160) is the first of two ordered by Aero-Flite, Inc. for its new five-year USFS next generation air tanker contract. It last flew with Lufthansa Cityline.
The RJ85 is equipped with an externally mounted, 3,100 U.S. gallon (11,800 litre) constant flow, retardant delivery system which is capable of variable coverage levels at a drop speed of 120 knots.
Captains Ray Horton and Mark Paterson, accompanied by flight test engineer Larry Pahl, are assigned to the RJ85 program. They will later be joined by flight test pilots and engineers from British Aerospace.
“We expect this purpose engineered Next Generation aircraft to excel as an air tanker on wildfire missions, and remain in service for the next quarter century,” said Jeff Berry, manager of business development at Conair aerial firefighting.
“Canadian certification will proceed in parallel with US FAA certification,” he added.
Coulson Aviation (USA), Inc. Lockheed C-130Q
Coulson USA, Inc.’s newly-converted Lockheed C-130Q (tanker 131) made its first flight on Aug. 14 and dropped water the next day.
The static testing of the internal tank was completed in the summer, but grid testing (a water drop on a calibrated grid) was not required because Coulson bought an Aero Union design approved by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB).
The C-130Q was scheduled to go on contract in late August or early September.
“Our U.S. flight crews are very experienced National Guard MAFFS II pilots with a ton of C-130 and firefighting time,” said Britton Coulson, aviation manager. “We will operate with a double crew on a 12 days on/12 days off rotation to provide seven day a week capability over our 160 [contract] days.”
Coulson has converted a 53-foot NASCAR trailer to serve as a “mobile hangar” as the aircraft moves from base to base.
“The lightweight tank design can carry 3,500 U.S. gallons [and weighs much less] than a C-130J outfitted with a MAFFS II tank carrying 3,000 U.S. gallons, giving the C-130Q better performance and a higher margin of safety,” said Coulson.
During its overhaul, the C-130Q was equipped with the latest avionics, including dual touchscreen Garmin GPS units, E-HSIs, a Cobham digital audio system, a TCAS, a radar altimeter, and a new weather radar system.
“We also have a GPS-based tank controller that will vary flow rate based on speed, and a SkyTrac ISAT-200A that ties into the tank controller and can downlink all the critical drop data in real time to the USFS,” added Coulson.
“All totalled, a C-130Q conforming with our Type Certificate and Structural Integrity Program, and our 3,500 U.S. gallon RADS-XL tank, will have a ballpark price of $16 million.”
Tracker: End of the Line
After 35 years, the Government of Saskatchewan will retire its last four Tracker air tankers in early September. The aircraft were originally built by de Havilland Canada for the Navy and were later converted to air tankers by Field Aviation in Calgary. At the end of 2012, Conair retired its last Firecats (a version of the Tracker) and later donated Firecats to museums in Langley, B.C., and Wetaskiwin, Alta.
Meanwhile, Air Spray of Red Deer, Alta., has begun to convert a second BAe 146-200 to an air tanker at its U.S. base in Chico, Calif.