Until now the U.S. Forest Service has never had to manage a fleet of 22 medium and large transport aircraft. But in the coming months the agency that was created to grow trees will be reminded of the phrase, “be careful what you wish for”, as they become the owners of seven large four-engine C-130H transport planes and 15 smaller C-23B Sherpa transport planes “given” to them by the Coast Guard and the Army. The Forest Service is still going to grow trees and clean toilets in campgrounds, while taking on this air force of 22 very expensive aircraft.
Transfers to take place no later than February 11
The legislation requiring the transfer of the aircraft required that both the C-130Hs and C-23B Sherpas be transferred within 45 days after the bill was signed, which makes February 11, 2014 the last day for the transfer to take place. The C-130Hs will go first to the Air Force which will arrange for maintenance, upgrades of the air frame, and the installation of the retardant system. Then the Air Force will transfer them to the U.S. Forest Service. The Sherpas will be transferred directly from the Army to the USFS by February 11.
Last week a USFS employee with knowledge of how their aviation section is organized told Wildfire Today that up to that point the agency had not made any decisions about an organizational structure that would manage this air force within the agency. Individual short-term tasks were being handed out one at a time, while multiple functional areas were trying to get involved, lobbying for their piece of the pie.
Initially bringing the 22 aircraft into the agency will be extremely complex and time-consuming, with FAA approvals, inspections, evaluating, painting, writing then awarding contracts for maintenance and pilots, deciding on a tanking system, contracts for installing tanking systems, avionics, etc. And, something the USFS has not done well, developing a comprehensive PLAN of how to manage the aviation assets now and in the future. The Air Force will do some of this, other than the planning, before the actual final transfer of the C-130s to the USFS (the Sherpas will not receive retardant tanks), but the Forest Service has to be involved in the decision making. Then, after the 22 aircraft are completely up and running, managing the programs on a continuing basis is not simply a part time job for one person.
Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center, told us today that the agency, at this point anyway, plans to use a Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO) model for the seven C-130H aircraft. The government will own them and the maintenance and operation will be handled by private contractors. The 15 Sherpas will be owned by the Forest Service — some will be flown by USFS pilots and others by contractors. All of the Sherpas will be maintained by private industry under contract, similar to how the existing four C-23A Sherpas are maintained. You could call this GO/CO-GO I suppose.
Coast Guard to assist with managing C-130Hs
We were surprised to hear from Mrs. Jones today that a joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. The Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics. They have 24 older C-130Hs which are being upgraded with new center wing boxes and cockpit equipment with new multi-function displays. In 2008 they began replacing some of the C-130Hs with new C-130Js; they have six now with three more on order. All these numbers were valid before the Coast Guard agreed to send seven C-130Hs to the USFS if the Coast Guard could get the 14 almost new C-27J aircraft from the military that had been earmarked for the Forest Service.
Before we heard that there was going to be a USFS/Coast Guard collaboration, we asked a former fighter pilot for his opinion about how the C-130Hs should be managed. Gary “Bean” Barrett was a Navy Captain, the Commanding Officer of an adversary squadron and of a GO/CO squadron of heavy aircraft:
I would recommend standing up an organization like a composite group. One single individual in charge of the entire group [no rule by committee … it won’t work]. Since there are mission differences between C-23’s and C-130’s the group commander should probably have two “squadrons” under him. One for C-23’s, one for C-130’s and perhaps one or two maintenance squadrons depending on how the USFS choses to organize themselves. I am familiar with both the USAF concept of independent maintenance squadrons and the Navy concept of an integrated operational squadron with its own maintenance department. Either can work with contract maintenance but either way, the group commander has to “own” the program budget and the maintenance and the operations programs and the COTAR has to work for the group commander. When maintenance is directly involved in producing sorties instead of off in another state independently “fixing airplanes” the entire process seems to work better. Heavy or Depot level maintenance should be a separate contract.
Modification of the C-130 is a big hurdle since there is no military equivalent modification but I would think that it would be far easier to incorporate the tanker mod into a mil based maintenance program than to be forced to operate C-130’s under the FAA FAR’s. and the FAA C-130Q type rating.
The Sherpas have been stored at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma for an extended period of time but have been under a maintenance contract and could be put into service fairly quickly. While at Fort Sill, on a regular basis they have been started, run up to 80 percent power for five minutes, systems have been cycled, and the aircraft have been taxied. No scheduled maintenance has been performed so they may be due for some routine work. The USFS will need to run the Sherpas through the Smokejumper Aircraft Screening and Evaluation Board (SASEB), which is the focal point for all interagency smokejumper/paracargo aircraft, much like the Interagency AirTanker Board evaluates air tankers. Other items on the to-do list include painting, avionics, removal of any unneeded military equipment, and ensure conformance with the FAA Certificate, but since they will not be used as air tankers, retardant tank systems will not have to be installed.
Ms. Jones said the C-23B Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. They are capable of carrying up to 10 smokejumpers or 30 passengers and up to 7,000 pounds of cargo. The C-23B Sherpas will replace all four U.S. Forest Service owned C-23A Sherpas and the DC-3T currently used for smokejumper missions. The additional aircraft will eventually replace contracted smokejumper aircraft and support other fire missions. They expect to begin using two of the newer Sherpas in 2014 to drop cargo and will begin using it in 2015 to deliver smokejumpers.
The C-23B Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp which can be opened during flight which could be used for paracargo or by smokejumpers, both of which would be new to the USFS. The C-23A Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp, but it does not open in flight.