New life for old airliners

New life has been created for an airliner that wasn’t considered a particularly successful airliner. The British Aerospace 146/Avro family is being converted to an aerial firefighting tanker and also an aerial refueling tanker.

The 146 and follow-on Avro upgrades weren’t particularly successful in commercial airline service, although nearly 400 were produced over 19 years. A niche aircraft, a few remain in operation today. Its four engines were an oddity for regional aircraft service and the initial engines were temperamental. The narrow fuselage made the 3×3 seating very cramped and some operators reduced seating to a more comfortable 2×3 configuration, which ballooned per-seat costs on the 100-seat model by 15% with elimination of 15 seats.

We flew in a 146 last January from Paris to Dublin, surprised to find the model still in use. While apparently still reasonably common in Europe, the airplane has disappeared from service in the US as far as we can tell.

Conversion to fire fighting use has been underway for some time, though the quantity so far is small. A blog about fire fighting discusses the 146 tanker and Aviation Week wrote a short piece about the 146 tanker and the emerging development of the McDonnell Douglas MD-87 as a tanker, which is being development by Aero Air, an affiliate of the Erickson Air Group, which is a joint venture partner in the Boeing 757P2F Precision Conversion company.

The US faces a crisis in aerial fire fighting because the tankers are old and several have crashed due to wing failures. The tanker fleet at one point was grounded for inspection because of the crashes. The 146 is viewed by some as having the advantage of being able to operate from unimproved air strips and operating at a relatively slow speed. The MD-87, sporting the same engines and wing as the larger MD-88, was considered a special performance airplane with short-field capabilities.

Bombardier has an aerial tanker that can scoop water from a lake on the fly, literally, but it costs $20m-$30m and a lack of orders caused BBD to announce it will discontinue production. There is a need for about 200 tankers worldwide, but like freighters, conversions of old airplane is preferred for cost.

20 Comments on “New life for old airliners

  1. I was told that the BAe-146 requires a costly heavy maintenance check after 40000(??) or so cycles. Many aircraft are actually approaching these limits, and the value of the aircraft is usually far below the cost for the heavy maintenance. Hence, they go to the scrapyard. European airlines stick to the aircraft as they are paid for, and used as low cycle regional aircraft (until the magical number of cacles is reached). The little bit of extra fuel is less of concern. The maintenance cost of this aircraft are supposed to be non competitive, also thanks to its partly military heritage.
    So, the aircraft are more or less for free. You just need to make the heavy maintenance, and the tanker conversion. I guess maintenance cost doesn’t really interest due to the very low number of cycles flown.

  2. Usually fire fighting tankers don’t need to fly high enough for pressurization. This saves cycles on the fuselage and makes the aircraft more useful. As pointed out by Scott, most FF Tanker crashes are due to wing failure (or pilot error).
    There was an infamous video of a former USAF C-130A used as a commercial FF Tanker fighting a fire in California back in the 1990s. As he was coming in to drop his load, one wing, then the other failed and the aircraft crashed killing the crew. The video follows the aircraft from just before the double wing failure to the wingless fuselage rolling and then crashing into the ground.

  3. There seems to exist some fondness for the type in Germany
    as it is nicknamed “Jumbolino” here.

    • I think it was Crossair that originally gave the BAe 146/Avro 100 that nickname.
      As it happens, my only two flights on Avro 100s were on Swiss, i.e. planes inherited from Crossair. What I remember most is how unusually noticeable the sound of the engines spooling up and down was.
      Besides Swiss – who still have 20, probably all slated to be replaces by the CSeries – I think the other main pax operator of the type in Europe is CityJet, an AF/KL subsidiary – they have 19 Avro 85s. My guess would be that Scott probably flew on CityJet on his trip from Paris to Dublin. Brussels Airlines also has about a dozen Avros left.
      The only other operator in Europe that I can think of would be TNT, but that’s obviously for freighters. The type was heavily promoted at the time as being very quiet, making it ideal for freight flights late at night or early in the morning – at the time, TNT used it for that purpose at CGN if memory serves.

  4. Maybe someone smarter than me has the info, but I recall that the 146 aircraft actually has a life limit (hours and/or cycles) and that some of the fleet is getting near it. The expectation was that the manufacturer would someday come up with a life extension program. Does anyone have details?
    As for the wing failures, there’s a reason for that to be a concern. It can get real bumpy flying down low through the up and down drafts of a forest fire.

    • I flew Brussels Airlines a few times in the past and my most memorable landing was at Brussels in the middle of a storm, with a flooded runway, in a 146… and the guy “landed” exactly like in the London City clip above.

      The only time I’ve ever gripped the armrest and held my breath during a landing – thinking “this could go bad”.

  5. I used to fly this quite often with Northwest. They had the 3-2 abreast configuration, and I loved it for some reason (as long as I was in the 2 or first class!)

  6. External mount means they didn’t have to cut a big hole in the pressure vessel. I think DC-10 tanker is the same.

  7. Gustiewing: “I actually thought this bird is getting on a bit, but it behaves well, relatively quiet and spacious (both seating and overhead compartment).”
    Isn’t this the aircraft that has a warning on the safety card so that one doesn’t panic from the noise when the flaps are activated? ALso what about the bins that are located in the wing area? I don’t recall them being so spacious.

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