Airtankers 101

Updated June 23, 2017

Classification of Fixed-Wing aircraft used in the United States in aerial wildland firefighting is based on the capacity of the retardant/water tanks. Retardant (or a water/foam mix) is dropped on the fire to suppress the fire in support of the wildland fire fighting crews fighting the fire on the ground. Many of the articles that I link to here are written by Bill Gabbert of Fire Aviation, Bill does an excellent reporting on all aspects of aviation concerns in regards to the wildfire community, both in the U.S and globally. I encourage you to check him out. You will see that I follow Fire Aviation and refer to it here. However, he covers details about temporary aviation contracts and call when needed contracts that I don't mention here, so this is another reason to follow Fire Aviation for the very latest information.

Another great source of information is Mike Archer's Wildfire News of the Day, that he sends out in e-mail six days a week, subscription information may be found here. Mike's e-mails are chock full of links relating to a variety of wildland firefighting news, divided by geography, including links pertaining to wildland fire aviation interests. I learned about some of the media reports that I link to here from Mike's Wildfire News of the Day.

As the 2017 wildfire season continues, I hope to provide more updates as warranted. I also will be updating some sections as needed, e.g, MAFFs.

2017 Season

I wrote an article on April 14, 2017 about Tankers on contract for the 2017 fire season, that article is possible because of the good work done by Bill Gabbert of Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation.

Of note since my April 14th article:

2016 Season

I never found a list of air tankers that will be on contract by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. In the meantime, if you want an idea of the number of air tankers that are (or have been) on contract in 2016, Bill Gabbert of Fire Aviation posted a list of Air Tankers on US Forest Service Contracts, updated on May 24, 2016 here.

One piece of good news is the 747 SuperTanker, T-944, she can carry 19,600 gallons of retardant. The good news is that T-944 has received supplemental certification from the FAA and was later received operational certification from the FAA, see this September 16th article on Fire Aviation. Bill Gabbert of Fire Aviation posted an interview he conducted with Jim Wheeler of Global Supertanker Services on March 25, 2016 and he posted some pictures here.

In a June 13th article, Bill Gabbert of Fire Aviation wrote that Erickson Aero Tanker was adding a second tank to their two MD-87s (T-105 and T-108). The original contract start dates were pushed back a few months. I have no word about if and when this work is done. For more information read the June 13th article, Bill Gabbert of Fire Aviation.

The two US Forest Service HC-130H's, T-116 and T-118 were both at McClellan Tanker Base near Sacramento CA in mid-September 2016, see Bill Gabbert's August 11th article for more information and some photos that he posted here and here.

Airtankers by type (updated for 2017 season on June 23, 2017):

Type 1 (3000 gallon minimum)
  • Lockheed P-3 Orion (3,000) - All were from Aero Union, US Forest terminated its contract with Aero Union in July 2011 go here for more info.
  • BAe-146 (approx. 3,000 gallons. According to Neptune Aviation's May 25th Facebook post and Bill Gabbert's May 25, 2017 post, Neptune Aviation has a total of eight BAe-146 tankers on USFS contracts during 2017 
  • C-130Q (3,500 gallons), Coulson. Coulson has three C-130's on contract in 2017, see for example Bill Gabbert's April 24, 2017 post on Fire Aviation for more information’s latest Airtanker is a Lockheed L-382G (T-132), a civilian version of the C-130, under went grid testing in May 2015. Go to Fire Aviation’s May 12 2015 article for more information and pictures. Now know as T-132, she was on contract in Australia during the summer of 2015-16 and again in 2016-17.
  • MD-87 (4,000 gallons). The first MD-87 went on contract in June 2014. Two more MD-87's also went on contract in June 2014 only to be recalled by Erickson Aero for tank modifications, they were back in service on or about August 3rd (see this August 3rd 2014 article by Bill Gabbert on Fire Aviation). According to Fire Aviation’s Feb 4, 2015 article on the projected large air tankers on contract with the US Forest Service for the 2015 season Erickson will have two MD-87s on contract for the 2015 fire season. Two of Erickson's MD-87's (T-105 and T-108) were awarded contracts in 2016, but the contract start date was pushed back a few months to add a second external tank, see this June 2016 Fire Aviation post on Fire Aviation for more information. I am not sure if they every went on contract in 2016 nor am I sure what their status is for 2017, but Bill Gabbert does write about the MD-71 in his March 10, 2017 post.
  • RJ-85 (3,100 gallons. There are at least four RJ-85s on exclusive-use contract during the 2017  wildfire season, see this post on Fire Aviation for more information
  • Douglas DC-7 (3,000 gallons) - I saw various reports that three DC-7's (Erickson Aero Air) were on state contracts in California and Oregon during the 2016 wildfire season. I don't know what their status is for the 2017 fire season.

