The first Coast Guard HC-130H converted to an air tanker for USFS to be available in August

C-130H paint design
HC-130H paint design, by Scheme Designers

The first of the seven HC-130Hs that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service will arrive at Forest Service Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC) in mid-June, not mid-May as originally planned. And yes, that is what the Forest Service is calling their facility at McClellan Airport in Sacramento, California.

The aircraft will still be a work in progress when it lands at MCC. It will not have the paint job as seen above, but will be gray and white with U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System MAFFS markings, according to Jennifer Jones, a USFS spokesperson for the USFS. The gravity-based retardant tank will not have been installed, so it will be temporarily operating with a MAFFS pressurized 3,000-gallon tank. It will also need to depart at some point for scheduled Programmed Depot Maintenance, painting, and retardant tank installation.

Coast Guard HC-130H 1721
Coast Guard HC-130H #1721, will be one of the first two Coast Guard HC-130Hs to be used by the USFS. Photo by Alan Stern 10-24-2014.

The USFS expects that it will be available to fly firefighting missions by August. It will usually be be restricted to fires within 500 nautical miles (575 miles) of MCC so that it can return there each day where both the USFS contract maintenance and U.S. Coast Guard support crews will be located. Missions at a greater distance and staying away from the base will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

500 nm radius from Sacramento
Map showing 500 nm radius from Sacramento.

A second HC-130H is expected to arrive at MCC in August and will only be used for flight crew training. It will also be a work in progress but should be sporting the new USFS paint scheme. Its Programmed Depot Maintenance will have been completed but it will still need to have a gravity-based retardant tank installed.

Coast Guard HC-130H 1708
Coast Guard HC-130H #1708, will be one of the first two Coast Guard HC-130Hs to be used by the USFS. Photo by Andrew Sieber 7-20-2009.

We are now using the model name “HC-130H” for these aircraft originally purchased by the U.S. Coast Guard. The first “H” indicates that it is an extended-range, search and rescue variant of the C-130 Hercules. It cruises slightly faster than the C-130H and has twice the range, capable of flying from Missoula, Montana to London non-stop. According to Wikipedia, the HC-130H has the following performance characteristics:

Maximum speed: 330 knots (380 mph, 611 km/h)
Cruise speed: 290 knots (333 mph, 537 km/h)
Range: 4,500 nm (5,178 mi, 8,334 km)
Service ceiling: 33,000 ft (10,000 m)

The first two aircraft to arrive at MCC this summer are 27 and 31 years old. If, after various federal government agencies invest up to $130 million in the conversion of the aircraft, and if the USFS keeps them for 20 years, at that point they will be about the same age as the P2Vs that have been falling out of the sky at an alarming rate over the last 15 years.

We are not sure which HC-130H will arrive first (we are guessing T-118) but here are more details:

  • Air Tanker 118
  • Coast Guard #1721
  • Lockheed Martin SN 5121
  • Transferred from Lockheed to the USCG 6/16/1988
  • Hours: 5,194
  • The center wing box will not be replaced at the Programmed Depot Maintenance due to the low number of hours
  • Air Tanker 116
  • Coast Guard #1708
  • Lockheed Martin SN 5002
  • Transferred from Lockheed to the USCG 9/17/1984
  • Hours: 22,807
  • The center wing box will be replaced at the Programmed Depot Maintenance

Contract for air crew

A $6 million contract for air crews to fly the aircraft was awarded April 27, 2015 to CASS Professional Services Corp, headquartered in Temecula, California. The following jobs will be initially filled for a nine month period with options to extend the term of the contract for an additional two years.

  • 1 C-130H Qualified Contractor Aircrew Project Manager
  • 2 MAFFS II Qualified Instructor Pilots,
  • 1 US Coast Guard Qualified Flight Engineer Instructor, or US Air Force Qualified FE Instructor
  • 2 MAFFS II Qualified Load Master Instructors

Retardant tank

The Air Force has issued a solicitation for gravity-based fire retardant tanks:

…design, manufacture, and installation of a 3,500 gallon Retardant Delivery System (RDS) for seven (7) HC-130H aircraft. There will be a basic contract with one (1) trial kit/install, one (1) verification kit/install, and three (3) production kits/install. There will be an option for two (2) additional production kits/installs. Effort includes but is not limited to: RDS development, manufacture and installation, structural modifications, and maintenance and inspection plans.

