The seven C-130 aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service are expected to be converted to air tankers by Fiscal Year 2018, which begins October 1, 2017. Chief of the USFS, Tom Tidwell, provided this information in a brief update on the retrofitting project Tuesday morning in a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In addition to the lengthy delay in outfitting the aircraft to fight fires, Chief Tidwell said the earliest even one of them will be available to firefighters will be late in 2015. And by then that single aircraft will not have been fitted with a conventional internal gravity-based tank system, but it will be saddled with a 3,000-gallon slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Most firefighters will tell you that retardant converted to a mist by the pressurized MAFFS equipment is not as effective as a conventional gravity-based retardant tank system in suppressing fires, especially in penetrating tree canopy.
In the hearing today Colorado Senator Mark Udall brought up the C-130 subject when he asked the Chief if he was concerned about the progress of the retrofitting project. Chief Tidwell said he will remain concerned until he sees them flying over fires. He did not say why the conversions are going to take four years.
For anyone who has been looking forward to the seven C-130s bolstering the atrophied air tanker fleet, this is disappointing news.
In January a spokesperson for Senator John McCain, the Senator who wrote the amendment that requires the transfer of the aircraft, said two of the seven C-130Hs would not require major maintenance and could be available as air tankers in 2014 after they are converted to air tankers. The other five may need extensive work, including replacement of the wing boxes which can take 10 months in addition to programmed depot maintenance which takes 6 to 7 months. In January we wrote about the wing box replacement and other maintenance that will have to be completed on the aircraft.