Forest Service to abandon Coast Guard HC-130H program

Transfer and conversion of seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers for the Forest Service is to be cancelled

Above: Tanker 118, formerly a Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, was photographed at Sacramento McClellan Airport, May 3, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

(Originally published at 8:45 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)

The U.S. Forest Service intends to abandon the program that it has been working on since 2013 to convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers for fighting wildfires.

One of them will be available for firefighting in 2018.

“FY 2018 is … the last year the agency will support the HC-130H program that was authorized within the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act”, Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson explained Friday. “The agency will seek the support of the appropriate Congressional committees to terminate the agency-owned HC-130H program in 2019. The agency has determined that the HC-130H program is no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required large air tanker needs.”

This will no doubt make the private companies that operate air tankers ecstatic. They would prefer not to have to compete with the government.

On December 27, 2013 President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.

Now, over four years later, as far as we can tell none of the seven HC-130H aircraft have made it all of the way through the maintenance, conversion, and retardant tank installation process. Between 2015 and 2017 one of the aircraft was used in a firefighting role based at Sacramento McClellan Airport. It was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods.

HC-130H 1709 Jeanie Menze
One of the Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, #1709, being transferred to the USFS; shown with Jeanine Menze–1st USCG African American female aviator. She earned her wings June 24, 2005.

To our knowledge no permanent retardant delivery systems have been installed in any of the HC-130H’s. The Air Force, responsible to coordinate the maintenance and conversions, dithered for a very long time before issuing a contract to have them installed. Then after awarding it, they cancelled it. We believe the contract has not been re-awarded.

This was a completely new program for the U.S. Forest Service. The agency had never owned or operated a fleet of large aircraft, let along four-engine air tankers that had serious maintenance issues.

On June 1, 2015 the FS distributed a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency was not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor (GO/CO) operated venture. On that date, 522 days after Congress began the process of transferring the aircraft, the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel.

“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”

The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned”. With the first HC-130H scheduled to arrive at McClellan Airport (MCC) in Sacramento in mid-June (not mid-May as originally planned) the FS had not used the 522 days to become prepared for the beginning of a new paradigm of large air tanker use.

At the end of those 522 days, they came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

Until then, all federal air tankers, from single engine to jumbo jet sized, have been contractor owned and contractor operated (CO/CO). The actual operation and maintenance of the tankers, including the on-site, day to day safety, had been the responsibility of the privately owned companies.

In 2015 the USFS awarded contracts worth over $7 million for maintenance and operation of the HC-130’s.

In 2013 the Coast Guard wanted to get rid of these aircraft that are now around 30 years old. At least five of them needed to have the center wing boxes (CWB) replaced to make them safe to fly.
C-130H wing box, diagramA wing box is the core or backbone of an aircraft. In a C-130 it sits atop the fuselage and forms the attachment point for both wings. A failure of the wing box during flight would be catastrophic. The total cost of a center wing box kit in 2011 was $6.7 million, including installation which takes about 10 months.

Most if not all of the seven aircraft also needed standard primary structure inspection — known as programmed depot maintenance — that takes between 180 and 200 days.

In 2014 we did some back of the envelope ciphering, estimating the costs of converting these Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers. The legislation directed that no more than $130 million be spent by the Department of Defense to modify and maintain the seven aircraft before the transfer; any additional funds would have to come from the USFS. Doing a little math here, if the CWB replacement costs $7 million each, the programmed depot maintenance runs $3 million per aircraft (to pick a number out of the air), and the installation of the retardant tank system is $4 million (Coulson’s preliminary estimate is $3.5 million each for their Aero Union/Coulson RADS tank), we are looking at a total of about $98 million — within the $130 maximum allowed by Congress. If $14 million is subtracted for CWB replacements that have already occurred on two aircraft, that total is brought down to $84 million.

However, there is no doubt that other work would have to be done to the aircraft, such as installation of radios, a real time location tracking system, and perhaps other avionics and a stress monitoring system. It is also possible that unneeded equipment such as a cargo handling system and armor would have to be removed, all of which could require more USFS dollars unless these items are included in the total conversion project funded by the military, rather than done later by the USFS. These additional tasks would push the price closer to the $130 million threshold. Nothing you do to an aircraft is inexpensive.