The upper portion of  the tank above the floor will be removable and have the ability to disperse 3,500 gallons.

Contract for maintenance

A contract for maintenance of the aircraft is being advertised now with a response date of May 29, 2015. The contractor must provide a total of 17 mechanics and avionics/electrical technicians in the Primary, Secondary, and Back Shop crews. The contract will initially be for a nine month period (June 1 through January), with options to extend for an additional two full years. Services will be provided five days a week during the non-fire season, and seven days a week during the fire season.

The other five HC-130H aircraft

Most of the work on the one or two aircraft that will initially be operated as MAFFS is being done at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and at the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in North Carolina.

Jennifer Jones told us that the location of the work that will be done on the other five HC-130Hs will be determined once the U.S. Air Force has awarded a contract for it. Work that needs to be done on these aircraft includes demilitarization; performing wing and airframe modifications; designing, contracting for, manufacturing and installing retardant tanks; and equipping them with radios, Aircraft Flight Following, and other equipment. The U.S. Air Force will perform center and outer wing-box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity fed aerial fire retardant delivery system (RDS) in each aircraft before they can be brought into U.S. Forest Service operation for firefighting missions.

If you want to know more about what is involved in replacing wing boxes, check out the article we wrote last year, Wing box replacements in the USFS C-130s.

29 thoughts on “The first Coast Guard HC-130H converted to an air tanker for USFS to be available in August”

  1. Everything I just read sounds very very expensive. But I’m sure (sarcastic switch: on) this is much cheaper and more efficient than if they let the private industry source and convert their own airplanes.

    1. The “Good Idea Fairy ” always seems to visit the
      USFS often…
      I remain skeptical…RADS tanks, and updated airframes-in a timely fashion, but that appears not
      to be.

  2. I understand it is weird to think of an old aircraft flying and lasting for a considerable amount of time, but firefighting aircraft do not seem to be the only long lasting, old aircraft. How many U2’s are new? I recently saw an article stating that the Air Force brought a B52 out of mothball status because they needed to replace one of theirs. Does anyone know when they stopped manufacturing those aircraft?

    I know that the Hercs are old, but so were the DC3’s, even after their update; I’m betting they have a stellar history with the Forest Service after all is said and done.

    1. Just FYI…the majority of the current U-2S aircraft were built in the 80’s as TR-1s. There are 3-4 older aircraft built in the late 60’s as U-2Rs still in service, but they’ve all been updated to the U-2S block 20 level. While the original design celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, the current aircraft are much newer and advanced. The B-52s and KC-135s on the other hand, not so new.

  3. With all those expenses, since they are government owned, why not just contract with the military/Coast Guard for pilots/crews and maintenance.

    And to think that if the government had contracted with the military for the expensive X-rays of the Orion P-3’s that the private sector could not afford, we might still have the P-3’s flying…

    All the contracts mentioned reduce efficiency of “government owned” aircraft. Aw, what the hell,,,shoot the dice and wear a blindfold…I see we are not afraid to look the fool!

  4. Bill

    Because it is a MAFFS system, will it be required to reload at MAFFS only bases (Channel Islands, Chico…). Or is that only for the C130J models?

    1. The first generation of MAFFS units were dependent on ground based air compressors to repressurize the tanks. The current units, MAFFS 2, have two onboard air compressors which can repressurize the tanks in 15 to 20 minutes, (if they are working properly, which is not always the case). The compressors enable the MAFFS aircraft to reload at any air tanker base that can handle the weight and size of the C-130.

      The white tank in the photo HERE is one of two that store the compressed air. The air compressors can be seen HERE.

      Here’s what we wrote about the system in 2013: 10 things to know about MAFFS military air tankers.

      “8. The retardant is pumped out of the 3,000-gallon tank by compressed air stored in two tanks at 1,200 psi. The compressed air tanks on the new MAFFS 2 units are refilled by two onboard air compressors which can fill the tanks in 15 to 20 minutes. Or, they can be refilled by one of six portable USFS air compressors on the ground (in about 14 minutes) that are moved around to air tanker bases as needed when the MAFFS aircraft are activated. The first generation MAFFS 1 units, no longer used, did not have onboard air compressors and had to be refilled on the ground. The contracts for the MAFFS 2 units specified that the air tanks had to be refilled by the onboard air compressors in no more than 30 minutes.”

