Aerial Firefighting 2018

Jim Dunn reports from this year’s Aerial Firefighting conference held at McClellan Field, California

Wearing a distinctive vinyl wrap forest paint scheme, Air Spray USA Tanker 170, BAe 146-200 N907AS (c/n E2156), makes a demonstration drop during AFF 2018 at McClellan Field. Delivered to Discovery Airways in January 1990 as N884DV, and last operated by Aerolineas Star Peru as OB-1948-P, Tanker 170 is awaiting approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board before beginning a Call When Needed contract this summer. It is the first of five BAe 146 aircraft to be converted by Air Spray USA at their Chico, California base.
All photos Jim Dunn

THE NORTH American edition of the Aerial Firefighting (AFF) international conference held on March 12–14 at McClellan Field in Sacramento, California, is continuing to expand as the growth of technology in the field of aerial fire-fighting is reaching new levels. It is now no longer a matter of just being able to get aircraft on a fire quickly, but also getting the right aircraft for the situation, along with the supporting equipment and personnel who can provide around the clock coverage for those fighting on the ground.

Presented by UK-based organisation Tangent Link, AFF 2018 hosted a full complement of over 40 exhibitors. These exhibits covered the entire spectrum of aerial firefighting from aircraft manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky and Air Tractor, to component and equipment/materials producers, such as Satcom, Simplex, Fire Boss, Phos-Chek from ICL Performance Products, and the Bambi Bucket of SEI Industries.

Air tankers

Today air tankers are categorised based on their size and load-carrying capacity, and it was the operators of these fire-fighting aircraft and helicopters that made up the largest contingent of exhibitors at AFF 2018.

From those who field the 747 and DC-10s in the Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) category such as Global Super Tanker and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, to helicopter operators such as Helimax Aviation and Columbia Helicopters, AFF 2018 presented those charged with managing and fighting wildfires an opportunity to gain information on these resources all in one place.

This was particularly helpful in the expanding category of Large Air Tanker (LAT) where most of the next generation of air tankers are entering service. With the retirement late last year of the P-2V piston-engine air tanker, the LAT category is almost exclusively turbine and jet-powered former airliners. Among these LAT operators represented at AFF 2018 were Aeroflite, Air Spray, Erickson, International Air Response and Neptune, and Coulson, which would introduce the latest LAT, the 737- 300 Fireliner.

The Coulson 737 Fireliner is unlike any of the other former airliners that have been converted to the air tanker role in that it will be a true dual-purpose aircraft. With the power of its two CFM56- 3 engines being able to carry over four hours of fuel with a full 4,000-gallon retardant load, as well as up to 63 passengers, Coulson has decided to retain much of the passenger interior, complete with galley, to enable the transport of up to three fire teams. This would achieve a significant increase in the utilisation of the aircraft throughout a fire season. Coulson has purchased six former Southwest Airlines 737-3H4 aircraft for this mission, with the first, Tanker 137, completing its conversion in February 2018. Coulson displayed the second of their 737s, Tanker 138, at AFF 2018 in its new paint scheme but not yet modified.

After experiencing difficulties in securing additional C-130s to increase its fleet of large air tankers, Coulson Aviation saw an opportunity when Southwest Airlines was forced to retire its Boeing 737-3H4 aircraft. Tanker 138, the former N608SW (c/n 27928), is now in the process of receiving its 4,000-gallon internal tank to become the second 737 in Coulson’s fleet. Currently Tanker 137 is conducting its final drop tests in preparation to begin operations this upcoming fire season.


After 2018, the demand for the usage of civilian VLAT and LAT aircraft is anticipated to increase, due to the recent announcement that the United States Forest Service will abandon its programme begun in 2013 to field its own fleet of C-130 air tankers.

Seven C-130H aircraft were obtained from the US Coast Guard with the intention to convert them to fire-fighting aircraft fitted with an internal retardant system. Based at McClellan Field during portions of the last couple of fire seasons, two of the aircraft had been fitted with the temporary Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, with a third C-130H assigned there for crew training. Due to delays by the US Air Force to issue contracts for the conversion work, none of the aircraft was ever fully converted, and their fate as far as becoming available for future civilian use as fire-fighting aircraft is unknown.