Air tankers to be cut by one-third in 2018

The large air tankers on Forest Service exclusive use contracts are being cut from 20 to 13.

(Originally published at 4:29 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)

The U.S. Forest Service is cutting the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year from 20 to 13.

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues are affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner. Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased. This means less funds available for our crucial restorative work on your National Forest System lands to prevent large fires.

exclusive use air tankers contract 2018

Ms. Anderson is correct about the severity of wildfires. The number of acres burned and the average size of fires have grown exponentially over the last two decades.

average acres burned wildfires united states

The air tanker vendor that is most affected by this change is Neptune Aviation. Last year the company had 11 air tankers on EU contracts, seven BAe-146’s and four P2V’s. This year they have only four aircraft — all BAe-146’s. But compared to the competition, Neptune has done very well over the last five to six years. (A phone call to Neptune was not immediately returned.)

Ms. Anderson said the Administration’s plans for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins October 1, 2018, call for 18 EU large air tankers. However, Congress has not passed a budget for FY 2019 and based on their recent history, it may or may not happen. Continuing Resolutions which freeze spending at previous levels, have been enacted more frequently than conventional full-year budgets. And if it is passed, there is no guarantee that the Administration’s recommendations will be honored.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on EU contracts, but after the wings fell off two aged military surplus air tankers in mid-air that year killing five aviators, many of the older aircraft were eliminated for safety reasons. Little was done to restore the fleet during the following 11 years and by 2013 there were only 9 on EU contract. In 2013 a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” aircraft began. Eventually over the next few years we saw the introduction of retired jet-powered airliners that were not as old as the 50+ year-old aircraft they began to replace.

By 2016 there were 20 large air tankers on EU contracts, plus one Coast Guard HC-130H that worked from 2016 through 2017. It was one of seven being transferred to the Forest Service that since 2013 have been going through a very, very lengthy convoluted process of being converted into air tankers. The one flying then was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods. Later we will have an article on this website about the fact that the Forest Service wants to abandon the HC-130H program.

Call When Needed air tankers

In addition to the 13 large air tankers on EU contracts, 11 are signed up on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis in 2018. The companies on the list are Aero Flite, 10 Tanker, Coulson Aviation, and Neptune. If the Forest Service thinks more than 13 are needed at any one time, they can start calling around to see if any of the four companies have any that are available — not working for a state, another country, or tied up in maintenance. Or, mothballed for financial reasons. The rates for CWN aircraft are much higher than EU resources. The business model for keeping an aircraft and crew in tip top shape but sitting idle for much of the fire season, is a difficult one for most private companies to pull off.

Walt Darran, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away in 2013, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker and crew ready to go.

call when needed air tankers contract 2018

Scoopers cut to zero

The number of scooping 1,600-gallon CL-415 air tankers is being cut from two in the first part of 2017 to zero the rest of this fiscal year, FY 18, which ends September 30, 2018. The CL-215/415 scoopers are beloved in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and other countries, but the Forest Service has always appeared to have a bias against them.

The 2012 RAND air tanker study ran simulations with from 8 to 57 scoopers being on contract. They found that at least two-thirds of historical fires have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible body of water. The report had several different models, assumptions, and variables but generally recommended more than 40 scoopers be on contract, with a lower number of conventional air tankers. The Forest Service decided to keep the taxpayer-funded report secret and not release it, even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Ultimately the RAND Corporation released the document.

Acquisition of $65 million air tanker may be cancelled

In December, 2014 the President signed legislation that included  $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. At the time, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calve, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior & Environment, said the funds would be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”.

We asked Ms. Anderson about the $65 million:

The President’s FY 2019 Budget proposes the cancellation of the $65 million for the new aircraft. The USDA Forest Service issued a solicitation to purchase Next Generation Airtankers in November, 2016. The agency cancelled the solicitation in June, 2017 after it yielded proposals with costs higher than the appropriated funds.

We thought the funds were intended to buy one of Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J’s, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million. Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door.

Reduction in helicopters continues

In 2017 there was an 18 percent reduction in the number of large Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts. That will continue in 2018.  For several years the U.S. Forest Service contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.

The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters last year was close to average, but the orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) were almost double the number of filled orders. Sixty percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

A study completed in 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

Photos of DC-10 air tankers at McClellan

And, a 737 air tanker

Above: T-911, a DC-10, at McClellan October 13, 2017, by Sergio Maraschin.