  5. “the plane the plane” some may remember this television program of the ’80’s. The C 130 Fed program reminds me of this show. Lots of money, time, and publicity for a 3000 gallon (maybe) air tanker that squirts retardant, airbase limited, and will require a day of rest every seven days. I understand that this is just the beginning and that over the next ten years and a half billion dollars, that the Feds will have what the private industry has been providing for six decades at a fraction of the cost. This doesn’t include Forest Service One the new C 130 that is supported by F.S. management. Maybe there can be some cost savings by reducing the contents of fire line meals?

    1. A disaster in the making!. Another government money pit as well..No wonder no seasoned tanker pilot wants to fly them.

      1. Mr. Steele: When you talked with all of the “seasoned pilots” and came to your conclusion that “no seasoned pilot wants to fly them”, what reasons did they give you? (We try to deal with facts here at Fire Aviation.)

  6. Coast Guard Hercs are the best maintained aircraft there are! If the USFS maintains them properly & provides quality pilots, they’ll do well.

  7. looking at the map – one has to wonder why they don’t base the planes in Boise to get the additional coverage lost to the Pacific Ocean when they are based in Sacramento.

    1. There are more fires in Southern Cal then up North, would be one only reason and the Coast Guard that will be supporting the first two aircraft are also based at Sacramento might be another. Who really knows?

  8. Surely someone will argue

    Joe brings up good points

    I would safely bet CASS, Inc, ramp and hangar space are driving issues

    If there are better ideas floating…standby you will get 12 more replies about it!

  9. who is CASS, Inc ???

    When did they show up ?
    Any prior fire fighting experience? C 130?

  10. the plot thickens….

    so enlight me again… who the —- is CASS, Inc?
    Brand new, never heard of it..just showed up and got the contract.. Really? Really!!!

    Gee…. anybody awake?

  11. I spent 5 years in the USCG at MCC as an HC-130H avionics technician and Navigator with over 1500 flight hours. I have worked on and flown in two of the proposed transfer Hercs and perhaps more. These are incredibly durable and reliable utility aircraft. I believe they will serve the USFS as well as they have served the USCG. Certainly NOT cheap to operate though. But keep in mind they are free (not sure what the going rate is for used ones but new equivalent models would be $35M +/- each). I believe the USFS would do well to hire, train and retain their own maintenance crews.

  12. I forgot to mention in my last post… draw a line due east to Richfield Utah (and its 6,645′ new runway and close proximity to Salt Lake City as an alternate) and see what the 500 nm radius looks like.

    1. Sure, that’s likely an optimum location…if you had to restrict yourself to 500nm permanently. But the restriction is stated to be temporary, for the first airplane only. It would make no sense to build all the necessary infrastructure (aprons, tanks, buildings, plumbing etc) for the interim, even if they lived in modular trailers.
      No matter where you base them, the Herc program will not be the salvation of the US federal airtanker industry. Not by a long shot.

  13. It looks like business as usual for the Forest Service, let Cal Fire run the heck out of their helicopters and air tankers. Unfortunate the Feds aren’t watching the fire danger in the timber belt. Yesterday in El Dorado County (Ca.) there was five wildland fire alone which kept surrounding Cal Fire air tankers and helicopters hopping. I wonder if the Fed air program has become so complicated that it is eating itself? Even the Yosemite N.P. sent their helicopter to work several fires. Unfortunate the C 130 program wasn’t available (May 15th) as this series of fires throughout central Ca. would have been a good opportunity “get started”. Putting a tanker (squirt model) in service (C 130 FED) in an active (crazy) fire season, new contractor, new flight crew, old airplane, seems a little risky. How about May 15, 2016?

  14. This concept of the Forest Service operating its own fleet was attempted in the 1970’s with a P2V-7. When money is no object you can afford to maintain and hire……………………….? Will the private air tankers operators put the skids on building up more tankers? What happens if the Fed funding is withdrawn. The answer is back to square one, 2005.

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