The AT-802F Fire Boss is one of the leading aircraft in the single engine air tanker (SEAT) category, with over 85 in operation worldwide. Built by an alliance between Air Tractor of Olney, Texas and Fire Boss of South St Paul, Minnesota, the versatile Fire Boss can scoop up and deliver nearly 800 gallons at a time. It can also be operated as a land-based tanker capable of carrying 78 gallons of foam retardant. Built in 2016, N776AS (c/n 802A-0648), Tanker 241, is one of six Fire Boss AT-802F aircraft in the Air Spray USA fleet.
Powered by the 1,600shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F turbine engine, the AT- 802F can cruise at 150 knots, while slowing to 105 knots for an accurate drop. A computerized pilot interface system allows coverage levels to be controlled during the drop from 0.5 to 4 gallons per 100ft2, or achieve the maximum 6.0 coverage when dropped all at once. With a 2.5-hour fuel endurance, the Fire Boss can deliver over 10,000 gallons per hour, with a turnaround time of four minutes, when the fire is within five miles of a water source.
Acquired in 1993, former US Marine Corps OV-10A BuNo 155401, N409DF/330 (c/n 305-12), is under the management of Cal Fire for the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Maintained and operated under contract by DynCorp International, Broncos are used for aerial command and control on fires throughout California. During AFF 2018, nearly half of the 14 Broncos in Cal Fire service were conducting training flights in preparation for the upcoming fire season.
The programme by the US Forestry Service to operate its own fleet of C-130 air tankers, using aircraft obtained from the US Coast Guard is being cancelled. Three of the seven C-130H aircraft that were to makeup the US Forestry Service fleet were seen in operation from their base at McClellan Field, with two equipped with temporary Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System units and one being used for crew training. None of the C-130s had the permanent internal systems fitted as called for in the US Forestry Service plan. The fate of these aircraft is currently unknown however the US Coast Guard has replaced some of is C-130H-series aircraft with HC-27Js.

In another development in the LAT category, Airstrike Fire-fighters LLC of Anchorage, Alaska, has obtained two former Aero Union P-3 Orions to add to its fleet of fire-fighting aircraft. It has also established a new maintenance facility at McClellan Field to rework Tankers 17 and 23 to comply with Federal Aviation Administration standards for their return to the firefighting mission. This will leave four of the former Aero Union P-3s still available for purchase.

Besides the increased performance capabilities that the next-generation air tanker brings to the fight, an overall advancement in technology throughout the field is bringing a new era to aerial firefighting. Two of the components that will play a major role in this new era are the ability to fight fires at night and the use of drones.

Technology in the fight

An important milestone in night fire suppression occurred in March when Coulson demonstrated to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) of Australia the ability of one of its S-61 helicopters to load water from a pond and then drop the load on a nearby fire in complete darkness.

Using night-vision goggles, with the S-61 equipped with a laser designator, the pilot was guided through the drop process by a spotter helicopter equipped with an infrared imaging system. CASA is expected to grant full authority to begin night fire-fighting operations shortly, with Coulson planning to return in 2019 to conduct qualifying approach is from Hungary called the 14F Project. This is an aerial extinguishing unit that disperses its own foam-based material called WOODFEX. The pressurised tank and extinguishing unit can be installed or uninstalled in less than half an hour in many types of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

First operated by the US Navy after being ordered by Capital Airlines as N181H, Lockheed Electra L188C (c/n 1130) later spent time with Pacific Southwest Airlines and the National Center for Atmospheric Research before starting its air tanker career. Now owned by Air Spray of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, C-FLXT Tanker 481 is one of nine in active service with Air Spray. It features a 3,000-gallon Retardant Aerial Delivery System tank that Air Spray owns the supplemental type certificate for.
The number of former military Blackhawk helicopters on the civil registry in the United States is increasing rapidly. Based in Red Bluff, California, PJ Helicopters was granted a Restricted Category Type Certification for its UH-60A Utility Hawk in July 2015. The Utility Hawk can operate with an internal load capacity of up to 11,300lb, or with an 8,000lb capacity on the cargo hook such as using a Bambi bucket for fire-fighting. PJ Helicopters has seven Blackhawks in their fleet including UH-60A N804PJ, former US Army serial number 78-22998.
The United States Forest Service has announced for the 2018 fire season, the number of large air tankers on Exclusive Use contract will be reduced from 20 to 13. Some of this reduction is accounted for by the retirement of the P-2V Neptunes of Neptune Aviation. The line-up for 2018 includes two DC-10s, four RJ85s, four BAe146s, one C-130, and two MD-87s including Erickson Aero Tanker 105 seen departing McClellan Field in Sacramento, California. Plans for 2019 is to increase the number of aircraft on Exclusive Use contract to 18.

