Senators urge USFS to convert C-27Js into air tankers

The three-person congressional delegation from South Dakota sent a letter to the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service on April 16 encouraging Chief Tidwell to acquire military surplus C-27J aircraft to be converted into air tankers. The Defense Department may be getting rid of all of their C-27Js, and legislation has given the Secretary of Agriculture the first right of refusal if that occurs.

C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

At least three other Senators have been pushing for this since last July. This newest letter was signed by Senator John Thune, Senator Tim Johnson, and Representative Kristi Noem. In spite of the fact that their letter shows a lack of understanding of how air tankers are managed in the federal government, they offered some advice, suggesting that “one or two” of the C-27Js be stationed at Ellsworth Air Force base in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The Senators and the Congresswoman failed in their letter to indicate that they would introduce legislation to appropriate dollars to maintain and operate the aircraft or supply funding to convert them into air tankers, which would require many millions of dollars. Talk and letter writing is very easy to do. Using their powers as elected officials representing taxpayers to actually facilitate change on this matter is something that they have not done, and can’t delegate to the intern that may have written the letter.

The C-27J is an interesting aircraft and appears to be a baby brother of the C-130J. It uses two of the same turbo-prop engines as the C-130, which has four of the 4,640 hp Rolls-Royce engines. If converted into an air tanker, at only five years old they would be by far the youngest large air tankers being used in the United States. The P2Vs that currently comprise most of the large air tanker fleet on exclusive use contracts are over 50 years old. Even Tanker 40 (N146FF), the recently acquired jet-powered BAe-146 operated by Neptune, is 27 years old.

The C-27J has a short but spotty history, with some reports of maintenance problems and difficulties in acquiring parts from the Italian suppliers. According to Wikipedia:

On 23 March 2012, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will cut the C-27J from its inventory in fiscal year 2013 after determining that its per-aircraft lifecycle costs are higher than those of C-130 aircraft performing the same combat resupply mission.

It is difficult to estimate how many gallons of retardant a C-27J could hold, but it could be between 1,800 and 2,300. This compares to an average of 1,948 for a P2V, a little less than 3,000 for a BAe-146, and 11,600 for a DC-10.

 

Thanks go out to Jim

Tanker 71 at Monrovia

Tanker 71 dropping on Madison Fire in Monrovia. Screen grab from ABC7 video.

The photo above, a screen grab from ABC7, shows Tanker 71, an S2T, dropping on the Madison Fire in Monrovia, California, east of Los Angeles, at 5:40 p.m. PT, April 20, 2013.

More information about the Madison Fire.

LA County helicopter dropping on Madison Fire
LA County helicopter drops on Madison Fire, April 20, 2013. LASD photo by Eric Fox

DC-10 air tanker to tour airports in Montana, South Dakota, and Minnesota

DC10 dropping
Tanker-911, a DC 10 airtanker, drops retardant on the Wallow fire above Greer, AZ, as the Del Rosa Hotshots wait in a safety zone, June 11, 2011. USFS photo by Kari Greer

Over at Wildfire Today there is an article about plans for one of the DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers to visit airports in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana next week.

Colorado continues to consider acquiring an air tanker fleet

After it was first proposed on March 15 by two Colorado state lawmakers, the state continues to pursue the goal of acquiring a fleet of air tankers. Senate Bill 245 introduced by Senators Steve King and Cheri Jahn passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday on a 5-0 vote, and the next step is in the Appropriations Committee. That seven-member committee will decide if they want to fund the concept.

The bill would create a “Colorado Firefighting Air Corps” which if approved and funded would:

Purchase, acquire, lease or contract for the provision of firefighting aircraft, facilities, equipment, and supplies for aerial firefighting, and retrofit, maintain, staff, and support the firefighting aircraft or contract for the provision of those services.

The Cortez Journal interviewed someone whose name will be familiar to those who have been involved in aerial firefighting for a while, Tony Kern, who formerly headed the U.S. Forest Service aviation program. Here is an excerpt from their article:

The federal government has been studying its air tanker problem for a decade, but it isn’t getting more planes in the air, Kern said. And the planes that are in service are old.

Kern thinks federal failures create an opportunity for Colorado to position itself as an international hub for aerial firefighting technology.

“We can fly a smart bomb through Kim Jong-Il’s window, but we’re still throwing slurry down from 1950s technology into the wind over fires when our own citizens are at risk,” he said.

If you have several hours to kill, you can peruse the seven air tanker studies the federal government has commissioned and paid for since 1995. And if those are not enough for you, an eighth one, the AVID study, was completed at the end of 2012. We are waiting with bated breath for it to be released by the USFS.

This air tanker has it backwards


In this commercial that alert reader Devin saw on NBC television today, the air tanker in the video appears to be dropping gasoline instead of fire retardant. A how-this-commercial-was-made blog post admits it was “simulated flammable liquid”, but it’s an interesting advertisement. The blog article is dated June, 2012.

Devin noticed that the C-130 looks similar to Coulson’s C-130H, but the aircraft in this video, N466TM, is described at Flightware as a C-130A registered to TBM Inc., at Tulare, California. It was last tracked at Dubois, PA on March 7, 2012. The blog article referenced above is dated June, 2012. The paint job is similar to Tanker 67, N531BA, a C-130A that is also registered to TBM.

