USFS HC-130H air tanker to be available for duty this week

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, being prepped for air tanker duty at McClellan, June 8, 2015. DRS photo by Phil Welker. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service is making one of their HC-130H air tankers, Tanker 118, available for wildfire suppression missions this week. The aircraft is one of seven that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS, but the titles for all of them still remain with the Coast Guard.

The work on Tanker 118 to completely convert it into an air tanker is not complete. It needs a conventional internal gravity-based retardant tank, and obviously, a paint job that will hopefully include some professionally crafted tanker numbers on the tail.

Tanker 118 arrived at McClellan Airport on June 17, where maintenance, installation and testing of the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS), and contractor pilot and maintenance crew training have been taking place, including training with a lead plane.

The aircraft and personnel will be working out of Forest Service Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC) in Sacramento, California adjacent to the Coast Guard station at the airport. A search for a permanent base of operations for all seven HC-130H aircraft is underway.

While the Forest Service and Coast Guard will jointly own and manage Tanker 118 until all of the necessary modifications are complete, the Forest Service has contracted with Consolidated Air Support Systems (CASS) of Temecula, California for aircrew services and with DRS Technologies of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for maintenance.  Tanker 118 will only fly wildfire suppression missions within 500 nautical miles of FSAS MCC so that it can return each night for maintenance by contract crews and support from Coast Guard crews.

500 nautical mile radius
500 nautical mile radius from Sacramento, California. Fire Aviation graphic.

Until the aircraft receives the conventional, permanent retardant tank after the 2016 fire season, it will be using one of the eight MAFFS units that have been assigned to four Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve bases that operate C-130s. The MAFFS units, which can be inserted into a C-130 in a matter of hours, hold up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant that is forced out of the tank by compressed air, turning the thickened retardant into a mist.

MAFFS unit
A MAFFS before it is installed in a C-130. It is transported to the aircraft on the green trailer, which is not loaded onto the aircraft. US Air Force photo.

The MAFFS unit that will be used by T-118 is from the 145th Airlift Wing with the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte. That leaves seven MAFFS units that can be activated if there is a need for additional air tankers.

The other six HC-130Hs still need major work, including demilitarization, wing and airframe modifications, designing, contracting for, manufacturing and installing retardant tanks, and equipping them with radios, Aircraft Flight Following, and other equipment. The USFS expects to have all seven HC-130Hs fully functional and absorbed into the air tanker fleet by 2019.

When Tanker 118 comes into service, it will be operated with the 14 existing large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Recently the USFS temporarily activated an additional seven air tankers using the Call When Needed contracts that were awarded in June:

  • T-02 (N474NA) Neptune BAe-146 (presently on loan to Canada)
  • T-40 (N146FF) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-163 (N366AC) Aero Flite RJ-85
  • T-41 (N471NA) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-911 (N17085) 10 Tanker DC-10
  • T-162 (N355AC) Aero Flite RJ 85
  • T-01 (N473NA) Neptune BAe-146

That makes 22 large air tankers that are available now, counting the 14 on exclusive use contracts, the one USFS HC-130H, and the seven that are on temporary call-up assignments. But those seven CWN tankers can be sent home anytime.

Having 15 air tankers on exclusive use contracts is the most since 2010 when there were 19. There have not been 22 air tankers on EU contracts since 2004 when we had 27. In 2002, 44 large air tankers were on EU contracts.

Graph, request for large air tankers

The USFS is trying to award “up to seven” additional EU contracts for next-generation air tankers. They hoped to have them working by May 30, but protests about the contracting process by two companies brought that process to a halt. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit. The OMB is required to reach their decisions by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s.

On July 8 the GAO issued their decision on Coulson’s protest, and it was denied. They still have not decided on Erickson’s, due on July 17. We believe that if both protests are denied, the USFS can immediately, or as soon as they can, award additional EU contracts for air tankers.

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