BAE Systems is making specialist contributions to a number of airtanker (aerial firefighter) aircraft conversion programs underway in North America
Four companies in the United States and Canada have selected the BAe 146/Avro RJ as the aircraft for conversion to the 3,000 gallon U.S. Type 1 airtanker which forms the bulk of the fire-fighting fleet in North America. The BAe 146/Avro RJ is one of a number of designs that are described as next-generation airtankers. Ten aircraft are under conversion currently.
Many of the existing Type 1 Airtankers in use today are Korean War vintage aircraft such as the piston-powered PV2 Neptunes and Grumman Trackers, as well as early-generation turboprops such as Convair 580s and Lockheed Electras, that are coming to the end of their operational lives and need replacing with more modern equipment.
This is particularly the case given the extremely demanding flight profiles that these aircraft have to fly when dropping retardant on to wildfires that are prevalent in the summer season especially across western North America. According to the United States Forest Service, as of mid-August there were 48 uncontained large fires burning across the country.
Mark Taylor, business director engineering for BAE Systems regional aircraft says, “We estimate that the extreme nature of this wildfire flying means that for every BAe 146/Avro RJ flight cycle on a typical mission, the impact for structural and fatigue life is estimated to be between four and seven flight cycles of normal flight. This figure will be validated during the initial years of operation and might vary due to the nature of the airtanker design.
“This type of specialist service is one which we can provide to these operators, and the authorities are pleased that we, as the original equipment manufacturer, are taking such a close interest in these programs. The design and engineering services BAE Systems provides to these operators/conversions in support of their individual tanker designs include: aerodynamic/computational fluid dynamics analysis; dynamic loads assessment; structural analysis; technical data packs; flight test planning and analysis; and flight test engineers and pilots.”
BAe 146/Avro RJs that are suitable for conversion tend to be lower-cycle aircraft to ensure that based on the typical utilization expected, a long life can be planned for the aircraft in this role.
The exceptional slow-speed handling of the aircraft, coupled with its hot-and-high performance and steep approach capability means that the four-engine BAe 146-200/Avro RJ-85 is seen as ideal for this type of mission. Several operators have flown flight profiles in simulators to verify performance and there have been two actual flight trials: in the U.S. in September 2004 and in Scotland in October 2009.
The four operators that have selected the British jet, and which are engaged in active airtanker conversion programs are:
Conair Group Inc., of Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, which maintains a fleet of about 50 fixed-wing special mission firefighting aircraft, including Convair 580 Conair Firecats, Douglas DC-6, and Lockheed Electra airtankers. Operating for over 40 years, Conair has selected the Avro RJ85 for its conversion program and a number of aircraft have been delivered so far from regional aircraft lessor, Falko Regional Aircraft.
Tronos Plc/Neptune Aviation Services – Tronos Plc, a UK-based BAe 146 aircraft lessor with a MRO facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada, that has developed a BAe 146 airtanker. The first two have been delivered to Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mt., with a further two under conversion in Canada. Apart from the BAe 146 airtankers, Neptune operates a fleet of eight Neptunes in this role.
Minden Air of Minden, Nev., which has recently completed the conversion of its first BAe 146 Fireliner and which is now undergoing extensive flight testing. A second aircraft is under conversion and eventually these aircraft will replace the venerable Neptunes currently in service with Minden Air.
Air Spray Aviation Services of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which has been flying as an airtanker operator for over 45 years and currently has a fleet of Lockheed Electra turboprops. It has established a U.S. base at Chico, Calif., and has acquired a BAe 146-200 for conversion to the fire-fighting role.