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.