Above: Tanker 118, formerly a Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, was photographed at Sacramento McClellan Airport, May 3, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.
(Originally published at 8:45 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)
The U.S. Forest Service intends to abandon the program that it has been working on since 2013 to convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers for fighting wildfires.
One of them will be available for firefighting in 2018.
“FY 2018 is … the last year the agency will support the HC-130H program that was authorized within the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act”, Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson explained Friday. “The agency will seek the support of the appropriate Congressional committees to terminate the agency-owned HC-130H program in 2019. The agency has determined that the HC-130H program is no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required large air tanker needs.”
This will no doubt make the private companies that operate air tankers ecstatic. They would prefer not to have to compete with the government.
On December 27, 2013 President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.
Now, over four years later, as far as we can tell none of the seven HC-130H aircraft have made it all of the way through the maintenance, conversion, and retardant tank installation process. Between 2015 and 2017 one of the aircraft was used in a firefighting role based at Sacramento McClellan Airport. It was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods.
To our knowledge no permanent retardant delivery systems have been installed in any of the HC-130H’s. The Air Force, responsible to coordinate the maintenance and conversions, dithered for a very long time before issuing a contract to have them installed. Then after awarding it, they cancelled it. We believe the contract has not been re-awarded. (UPDATE February 21, 2018: we confirmed that the contract was never re-awarded by the Air Force. No permanent retardant systems have been installed in the HC-130H’s.)
This was a completely new program for the U.S. Forest Service. The agency had never owned or operated a fleet of large aircraft, let along four-engine air tankers that had serious maintenance issues.
On June 1, 2015 the FS distributed a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency was not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor (GO/CO) operated venture. On that date, 522 days after Congress began the process of transferring the aircraft, the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel.
“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”
The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned”. With the first HC-130H scheduled to arrive at McClellan Airport (MCC) in Sacramento in mid-June (not mid-May as originally planned) the FS had not used the 522 days to become prepared for the beginning of a new paradigm of large air tanker use.
At the end of those 522 days, they came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper.
This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).
Until then, all federal air tankers, from single engine to jumbo jet sized, have been contractor owned and contractor operated (CO/CO). The actual operation and maintenance of the tankers, including the on-site, day to day safety, had been the responsibility of the privately owned companies.
In 2015 the USFS awarded contracts worth over $7 million for maintenance and operation of the HC-130’s.
In 2013 the Coast Guard wanted to get rid of these aircraft that are now around 30 years old. At least five of them needed to have the center wing boxes (CWB) replaced to make them safe to fly.
A wing box is the core or backbone of an aircraft. In a C-130 it sits atop the fuselage and forms the attachment point for both wings. A failure of the wing box during flight would be catastrophic. The total cost of a center wing box kit in 2011 was $6.7 million, including installation which takes about 10 months.
Most if not all of the seven aircraft also needed standard primary structure inspection — known as programmed depot maintenance — that takes between 180 and 200 days.
In 2014 we did some back of the envelope ciphering, estimating the costs of converting these Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers. The legislation directed that no more than $130 million be spent by the Department of Defense to modify and maintain the seven aircraft before the transfer; any additional funds would have to come from the USFS. Doing a little math here, if the CWB replacement costs $7 million each, the programmed depot maintenance runs $3 million per aircraft (to pick a number out of the air), and the installation of the retardant tank system is $4 million (Coulson’s preliminary estimate is $3.5 million each for their Aero Union/Coulson RADS tank), we are looking at a total of about $98 million — within the $130 maximum allowed by Congress. If $14 million is subtracted for CWB replacements that have already occurred on two aircraft, that total is brought down to $84 million.
However, there is no doubt that other work would have to be done to the aircraft, such as installation of radios, a real time location tracking system, and perhaps other avionics and a stress monitoring system. It is also possible that unneeded equipment such as a cargo handling system and armor would have to be removed, all of which could require more USFS dollars unless these items are included in the total conversion project funded by the military, rather than done later by the USFS. These additional tasks would push the price closer to the $130 million threshold. Nothing you do to an aircraft is inexpensive.