Walden visits with Erickson owners

by: HOLLY M. GILL - From left, Kevin McCullough and Jack Erickson, owners of Erickson Aero Air, and lobbyist Alan Ross (back) visit with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden at the Erickson Aero Tanker facility July 26, at the Madras Municipal Airport.If all goes as planned, the owners of Erickson Aero Tanker could have a staff of up to 100 people in the next few years.

Jack Erickson and Kevin McCullough, who own Erickson Aero Tanker at the Madras Municipal Airport, met with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden July 26, at their facility, to discuss the contracting process for the next generation of aircraft for firefighting operations.

"Three years ago, we started down this road of developing the next generation tankers," said McCullough, noting that the U.S. Forest Service was looking for newer, more efficient aircraft for use in fighting wildfire across the country.

The aircraft must be able to fly at least 350 mph, hold from 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of slurry, and operate out of specified airports.

With those specifications in mind, McCullough and Erickson, the owners of Erickson Aero Air, of Hillsboro, selected and purchased seven twin-engine, short-bodied MD-87s, which had been designed for use as commercial jet airliners, and began the process of converting the airliners to airtankers.

"About two and a half years ago, the contracts came out, we bid, and got awarded," McCullough said. However, the process was appealed, the contracts were withdrawn, and the bidding process was restarted late last year.

In May, the USFS awarded contracts to five companies for seven "next gen" airtankers. Aero Air, one of the five, was awarded a contract for two airtankers.

"They award you a line item, and, at their discretion, they can order two more the next year, and two more the next year," said McCullough. "Each line award can yield five aircraft."

The first time Aero Air was awarded, the company had 18 months to be ready, according to Erickson. "The second bid, they dropped that entirely. When we were awarded, we had to be on contract Aug. 7."

Although there is a 30-day grace period, he said, the USFS can cancel if the company is not ready.

Before the aircraft can be certified, it must pass a static test — dropping a load while parked on the tarmac, and a grid test, which includes dropping a $240,000 load of retardant from the air onto a grid.

With fuel and associated costs, McCullough said, "It's going to cost half a million per operator."

Sometime in August, Aero Tanker will have three of the MD-87s completely converted. "The goal is to have two airplanes on contract by the end of the year," he said.

McCullough doesn't anticipate any problems in the contracting process, and expects the company will be awarded additional contracts. "This is a business, and we want to be the best," he said. "We're cheaper than these other guys, and we meet the specs."

For each of the aircraft on contract, he said that the company will likely employ four pilots, two mechanics and support staff, which would mean 70-100 employees with 10 aircraft.

Erickson Aero Tanker has leased three more acres at the airport, and plans to break ground in August on another larger hanger, which will be used for aircraft maintenance, and to house Erickson's collection of aircraft from the Tillamook Naval Air Station Museum.

After listening to McCullough's update on the status of the contracts, Walden toured one of the not-yet-converted aircraft, and visited with Erickson and McCullough on the tarmac before leaving for his next stop.

"I learned a lot today about contracting provisions and the uncertainty in the process," said Walden. "It looks to me like there's room for improvement in the process."

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