One of the last steps in the conversion of a Coast Guard aircraft into a USFS air tanker

Tanker 116 is scheduled to be transferred to McLellan Air Field at Sacramento this month.

air tanker hc-130h

Above: Sam Vigil, 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Support Squadron aircraft painter at Robins AFB in Georgia, touches up the new paint on an HC-130H that is being converted into a U.S. Forest Service air tanker. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tommie Horton)

One of the last steps in the conversion of a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H into an air tanker for the U.S. Forest Service is applying 80 gallons of paint. The aircraft that just received the new livery is the first of seven that will be going through the transformation over the next several years.

Much of the work is being done at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. This was a unique project for the Air Force. Normally the paint the workers use is designed to minimize the visibility of their aircraft, but the goal for an air tanker is just the opposite. They had to do shiney gloss red and white, instead of flat grey.

USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H
T-116 at Robins AFB in Georgia, August, 2016. Photo by Bill Tinney.

The article below does not specify, but it is likely that the aircraft being worked on is Tanker 116, formerly Coast Guard #1708, which is scheduled to be delivered to McClellan Air Field this month. It will operate with a slip-in MAFFS 3,000-gallon retardant system until a permanent retardant delivery system can be installed.

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By Jenny Gordon, Public Affairs officer

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Georgia

Painting a C-130H with a new glossy paint scheme doesn’t happen very often in the Corrosion Control Flight at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex.

Most of the time its professional cadre of aircraft painters spray on the customary flat gray color familiar on many a surface of weapon systems that visit Robins from across the globe.

But earlier this month things turned a bit more colorful inside one hangar on the flight line, thanks to a visit from one particular aircraft making its way through the final stages of programmed depot maintenance here.

During its visit here, the Coast Guard aircraft received a new center wing box, replacement of its outer wings and work on its elevator, all before its upcoming transfer to the U.S. Forest Service where it will eventually assist in firefighting missions.

The new USFS paint scheme – the first to be laid out on an aircraft – involved hours of tedious work from a team of nearly 45 painters. Much of it involved the careful laying of tape across parts of the plane. That’s so that once a different color of paint was applied to an area masked over, a precise fine line could be seen once the tape was removed.

What you want is a nice, sharp edge on those areas where colored paint is applied. Putting down that tape didn’t involve a laser level of any kind – it was all done freestyle by hand.

“It was a real challenge,” said Ronnie Harrell, Corrosion Control supervisor.

One of the first things you’ll notice is an eye-popping ‘poppy red’ shade that spans from the nose to the tail, and under both wings, along with a thin layer of black that carefully curves along the edges of the former’s dominant color scheme.

There are some nine different colors represented on the aircraft, ranging from yellow and light gray, to matte black and white.

It took about 80 gallons of paint to cover every inch. But it couldn’t all be done in one sitting. Once areas were masked, touch-ups were made, sanding happened and things were rinsed. Thousands of surface points were then seam-sealed, similar to a caulking process, which in this case keeps water from penetrating into the aircraft and causing corrosion.

Once that’s done, PreKote is added across the aircraft, which acts as an adhesion promoter so paint sticks. Once this dries, then the masking process starts. All this before a coat of paint even touched anything.

A coat of white was first applied over the entire aircraft. Then you wait for it to dry. Then it’s applied two more times. Because so many different colors were involved, there was a lot of waiting, sometimes as much as a 12-hour dry time in between paint applications.

Workers had it down to a routine by the end, alternating between demasking areas of the plane, masking, painting, drying, then waiting. Then they repeat the process once other colors are added.

In getting ready to first apply a coat of poppy red over a large swath of the aircraft, you had to make sure the paint underneath was dry. Then mask the surrounding area so any overspray wouldn’t get anywhere.

“You want to give the paint plenty of time to dry between the two so it won’t peel off,” said Harrell.

On this C-130, which stayed in the hangar a little over two weeks earlier this month, a gloss paint was used, making things a little more interesting.

“You have a fine line between getting a good shine and a run,” said Harrell, referring to the careful technique of applying coats of gloss. “You have to worry about running with a gloss, but not as much as with flat. It will run, but not as much.”

He added, “It’s hard to get a big area like this painted, and a challenge not to have paint colors bleeding into the others.”

Some of those challenging areas were laying out the tape prior to applying poppy red, adding stripes, and adding tape under the belly of the plane. Curves toward the tail also required some fine tuning as that involved quite an intricate layout.

A gray paint was also used for a walkway up on top. It’s a gritlike, sandy substance that prevents anyone who’s walking up there from sliding off due to the gloss.

In applying gloss, what you’re looking for is a nice sheen, not a heavy buildup, according to several aircraft painters. In applying the first coat of white, you put on an even coat, and by the final pass you’re trying to get it to shine.

A good estimate is to apply a coat at a distance of 14 to 16 inches away from the surface. It also depends on how fast you paint, since the closer you are to the aircraft, the faster you’ll paint in your spray pattern. Do it for awhile and you get a feel for how things should look, or in this case, shine.

“It looks a lot better than I thought it would due to the paint system we used,” said Paul Lowery, work lead. “It’s good to put out something different.”

Mark Stoddard, a quality assurance representative at Robins from the Coast Guard’s Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, N.C., has been following the aircraft closely for many months. Until the plane is installed at a later time with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (fire retardant system), the Coast Guard will still maintain configuration management of the airframe and its maintenance procedures.

“Things have gone very well on this first aircraft,” he said.

Added Harrell, “We were really looking forward to this job. Once stencils were added and things started to take shape, it really started to look like what we do. The first thing people will see is that paint job.”

3 thoughts on “One of the last steps in the conversion of a Coast Guard aircraft into a USFS air tanker”

  1. ok this may be a stupid question,but where will these aircraft be housed during the winter? or in the off season?..or when there aint any of them thar fir’s ?

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