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Island’s Coulson Aviation adds Boeing 737-700 to firefighting tanker program

Once converted, newer generation air tanker will have bigger 5,000-gallon payload: Britt Coulson

Coulson Aviation welcomed the next generation of aircraft for its aerial firefighting tanker conversion program, Wednesday, May 22 at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport.

A Boeing 737-700 NG, previously owned by Southwest Airlines, landed under blue skies and a ceremonial “birdbath” courtesy of firefighters from Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Department. The pilots in charge of bringing the plane to Port Alberni requested support from the fire department, SLVFD Fire Chief Mike Cann said.

The new aircraft will have a higher payload, with a 5,000-gallon capacity, said Coulson Aviation president and chief operating officer, Britt Coulson.

“It flies faster, it’s more fuel efficient and it’s kind of the next lineage from the 737 classic up to the NG now.”

The company has been converting smaller Boeing 737-300 aircraft, which have a 4,000-gallon capacity. They have also converted C-130 Hercules. The new-generation 737-700s “are very complementary,” Coulson said. “In large land masses where you don’t have a lot of bases, the 737 can get to and from a fire faster.

“The 737 is probably the future of the fleet for the next 20 years.”

This is the seventh aircraft that Coulson has purchased from Southwest Airlines for their tanker conversion program.

This particular 737-700 was flying passengers up until two weeks ago, when the aircraft retired from commercial service. The airline’s name was painted out at Boeing’s Paine Field plant, but the aircraft still bears the airline’s colours for now. Once converted, it will serve as the prototype for Coulson Aviation’s new generation of large air tankers.

Owner Wayne Coulson said the Port Alberni-based company is poised to buy 10 more of the 737-700 NG aircraft as they continue to build out the marketplace.

Wayne Coulson said the wildfire fighting industry “is certainly pushing us worldwide as the largest company now in the aviation firefighting business. We’re definitely getting a first look at most contracts now worldwide.”

Coulson Aviation’s primary market is the United States, and they continue to build the market in Australia, Wayne said. “We’re about to announce a long-term contract there for about 13 aircraft, and we continue to build a business in Chile and Argentina.”

Southwest Airlines pilots Capt. Jim Thal and Capt. Matt Prebish flew the aircraft from Seattle to Vancouver, then on to Port Alberni. The pair first visited the Alberni Valley last November when they met Britt Coulson.

Thal and Prebish are part of a group at Southwest that delivers planes to new owners and provides flight training.

The pilots left Port Alberni on Thursday, flying home to Texas via Nanaimo. The ground crew got to work removing the 737’s engines, preparing to ship them back to a Southwest Airlines plant.

Converting the 737-700 will take 18 to 24 months from start to flight testing, Britt Coulson said.

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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