Fire Aviation has obtained a document produced by the U.S. Forest Service which indicates they expect to receive the seven former Coast Guard C-130H aircraft between Fiscal Years 2017 and 2019 after they have been converted into airtankers — two in 2017, three in 2018, and the last two in 2019. (The federal fiscal year begins in October.) This is a year later than information the Chief of the USFS, Tom Tidwell, provided to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July of 2014.
Last month the agency’s announced plan, until the seven aircraft have been fully converted to air tankers with conventional gravity-based retardant tanks, was to operate one C-130H in 2015 and 2016 with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) installed “to provide an initial capability and to gain experience in operating the aircraft while wing and airframe modifications are being completed and gravity tanks are being developed and installed”, according to Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service in January, 2015.
The document we received, dated February 4, 2015, states the USFS will have two of the C-130Hs this summer, both outfitted with the MAFFS pressurized internal retardant tanks, rather than a conventional gravity-based retardant tank. One will be used on fires within 500 nautical miles (575 statute miles) of McClellan, California, and the other aircraft will be used as a training platform until it departs for programmed depot-level maintenance in the Fall of CY 2015.
Two weeks ago we asked the Forest Service when the converted C-130Hs would be delivered and were told by a spokesperson they would receive them “beginning in 2017, but we don’t have a specific schedule available yet”.
The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 passed in December of 2013 required that the seven aircraft be transferred from the Coast Guard to the Air Force where they will be updated with new wing boxes as needed, receive retardant tank systems, and any necessary programmed depot-level maintenance. After the conversions, they will be owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but operated and maintained under contract by private companies while being used to help suppress wildfires.
It is our understanding that two of the seven aircraft received new wing boxes before the transfer from the Coast Guard was initiated. Fire Aviation wrote a detailed article in January, 2014 about the wing box program and other work that must be done to the C-130Hs — at a cost not to exceed $130 million.
The total cost of a center wing box kit in 2011 was $6.7 million, including installation which takes about 10 months. The programmed depot-level maintenance takes 6 to 7 months. It would probably take several months to install a 3,500-gallon retardant tank in the C-130s. The Air Force has already issued a Request for Information for the tanks.
When the last of the C-130Hs are received in FY2019, we believe they will be from 42 to 46 years old. If they last 20 additional years, they will be 62 to 66 years old, about the same age as the dangerously old Korean War vintage P2Vs still being used today as air tankers that have an alarming crash history. One could debate about how high a priority it is to secure our homeland from wildfires.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is replacing their jettisoned planes with almost new C-27J aircraft.
We scoured the Forest Service document to sort out the details about the schedule for incorporating the C-130Hs into the Forest Service fleet, and put them in the table below. Click it to see a larger version.
The numbers the Coast Guard assigned to the seven aircraft that are being transferred to the USFS are 1706, 1708, 1709, 1713, 1714, 1719, and 1721.