Helicopter systems

For helicopters, only the Queensland, Australia-based Helitak offers a complete custombuilt underbelly expanding/ collapsible tank designed to fit the specifications and limits of multiple types of helicopters. The system features its own hose/pump unit, microprocessor controller for programmable drops with live tracking and recording of the flight, and even lights and siren to alert persons on the ground of the drops. From IMS New Zealand is a bucket system called Cloudburst that can be included with its only ground-based refill pool, with sizes capable of holding over 6,500 gallons of liquid.

Fire attack liquids

In the category of liquids, new solutions for both direct and indirect attack continue to be developed. A new product for the direct attack mission is BlazeTamer 380 from BioCentral Laboratories of South Australia. Neither a gel nor a foam, it is an elastomer mixed with water to create strong bonds between molecules to reduce drift and evaporation during the drop, as well as better canopy penetration.

A maximum amount of 0.65% is needed per gallon of water for aircraft fighting heavy fuel fires, while most situations will call for only 0.2% to 0.32% per gallon.

Displays and speakers

To go along with the indoor displays of the 41 exhibitors, there was a wide range of aircraft, helicopters and equipment on one of McClellan’s ramp that included the 747-400 Supertanker. All of the aircraft were open for visits; a brief demonstration of the BAe146 and Fire Boss making water drops also took place. This is perhaps the one drawback of the North American edition of AFF, in that it does not have the number of flying demonstrations that the other conferences feature.

An important aspect of any conference is its speakers. At AFF 2018, there were 31 speakers from as far as Argentina, Australia and Israel. Topics covered a wide spectrum, from human performance and pilot fatigue to climate change and wildfires’ impact on resources.

’Aerosmurf’ A320

Brussels Airlines has repainted A320-214 OO-SND (msn 1838) into this distinctive livery featuring the Smurfs. The aircraft, known as the ‘Aerosmurf’, is pictured taxiing at Manchester. The same jet previously wore the ‘Red Devils’ special livery.
Ashley French

Qatar 747-8

Qatar Amiri Flight Boeing 747-8KB A7-HHE (c/n 37544) at a wet Brussels in March, bringing in a delegation of dignitaries from the Middle East country on a state visit to Belgium.
Wout Goosens

Air Belgium A340

Air Belgium conducted its first flight on March 29, an ad hoc charter from Brussels Charleroi to Surinam. The airline was due to begin scheduled operations from Charleroi on April 30 with a four-times-a-week return flight to Hong Kong. Additional routes to destinations in China are due to start during the summer. The carrier is operating two ex- Finnair A340-343s, OO-ABA (msn 835), pictured, and OO-ABB (msn 844).
Wout Goosens


Javier Rodriguez


Laudamotion is a new European low-cost carrier planning to start scheduled operations in April 2018. Established by ex-F1 driver Niki Lauda, the airline has been formed using assets of the former Niki operation acquired from the Air Berlin group’s administrators. Laudamotion is planning to expand to 30 aircraft within three years. Ryanair is a 24.9% shareholder, a holding that could rise to as much as 75%, subject to Euro regulatory approval. Mark Broadbent


Two BAE Systems ATP freighters have been purchased from the Swedish cargo carrier West Atlantic by the Kenyan company EnComm. West Atlantic has 27 ATPs, of which around half have been grounded to cut costs and is looking to dispose thefleet. EnComm has also brokered a deal for the supply of two ATP passenger variants owned by one of West Atlantic’s partners. Spares, engineering and training support is also being provided to EnComm, a civil engineering company that is adding aircraft operations by acquiring the ATPs. Guy Martin


