New Company Aims to Resurrect P-3 Orion Firefighting Tankers

ORION AERIAL Firefighters, a company dedicated to returning the P-3 Orion to aerial firefighting service, announced on January 20 that it has begun its campaign to restore the P-3 aircraft to firefighting service. “The US Forest Service has a shortage of large air tankers, which dangerously reduces its firefighting capabilities,” said Dale Head, CEO of Orion Aerial Firefighters. “The P-3 drops in terrain that other aircraft have trouble dealing with and pilots feel that the manoeuvrability of a turboprop and the relatively short wingspan allows the P-3 to get to places other airtankers just cannot.”

In 2011, after 20 years in service as the backbone of the US Forest Service’s large airtanker fleet for fighting wildland fires in the United States, the US Forest Service (USFS) cancelled the contract for six P-3 airtankers due to a dispute between Aero Union, the owner of the P-3 fleet, and the USFS, regarding maintenance practices. At the time, Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management programme, said: “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices.” When the negotiations came to an impasse, the USFS terminated the contract for the P-3s, who were in the middle of a firefight in Texas, and the pilots flew these six airworthy aircraft home.

Orion Aerial Firefighters (Orion AFF) says that it has assembled a unique team of engineers, maintenance experts and pilots who intend to return these aircraft to aerial firefighting. Their familiarity with these particular aircraft put Orion AFF in a unique position to return this P-3 fleet to service within a year of funding. Finding sources for this funding has been challenging, so Orion AFF has decided to solicit community support to help it attain its goal. “If every person who was ever threatened by wildfire were to give one dollar, we could easily attain our goal,” added Head.

The company hopes to raise $4.95 million in funding through Indiegogo where, since the appeal was launched on January 15, it had raised $2,192 as of today, January 22. The six Aero Union Orions have been stored at McClellan, California, with new owners since the USFS contract and offered for sale. They have been regularly run up and taxied in order to keep them close to operational condition, but would no doubt need some work to enable them to gain approval for use once more as USFS tankers. Alan Warnes