Sergio Maraschin sent us these photos that he took of DC-10 air tankers at Sacramento McClellan Airport in 2017.

DC-10 air tanker
T-910 at McClellan October 10, 2017, by Sergio Maraschin
DC-10 air tanker
T-910 at McClellan July 30, 2017, by Sergio Maraschin

Thanks Sergio!

****

UPDATED at 11:40 MT February 16, 2018. 

A person who prefers that we not disclose their name sent us this photo of one of Coulson’s freshly painted 737 air tankers at McClellan.

Air Tanker 138 737
Coulson’s Air Tanker 138, a 737, at McClellan, January 30, 2018.

Articles on Fire Aviation tagged 737.

Photos of the 747 SuperTanker at McClellan

Sergio Maraschin sent us these photos that he took of Air Tanker 944, a 747 SuperTanker, at Sacramento McClellan Airport in 2017. He believes the water drop was a demonstration at the airport.

Thanks Sergio!T-944 Supertanker 747 Sergio Maraschin T-944 Supertanker 747 Sergio Maraschin T-944 Supertanker 747 Sergio Maraschin

Elk brings down helicopter in Utah

The two-person crew sustained minor injuries.

Above: helicopter brought down by an elk during a net gunning operation. Photo by Wasatch County Search and Rescue

(Originally published at 10:18 a.m. MT February 14, 2018)

An elk took down a helicopter Monday afternoon during a net gunning operation in Utah. It happened about 40 air miles east of Provo near Currant Creek Reservoir (map).

Officials from the Division of Wildlife Resources hired the crew and the helicopter, a Hughes 369D, to capture elk using a net fired from a gun. As the helicopter flew 10 feet above the ground the gunner in the back seat fired the net over the cow elk, but its legs were not entangled as hoped. It jumped and struck the tail of the helicopter which became uncontrollable and crashed.

elk helicopter crash
Photo by Wasatch County Search and Rescue

The 2 people aboard the chopper are okay except a few small cuts and bruises. They were both checked out by Fruitland EMS. As for the chopper not so good. Not something you see every day when an elk brings down a chopper.” – Wasatch County Search and Rescue Facebook page

Photos show the tail rotor was no longer attached to the helicopter.

Net gunning is a commonly used practice for relocating animals, collecting biological samples, and placing radio tracking collars on wildlife. Some contractors use a modified shotgun to fire the net that falls over the animal, entangling its legs and trapping it. The helicopter then lands and the crew subdues the animal which can be treated at the site or transported in a cargo net to another location for processing.

elk helicopter crash
Photo by Wasatch County Search and Rescue

***

UPDATE at 11:11 a.m. MT Feb. 14, 2018. Unfortunately, the elk did not survive.

Australia to experiment with night-flying helicopters

This will be the first trial of helicopters dropping water on fires at night in the country.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass in Southern California, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Fire management authorities in Australia are planning a trial of night-flying helicopters later this year. Emergency Management Victoria is leading the effort which could begin toward the end of the current bushfire season in March or April.

“There is still a lot of planning and due diligence to complete, and regulatory approvals to work through”, Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre said.  “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use Night Vision Goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to  extend firebombing into the night.”

Mr. Alder said fixed wing air tankers will not be part of this trial, but they are examining the possibilities for future phases of the project.

The video below is an example of a night-flying helicopter dropping on a structure fire in Los Angeles (at 1:08).

Around half a dozen or so agencies in Southern California have been using night-flying helicopters for a number of years.

The Australians have 42 Single Engine Air Tankers working this bushfire season — 40 AT802’s and 2 Hubler Turbine M18’s. Two of the AT802’s are Firebosses on floats.

They have also had four large air tankers from North America working in the country during their summer.

  • DC-10 (-912 contracted from Agair who work with Ten Tanker) based at Richmond near Sydney;
  • L-100 (T-132, Coulson Aviation based at Richmond) – the Mandatory Availability Period is already completed for this one;
  • C-130Q (T-131, Coulson Aviation) based at Avalon near Melbourne;
  • RJ85 (FieldAIr with AeroFlite) based at Avalon.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre is in the process of issuing contract solicitations for the 2018-2019 bushfire season. They expect to have about the same number of SEATS, large air tankers, and Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters.

