Forest Service expects to have all 7 C-130s converted to air tankers by FY 2019

Coast Guard C-130H No 1719
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1719, one of the aircraft to be transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo taken October, 2008 by Rico Leffanta.

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.

Forest Service C-130H schedule

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.

19 thoughts on “Forest Service expects to have all 7 C-130s converted to air tankers by FY 2019”

  1. Yep

    No more talk about aging aircraft issues….especially from this outfit who are proud of a 2019 start date after the USAF carries the financial burden and not an outfit looking a deal.

    Again…I will not believe a word about ” aging aircraft” or ” Next Gen” from folks who talk aviation…..if an Agency is paying for it…..then they can do some high level talking…….having the USAF pay for and reading from LMA types about DoD expenditures, seems truly disengenuos, when the USAF seems to doing the Lions share of the work

    The DoD / USAF has done more for interagency cooperation than most LMA’S and their turf battles

  2. So now its sit back and wait until 2019. This isn’t acceptable protection of our National Forests. I thought for a few short minutes that the momentum was going to meet the lowest number of air tankers (18) as per numerous studies. A far cry from 44 air tankers or even 28. C 130 with a MAFF system is of little use if your interested in I.A. Don’t kid yourself, it is what it is, a press tool. Days off, maintenance issues, incidents/accidents; any day during the fire season the Federal fixed wing air tanker fleet maybe 12 available nation wide? So in saying that California is back to the S2T fleet of Cal Fire bailing out the F.S. and remember last year Park Service Yosemite fire. What about filling an air tanker gap in Mariposa/Madera Counties, a SEAT base (Department of the Interior) at Mariposa Airport, eight air miles from Yosemite?

  3. An airtanker gap? Mariposa is only 36nm from Columbia. 47nm from Fresno. Aren’t there five airtanker bases within an 80nm circle centered on Mariposa airport? Seems like pretty adequate coverage to me.

    1. You forgot Castle? Fresno, Fed Base is always questionable, anyone home? Columbia probably the fastest (if available) responding base in the nation 3 to 4 minutes for both S2T to suck up the gear is still 10 to 15 minutes out depending on the fires location. My point was isn’t it time for the Park Service (Dept. of the Interior) to provide something in the air program? Mariposa without question would be an active SEAT base. A lot better than sitting in the middle of the desert without any activity day after day.

      1. Johnny please define; “anyone home?”.

        FAAB is staffed (at-least five FS employees and at-least 2 Phos-Chek employees daily) May through October 31st every year. FAAB also has a Air Attack based there, that is not to say that the AA is there or avail everyday all day, but most days it is on base and ready to go. often one or more transient federal or state type one, two or three tankers are sitting on base and avail. lastly FAAB is the home base for a Type one helitanker, again no guarantee it is always on base or avail.

        Castle ATB while very impressive, and staffed to approx. the same levels as FAAB. has no AA and rarely any type one or two tankers on base. sure the VLATs hang out there but they are slow to get off the ground.

        Mariposa while close, has a very limited supply of Jet A. in fact in many instances we can’t send aircraft to Mariposa because there is no Jet A avail. obviously this can be rectified quickly, if the DOI was serious about using Mariposa. also of note (and I am sure you all are well aware of this) Mariposa has to rely on the local Vol fire dept. for ARFF services. of last I heard, they have limited ARFF capabilities. I am sure Seats don’t need much, but fed contracts might require more then what is currently available. Mariposa does not have a tower, again this can be solved quickly, and may not be an issue for SEATS but again fed contracts.

        Sorry if my response was long winded. also for the facts that might be known to some, but probably not all.

        1. ABRO71, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comments. Transient air tankers, not much foundation for a stable zone of influence. With the fire activity over the past two decades in Yosemite we haven’t been doing a very good job of quick containment. I have given up on the Forest Service air program. Hopefully the Department of the Interior would support their own air program (SEAT)
          to protect the Park? signed (Helijumper from Fence Meadows)

          1. I understand your frustration with the LMAs. I have to say seeing Seats at Mariposa might be cool, since it would help with helicopters. with the seats comes mangers who possibly could manage the helicopter at-least till the helicopter manager arrives. Plus other support assets.