Vietnam’s FLC Group has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Airbus for 24 A321s for a new start-up carrier called Bamboo Airways. The carrier is due to start operations in 2019 with leased aircraft before the A321s in the Airbus MOU are delivered. Bamboo is set to operate on both domestic services in Vietnam and on regional Asianflights. Mark Broadbent


Delta Air Lines and Korean Air have received regulatory approval for a transpacific joint venture. The combined network covers 370 destinations (290 in North, Central and South America and 80 in Asia). The tie-up is a further major strategic move for Delta, the world’s largest airline, after last year announcing a four-way JV with Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic across the North Atlantic. Mark Broadbent


Indian carrier Jet Airways has placed a big follow-on order for the Boeing 737 MAX, ordering another 75 examples to go alongside 75 others it ordered in 2015. There are no details yet about the variants ordered in the new deal or delivery dates. Mark Broadbent


EasyJet is the latest major airline to order the Airbus Skywise digital data platform. All 300 A320 Family aircraft operated by the UK low-cost carrier will be retrofitted with Rockwell Collins FOMAX-based predictive maintenance services. Skywise provides users with a single access point to their data by bringing together performance and maintenance information into a secure cloud-based platform. Mark Broadbent





Data covers orders announced February 28-April 4. Key: LOI – Letter of Intent; MOU – Memorandum of Understanding. Compiled by Mark Broadbent


Second MS-21 preparing for testflight

The second of four Irkut MS-21-300 airliners that will be used forflight testing was rolled out of the factory at Irkutsk, Russia, on March 25. The initial MS-21-300, which is currently beingflight-tested at the Gromov Institute at Zhukovskiy near Moscow, firstflew ten months before. The third MS-21-300 is being assembled and the fourth is under construction at the component level. Some $3.8 billion in additional investment in the MS-21 programme has been provided from Russian banks, it was announced on March 29. The additional investment will enable the production of 50 MS-21s for Aeroflot by 2026. David C Isby

Sustainment problems

Russian federal civil aviation agency Rosaviatsiya in a ruling posted on its website on March 24 identified problems with maintaining the airworthiness of foreign-built airliners in Russia in the absence of clear regulations. These include falsification of maintenance documentation and problems with replacing and repairing parts. Rosaviatsiya cited the absence of corrective action by industry. David C Isby

Royal Air Maroc looking for RJs

Moroccanflag carrier Royal Air Maroc wants to acquire new regional jets and is leaning towards Embraer aircraft after considering options from Sukhoi, Embraer and Bombardier. During talks with the Brazilian President in late March, Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani suggested the possible purchase of Embraer regional jets, which would join four E190s leased from Nordic Aviation Capital. During the visit, the Moroccan side also suggested adding a new route to Brazil. Royal Air Maroc is looking into expanding itsfleet over the next two years, and recently ordered four Boeing 787-9s and four 737 MAX aircraft, which will be delivered by mid-2019. It has also expanded its route network, as it aims to double passenger capacity. Guy Martin

Super connector’s selection

Turkish Airlines has split its future twin-aisle widebodyfleet between Airbus and Boeing by ordering 25 Airbus A350-900s and 30 Boeing 787- 9s, with options on five A350-900s and five 787- 9s. The airline said it would receive six deliveries in 2019, 14 in 2020, ten in 2021, 12 in 2022, 11 in 2023 and seven in 2024. Securing Turkish’s signature was a major target for both Airbus and Boeing; the airline is defined by the International Air Transport Association as a “super connector” to reflect its status as a growing airline feeding traffic between east and west. Mark Broadbent

Peach in Japan

All Nippon Airways (ANA) Group is to merge its low-cost carrier subsidiaries, Peach and Vanilla Air, under the Peach brand. ANA said the integration will start in the second half of this financial year and “will serve as a strong foundation for furtherfleet growth and network expansion”. Peach started operations in March 2012 from Osaka Kansai and Vanilla in December 2013 from Tokyo-Narita. The enlarged Peach will operate from both bases, with the plan for the carrier to grow to more than 50 aircraft, up from 35 today. Mark Broadbent