It will probably be a year before any of the seven C-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard, to the Air Force, and finally to the Forest Service will be seen dropping retardant on a fire. Tom Harbour told us last month that he expects at least one to be flying by 2015.
The aircraft all need various levels of maintenance and it is thought that at least five will have to have the wing boxes replaced, a 10-month project that costs around $7 million each. Then the retardant systems will be installed. The Air Force, the agency overseeing the work on the aircraft, is expected to issue a solicitation for bids on the retardant system within the next two to three months. The Forest Service is working with the Air Force to write the specifications, which will reflect some of the language in the existing air tanker contracts, and information that the agencies have learned about retardant systems over the last 50 years.
The Forest Service is partnering with the Coast Guard for training and higher level, or Depot level, maintenance for the C-130s. The discussions within the Forest Service have been that the logistics, support, routine maintenance, and pilots for the C-130s would be provided by contractors, making it a government-owned/contractor-operated (GO/CO) program.
But no solicitations have been issued for these services. The Forest Service’s recent track record for awarding aerial firefighting contracts can lead one to an assumption that contracts for a GO/CO operation will not be awarded any time soon. Three USFS air tanker contracts have been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO — the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.
It could take longer to award the contracts than to refurbish and retrofit the C-130s. We would be very surprised if it happens by the end of this year.
After the contracts are signed, it could take quite some time for the contractors to ramp up to procure equipment, and to hire pilots, mechanics, and other employees to provide the services. If the pilots have no air tanker experience or qualifications, that will be another issue that has to be overcome. However, there is probably a large pool of ex-Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve C-130 pilots. Some of them may even have prior Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) experience. In fact, Coulson has hired several pilots with MAFFS experience to fly their recently converted C-130Q air tanker.
The good news is that it is much easier to find and hire a C-130 pilot with recent experience than it is to find a P2V pilot that has flown the aircraft recently.