            I should amend my previous post to also say that FAAB might go weeks without a tanker on base. our biggest contribution is our AA and T1 Helitanker. sorry for any misleading info I might have presented in the earlier post.

  4. My comments do not reflect a negative attitude for the fine people of the F.S.,BLM and P.S. These are the “worker bees” that work with what they are given and make it work. Fresno was always the hub of heavy tankers from the beginning of time. It was the only 3000 gallon contract in the State (DC 7) for years. There is not a more frustrating experience for airbase personnel in California to hear the intercom come alive “new order, new request aircraft, with a vacant ramp. The F.S. air tanker program has decayed to a level that you will probably never see assigned foundation (zone of influence) air tankers at a Fed base. The C 130 intervention didn’t seem to work in the ’70 hopefully this time maybe?

  5. Well first off, I’m glad that the F.S. is taking it slow in many ways. Hopefully the speed will allow for them to build an actual program instead of scrambling to create something overnight. The overnight/under pressure scenario is never a good one for government programs to be created that function with any efficiency.
    Also you have to remember it’s not just the USFS that is involved here, you also have the USAF who probably isn’t really going to make wing box replacements a priority.
    I think them attempting to get their feet wet this year before jumping into the pool can’t be seen as a bad thing. Especially from a group of people that has been saying,
    “They have no business in the Air Tanker business, they have no clue what they are doing”
    I would rather they learn now and figure it out, than have 7 aircraft flying around under people who don’t know what they are doing.

    Also even if we had a larger number of tankers, that does not guarantee they will all be in the right place at the right time. Last year I was on several fires that unless the local AAB had had 7-8 tankers sitting on it ready to go, there was no way they would have caught it in the IA, and even then I question it.

    Last year I also saw several fires that I thought,
    “Oh boy this one is going to go big and we are going to be here for a long time”,
    that were stopped by mainly the number of air resources. Including several in the Sierra N.F. and Yosemite area.

    Additionally as far as as Mariposa and Yosemite:
    I know for a fact several aerial resources were moved/held in the area in case of a fire in or around Yosemite. The Park Service is not going to pay for a SEAT for several reasons.
    1.)It takes an act of God to put retardant into some places in the park.
    2.) YNP and KNP both have helicopters that rarely are allowed to leave the park and are ready and available for fires almost every day of fire season.(KNP and YNP tend to lend each other helping hands helicopter wise)
    3.) The justification for a SEAT to sit in Mariposa for the exclusive use of Yosemite is not going to fly in any budget committee, especially with Columbia, Porterville and Hollister all in very close flying distance.

  6. I’ll start with Mariposa exclusive use to Yosemite. Never implied that, SEAT base interagency closest resource. Retardant, how many gallons where dropped on the Park in the past two fire season? Maybe Gel or Class A foam.
    Correct the D of I Interior (Parks) won’t pay for protection when its able to use other agency aviation assets. A free ride. (low rate for flight time and cost of chemicals) Some fires are lost before you pull out of the station, however have a positive approach to I.A. it does work. Drawing down other air tankers from around the region or state doesn’t that leave areas unprotected? LPT if you owned an air tanker company and employed 100 people and have spent tens of millions on aircraft purchases and development how would you feel competing against the government? Was there a void by the private sector (need) that needed to be filled that the air tanker operators missed or have not fulfilled for the past sixty-eight (68) years. When it comes to SLOW you are on the right track. 555 days just to issue a handful of private sector air tanker contracts. Business doesn’t function on SLOW. Regardless if its the private sector or a government agency it is still business. Good exchange LTP, if you are an I.A. IC. and the world is watching in those first two yours and all you get is UTF well??? Leo you out there.

  7. Can not argue common sense, Johnny

    Since I have no skin in the game, West Coat ops wise…..
    It sure is interesting on all those UTF rates and with a single engine airtanker that I am very familiar with in my world..the program works as advertised for IA. Our folks are pretty damn happy with IA here and I am very familiar with this vendors costs….

    NPS may have to rethink it’s ops but………SEAT in some Yosemite operation may not the aircraft of choice high timber but better than nothing when nothing is around in the first place……

  8. Good points are being made, but the discussion is somewhat ballooning in scope.
    Mariposa:
    Is only 44 air miles from Columbia. @ cruise speed of an AT-802 that would be 5 minutes of flight time. So if a Seat was to be based somewhere that would still be a better option due to infrastructure already in place. Also your still dealing with a national resource that can be moved/shuffled/backfilled, but more on that later.