“Overall we would expect generally similar total numbers, but these solicitations could potentially see some changes in providers or fleet mix”, Mr. Alder wrote in an email. “Our multi-agency evaluation groups are currently working through all the options (and budgets!) and we hope to have a better idea of how the future fleet will look in a few months.”

A salute to LA County Air Operations

The Fox TV station in Los Angeles honored the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations Section in this video clip.

Only 40% of requests for Type 1 helicopters were filled on wildfires in 2017

Last year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of Type 1 ships by 18%.

Above: N137BH, a Sikorsky 70A or “Firehawk” helicopter, flies to refill its water bucket after dropping on the Rankin Fire in South Dakota September 13, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 5:34 p.m. MT February 8, 2018)

The stats are in for the use of firefighting helicopters in 2017. The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

Type 1 helicopters are the largest used on fires, carrying 700 to 2,800 gallons.

One important change in 2017 was the 18 percent reduction in the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contract. For several years the U.S. Forest Service had contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled

These contracts require continuous availability throughout the mandatory availability period, which can be 180 days or more. Other helicopters may or may not be procured on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract. A CWN aircraft could be tied up on something else or undergoing heavy maintenance when the phone in the office rings asking if they can respond to a fire. And CWN aircraft cost the government much more to operate than EU resources.

These large helicopters are beloved by wildland firefighters, since they can strategically drop with pinpoint accuracy thousands of gallons of water or retardant while working close air support with ground personnel. This can cool and slow the spread of the fire, enabling crews to work nearer the fire edge. A series of water drops can enable hand crews to make steady progress on active flanks of the fire. Helicopters can often refill with water from a nearby lake or tank, making 5 to 15 minute turnarounds. A fixed wing air tanker that has to refill at an airport takes much longer.

The six helicopters that were cut last year:

  1. Prineville, Oregon (BK-1200) Swanson Group Aviation
  2. Helena, Montana (BK-1200) Central Helicopters
  3. Hamilton, Montana (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  4. Custer, South Dakota (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  5. Lancaster, California (CH-54A) Siller Helicopters
  6. Minden, Nevada (CH-54A) Helicopter Transport Services

Type 1 helicopters are frequently moved around depending on fire danger and incident activity and are often not at their home base.

What do aircraft studies recommend?

In March, 2017 when it was revealed that the six helicopters were being cut, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones explained the agency’s rationale:

At this time, the agency has determined 28 to be the appropriate number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts given current types and numbers of other aircraft in the fleet. This is in line with the 2012 Airtanker Modernization Strategy.

She said “Up to 30 additional Type 1 helicopters” are on Call When Needed contracts, which includes the six that no longer have EU contracts.

The Airtanker Modernization Strategydoes not make an independent recommendation on the number of helicopters or air tankers that are needed. But it refers to a study conducted from 2007 to 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, which concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers. At the beginning of the 2017 western fire season there were 20 large and very large air tankers on EU contracts plus two water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

Our opinion

As this is being written, the politicians we elect to represent us in Washington are trying to put together a last minute (literally) federal budget that will keep the government from shutting down again tonight. They are proposing to increase the dollars spent on Defense by $165 billion. This would raise the total military budget for the next two years to $1.4 trillion. (A source in D.C. told us there is a chance the legislation will include a fix to the fire borrowing fiasco, where funds are taken from other functions to pay for wildfire suppression.)

Everyone agrees that the military needs to be adequately funded, but in 2016 the amount the U.S. spent on defense was almost equal to what the next 14 countries combined spent.

Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post, February 9, 2016:

On Tuesday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies released its Military Balance 2016 report, which seeks to examine closely the changing nature of military power. On a grand scale, the report showed – yet again – that U.S. military spending easily dwarfed the rest of the world. With a defense budget of around $597 billion, it was almost as much as the next 14 countries put together and far larger than the rest of the world.

military spending
Military spending, U.S and the rest of the world. Washington Post.

Much of the defense budget is spent in countries on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the defense of our Homeland gets cut. Last year we saw 18 percent fewer Type 1 helicopters and the number of large air tankers was 57 percent of the recommendation in the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy.

Our suggestion is to prioritize the defense and protection of our citizens, homeland, forests, parks, grasslands, refuges, prairies, and wildlands FIRST, before considering spending trillions on the other side of the world.