Against the backdrop of raging wildland fires across many Western states in the U.S., a diversifying fleet of converted air tankers is being called into action.
This year, a 737-300 (27700, ex-Southwest Airlines) reconfigured by Canada-based Coulson Aviation as an airtanker or “Fireliner” entered service on behalf of the USDA Forest Service as part of a multiyear agreement with the agency.
Since receiving an STC for the 737 Fireliner in 2018, Coulson has converted two 737-300s, including the unit currently operating for the U.S. Forest Service in California. An additional aircraft is undergoing conversion at Coulson’s facility in British Columbia.
The 737 Fireliner adds to the firefighting specialist carrier’s jet and turboprop air tanker fleet, previously comprised of C-130s. Although both aircraft utilize the same 4,000-gallon-capacity tanking system, Coulson decided to develop a 737 variant to boost flow rate, and for the added ability to carry flight crews. The 737-300 is equipped with a 4,000-gallon (15,000-liter) tanking system and seventy-two passenger seats for transporting fire crews.
The tanking system, which automatically adjusts flow rate based on the speed and altitude of the aircraft, can disburse water or fire retardant at a maximum flow rate of up to 3,000 gallons per second on the 737, compared to 2,000 gallons per second on the C-130.
Coulson says that due to fuselage commonality across the 737-300 and other narrowbody variants, its design paves the way for future 737NG or even 757 conversions. Additional 737-300 conversions are planned, and Coulson is also in talks to convert 737s owned by state-owned carriers and governments, and operate them on their behalf, CEO Wayne Coulson told Cargo Facts.
The length of the 757-200 could double tank capacity to 8,000 gallons. “The next generation for us is to take our same technology and go to an 8,000-gallon super tanker,” said Coulson. For now, Coulson notes that demand for freighters has elevated the price for 757-200s.
As the intersection between developed structures and forests, or the “wildland-urban interface” continues to grow, larger maneuverable tankers are being activated. U.S.-based Erickson Aero Tanker has also converted five 3,000-gallon-capacity MD-87s and three 3,000-gallon-capacity DC-7s into tankers, some of which operate for the U.S. Forest Service. The company also has two more MD-87s “ready to convert” according to its website.
Despite the additional options for larger tankers, large numbers of smaller turboprops continue to dominate the fleet in absolute numbers. Canada-based Conair Group told Cargo Facts it has modified more than 175 aircraft across fifteen aircraft types and is currently focused on the Q400. The company has recently converted and placed four Q400s with two being deployed in France and one each in Canada and Australia.
On the larger end of the tanker spectrum, a single 747-400 was converted and certified as a fire bomber in 2016.
As of mid-September, the area of land lost to wildland fires across the United States during the 2020 season approached 7 million acres, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.
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