Aviation briefing, March 31, 2013

Coulson’s C-130 conversion in San Bernardino

Coulson's C-130 Taxiing
Archive photo of Coulson’s C-130 taxiing before the conversion. Coulson photo.

The Press-Enterprise has an article about the air tanker conversion that Coulson is working on at the San Bernardino, California airport, converting into an air tanker what the article identifies as a C-130Q. According to the article test flights are scheduled to begin in April. Coulson is hoping to receive a next-generation air tanker contract for the aircraft.

Wildfire Today first wrote about Coulson’s C-130 April 9, 2012.

Santa Maria reduces air tanker landing fees

The Santa Maria Public Airport 55 miles north of Santa Barbara, California has reduced the landing fees charged to air tankers using the airport. An article in the Santa Maria Times says the fees will be reduced from $1 per 1,000 pounds to 50 cents per 1,000 pounds. In addition to this fee, firefighting aircraft have to pay ramp handling fees and fuel flowage fees.

After being downgraded to a call-when-needed air tanker base for three years, the Los Padres National Forest in October, 2011 restored it to full-time status during the fire season.

Contracts for next-generation air tankers

Late in the day last Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for eight “legacy” air tankers, which included seven P2Vs and one BAe-146. Some people within the agency thought contracts for next-generation air tankers would also be announced last week, but that did not happen. The USFS is probably bending over backwards this time in an attempt to minimize the chances of the awards being protested again. Last summer after the awards were announced but not yet finalized, two companies that were not slated to receive contracts filed protests, which sent the agency back to the drawing board, starting the process over again after making dozens of changes in the solicitation.

It has been 487 days since the USFS began the solicitation process for next-generation air tankers.

Forest Service announces contracts for legacy air tankers

(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MT, March 28, 2013; updated at 2:15 p.m. March 28, 2013)

On Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service awarded contracts to two companies for what they are calling “legacy” air tankers, for a total of eight aircraft in 2013. Minden will receive a contract worth $17.1 million and Neptune’s contract will total $180 million.

Minden will have their Tanker 48, a P2V, working under this new contract for one year, with options for four additional years, according to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the USFS in Boise.

Dan Snyder, President of Neptune Aviation, told Fire Aviation today that their company will have five P2Vs on contract for five years. Two other Neptune aircraft, one P2V and one BAe-146, will have a one-year fixed contract, with options for four additional years.  The optional years will be totally up to the USFS — if they have the need, desire, and the funds, they could activate the additional years, one at a time.

These awards mean that the USFS will have eight air tankers working this year under this “legacy” contract. Beginning in 2014 if the optional years are not activated, there will be six, if the information we have been provided is correct.

Mr. Snyder said they expect to have their signed contract in their hands within the next two days.

We attempted to talk to Tim Christy, Director of Flight Operations for Minden, but he was unavailable. Minden had one P2V on contract last year after their other one, Tanker 55, was damaged June 3 while landing on disabled landing gear, the same day that Neptune’s Tanker 11 crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots. For the last two or three years Minden has been working on converting a BAe-146 into an air tanker.

We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contract awards for next-generation air tankers powered by turbine, turbofan, or jet engines. That solicitation was first issued 484 days ago. Recently U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers.

Also pending are contract awards for very large air tankers, such as a DC-10 or 747, which can carry 11,600 and 20,000 gallons, respectively. The P2Vs usually hold about 2,000 gallons while the BAe-146 has a 3,000 gallon capacity. The P2V cruises at about 225 mph. The BAe-146 more than doubles that speed, at 498 mph.

While it may seem surprising that a jet-powered BAe-146 received a contract through a solicitation for “legacy” air tankers, Mr. Snyder of Neptune said they were allowed to put any air tanker they wanted on their proposal as long as it met the specs in the solicitation. He said the USFS was looking more at cost than technical specifications, and wanted “best value”.

Neptune still has the two fully operational BAe-146 next-generation air tankers that worked on fires in 2012, Tankers 40 and 41. They will operate them for one more season, Mr. Snyder said. After they they may be modified. The company is also finishing the conversions of two more BAe-146s that will have a much improved tanking system that Mr. Snyder said will fix some of the issues uncovered in their first two converted aircraft, including trail-off of retardant, consistency, and constant flow. The new systems will still hold approximately 3,000 gallons, but the exact capacity has not been determined. The tanks will be internal, and from the outside will look very similar to Tankers 40 and 41. But the redesign is so different that the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) is requiring that they go through the expensive grid tests, in which retardant is dropped over a grid of hundreds of containers to determine the consistency and volume of the retardant when it reaches the ground. Neptune is negotiating with the IATB on the date and location of the test. If the IATB certifies the new tank design, Mr. Snyder expects that Neptune’s third and fourth BAe-146s could be available in the Spring or early Summer.

Availability of air tankers

Air Tanker contract dates-2012
Mandatory availability periods for large exclusive use air tankers in 2012. Data from NIFC, chart by Wildfire Today. (Click to enlarge)

We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contracts for air tankers this year. Above is a chart showing the mandatory availability periods for large air tankers in 2012. We made it last year after the two aircraft crashed on June 3.

It was 483 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded. The USFS is also considering contracts for legacy and very large air tankers.