    I hadn’t thought of the C-130’s as competition for private business, but you may have a point further down the road. I had thought of them more as an insurance policy of sorts. When Aero Union shut down we lost a sizable chunk of the LAT fleet. Those 7 C-130 represent 80% of what the entire fleet was a few years ago. So say if Neptune (only because they have the most LAT tankers at the moment)was to go under tomorrow, you haven’t completely decimated the fleet, because you have the other contractors plus 7 USFS tankers. I don’t know the comprehensive ins and outs of why we got to a point where we ended up with only 2-3 tanker contractors In the years back. If whatever predicated those events happened again, I see how competing with those 7 USFS aircraft could be bad. one last revelation I just had on the issue: they won’t be available for 4 years, which is roughly a contract cycle for some of the contracts, which could mean a company could put out some serious cash for what turns out to be a short lived contract.

    Lastly no matter what we have to remember the game of chess the GACCs and NICC is always playing, trying to properly distribute finite resources. It’s a give and take and works fairly well in my opinion. So just because a forest has an air tanker or a SEAT doesn’t mean it will stay assigned to one base for long. (II’m assuming on the SEAT, I do not work with SEATs often and have not looked into their contracts and availability nationally).

    1. An AT-802 is going to cover 44 miles in 5 minutes? They must have upgraded their turboprop to get 540 knots out of it.

      Also not likely they will be carrying a full retardant load off of Columbia’s short runway.

      1. Your right, I did my math wrong. The correct number is 11.5 minutes @ cruise speed, but obviously it’s going to take longer than that with take off roll and climb out.

        Mariposa is a 1000 feet shorter.

        1. I suppose it depends on what cruise speed you use.
          Based on your example the 802 would be cruising at 229 Knots.
          At a typical loaded cruise speed of 166 Knots it would take 15 mins 54 seconds.

          44 NM / 166 Knots = 0.265 Hrs x 60 mins = 15.9 minutes

          …..as you said not including take off or roll out (or climb)….

          Just trying to be accurate. FTR

  9. And mean while 6 former Air Tankers sit at McClellan just needing an influx of cash (minor in the scheme of things) to be ready to fly the 2016 season. Stupid…

  10. Hey Big….

    Nobody ever thought getting rid of the P3’s was of much sense.

    Apparently in posts before this…AUC Big Guy and another Big Guy in the USFS had a tiff where two adults could not come to terms…..

    That is what you get in those turf battles…someone loses and all that has been written about those P3’s and airworthiness have been fairly well documented and clarified that they can fly…

    Nobody said that these said adults were capable of regular decision making and that 6 VERRRY capable airtankers still sit due to some adult who has the power trip over contracting and USFS decisions, puts a program into nearly 5 yr old smoldering magnesium wreck called the “safety card” that someone who probably has never visited the interior of the AUC P3’s….now I am sure there are folks that will refute this…

    Yep….P3’s not being used….but there will be some crying going on when the last Basler converted DC3TP goes to pasture later in 2015……

    Something about priorities comes to mind………

  11. LTP

    Good thing USAF and USCG are involved with this……why?

    Simply, just because the USFS maybe taking its time…..does not mean they are the subject matter experts in a C130 program just because there is a MAFFS or a MAFFS II unit involved…….this is no !@@#$ flying and maintenance that is going to dramatically see some costs rise…..unless the USFS becomes too dependant on DoD maintenance…then the the land management types will come on this board talking about how abhorrent “those DoD costs” are with seeing the true fact that this is not a civilian operation just because it came down from the NDAA 2014 and the politics that were involved to get the USFS in to this “new world.”

    With the USAF putting out RFI’s and maybe RFP’s this is a program that needs responsible adult management in both curriculum and training environments….just because an agency manages 93M acres of land does not mean in any way they are a training cadre for large category transport aircraft whether it be a military or civilian C130

    That was demonstrated in the 1990’s when the Great Airtanker Debacle occurred.

    This is operation where the FS needs to keep ears open and minds like a sponge otherwise this will just become another contracting nightmare

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