Type 2 (1,800 to 2,999 gallons)

Type 3 (800 to 1,799 gallons)

Type 4 - SEATs (0 to 799 gallons)
Speaking of SEATs, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Interior will contract for 33 SEATs, for more details you will want to read Bill Gabbert's coverage in his April 28, 2014 article on Fire Aviation. I am pretty certain that the U.S. Department of Interior has contracted for SEATs in 2015, I need to dig into this and will report back soon with current information.

Very Large Airtankers (VLAT)
Seven C-130H to be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service

Note, this paragraph on the Seven C-130H airplanes to be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service was current as of October, 2016. To be honest, as of June 23, 2017, I know about T-116 ad T-118, I am not sure about any more C-130H Tankers. 

Seven C-130H will be  transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service (Fire Aviation 5/2/14), the first is not expected to be available for firefighting duty until 2015. Bill Gabbert of Fire Aviation reported on May 20, 2015 that the first of seven HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the US Coast Guard to the US Forest Service will be ready ready for service as an airtanker this August (2015). This HC-130H will be based out of the US Forest Service Air Station McClellan at McClellan Airport in Sacramento CA. You will want to read Bill’s May 20th 2015 article for more information including but not limited to a picture of the paint scheme and more details on the conversion and the contract award for the aircrew (to CASS Professional Services Corporation). Gabbert reported on July 9, 2015 (with pictures) that the first USFS HC-130H (tanker 118) will be available sometime over the course of the week following July 9th. About two weeks later, Gabbert reported on Fire Aviation (July 26, 2015) that T-118 was in the air over McClellan. Work on T-116, the second HC-130H was completed in 2016. Two US Forest Service HC-130H's, T-116 and T-118 were both at McClellan Tanker Base in mid-September 2016, see Bill Gabbert's August 11th article for more information and some photos that he posted here and here.

Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) {Current as of October 2016}

There are eight military C-130s can be equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems (MAFFS) and are activated to help fight wildfires in the U.S. when all civilian airtankers are in use. There are three Air Force National Guard Units (153rd AW in Cheyenne, Wyo, Nevada Air National Guard 152nd Airlift Wing, and the 146th AW based at Channel Islands, CA. Bill Gabbert of Fire Aviation reported in an April 11, 2016 article that the MAFFS that were formerly assigned to the North Carolina Air National Guard are being transferred to the Nevada Air National Guard's 152 Airlift Wing. The only Air Force Reserve Unit is the 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado Springs, CO). Each unit supplies 2 MAFFS equipped C-130s. The MAFFS units drop either water or retardant and can be loaded onto the C-130 in a couple of hours.

To learn more about MAFFS, check out these fact sheets

A couple of articles on MAFFS from my blog:
About the C-130 MAFFS (6/12/13) with three videos (loading the MAFFS onto a C-130 and 2 videos of MAFFS in action.
C-130 MAFFS working 2012 CA wildfires (10/10/12) with link to 10 minute video

Some  additional videos: