Temporary VLAT retardant base established at Colorado Springs

Above: MAFFS #2 reloads at the new temporary retardant base at the Colorado Springs Airport. Screen grab from the video below.

A new temporary fire retardant base has been set up at the Colorado Springs Airport. A spokesperson for the airport told us that it can handle Very Large Air Tankers such as the DC-10 and 747. In the video below one of the DC-10’s can be seen in the background.

This is part of a joint effort between the Colorado Springs Airport, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Army Fort Carson to provide a reload facility in the area.

Two MAFFS aircraft activated

MAFFS activatedToday two C-130 MAFFS aircraft from the Air Force Reserve base in Colorado, the 302nd Airlift Wing, were activated after receiving a request from the National Interagency Fire Center. Sorties by MAFFS 2 and MAFFS 5 started today on the Spring Creek Fire in south-central Colorado.

The Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that convert a military aircraft into an air tanker can be installed in a C-130 in a matter of hours. The units hold up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant that is forced out of the tanks by compressed air.

The MAFFS program consists of eight units located at four military bases in the western United States — Channel Islands, Cheyenne, Colorado Springs, and Reno. All are Air National Guard bases except for the Air Force Reserve Wing at Colorado Springs. Each base has two of systems except for the new kid on the block, Reno — one of their two MAFFS is being used by a C-130 that was originally expected to be transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service.

The concept behind the MAFFS is to have surge capacity. The units can be activated when ongoing wildfires reduce the ability of the 13 large air tankers on federal exclusive use contracts, or the 11 on call when needed contract, to respond to new initial attack and extended attack fires.

Governors have the authority to activate their National Guard MAFFS as needed. The National Interagency Fire Center can also activate them.

MAFFS
MAFFS 8 and 9 at annual training in Cheyenne in 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

 

Coast Guard/Forest Service air tanker is back in the air

Michael Piper got these photos of Air Tanker 118 apparently off the television as one of the HC-130H air tankers was working the County Fire west of Sacramento. Click on the photos a couple of times to see larger versions.

After Congress authorized $130 million to transfer seven U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted to air tankers, much work was done to bring maintenance up to date, replace wing boxes, and issue contracts to private companies for regular maintenance and operation. But a few months ago the current administration announced they plan to abandon the project.

This may be the last year we see any of them fighting fire. Then I guess they’ll go to the boneyard in good shape, some with new wing boxes. There’s a rumor that CAL FIRE is considering  upgrading from their 1,200-gallon S-2T air tankers to a version of the C-130 which carries at least 3,000 gallons. Maybe they will get their hands on them.

Over the last three years one has been seen occasionally over fires, using a borrowed MAFFS slip-in tank system. As far as I know, no permanent retardant systems have been installed in any of the seven HC-130H aircraft.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, spraying retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

Remembering the crews of Air Tankers 123 and 130

air tanker 130 memorial
Screenshot from the KOLO TV video.

KOLO TV has a very nice four-minute video tribute to the crew that was killed June 17, 2002 when their C-130A air tanker, Tanker 130, crashed while fighting a wildfire near Walker, California killing all three on board. It includes a short interview conducted minutes before the accident with Steve Wass, one of the pilots. The other two crew members were Craig LaBare and Mike Davis. The video has the well-known footage of the wings falling off the air tanker as it crashed just after making a drop.

A month after the crash of T-130, a P4Y-2 Privateer, T-123, crashed while maneuvering over a fire near Estes Park, Colorado. Both pilots, Ricky Schwartz and Milt Stollak were killed.

Tanker 123 crash near Estes Park, CO, July 18, 2002
Tanker 123 crash near Estes Park, CO, July 18, 2002. Credit: Matt Inden – Special to The News

The NTSB determined that the cause of both crashes was in‑flight structural failure due to fatigue cracking in the wings, and that maintenance procedures had been inadequate to detect the cracking.

These accidents changed aerial firefighting. The Forest Service banned certain models of old war birds and developed new contract specifications regarding inspections and stress monitoring. During the next ten years the large air tanker fleet atrophied, shrinking from 44 on exclusive use contracts in 2002 to 9 in 2012. Not much was done to restore the program until eight days after two pilots were killed in crashes of two P2V air tankers on the same day in 2012  — the Forest Service issued contracts for seven “next generation” air tankers manufactured in the 1980s and 1990s, taking a small step toward partially rebuilding the fleet. As the fire season began in 2018, 13 large air tankers were on federal exclusive use contracts.

memorial at Greybull, Wyoming air tanker crashes 2002
A memorial at Greybull, Wyoming for the crashes of two air tankers in 2002, T-123 and T-130.

737 air tanker undergoing FAA testing

(Originally published at 3:47 p.m. MDT June 17, 2018)

One of Coulson’s recently converted 737’s, Tanker 137, is in San Bernardino for certification testing by the FAA.

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(UPDATED at 1:38 p.m. MDT June 21, 2018)

Coulson may have seen Donn’s question about the loading ports. Here is what they posted on Facebook June 20:

Video of Air Tanker 850 working the “416 Fire” near Durango, Colorado

Filmed by pilot Jim Watson of GB Aerial Applications, this is a video of Air Tanker 850 on the “416 Fire” near Durango, CO June 13, 2018, working with John Ponts, Lead 51 trainee.

Jim said, “The Heavies did the long runs while the Single Engine Air Tankers offered close air support by reinforcing weak areas such as this drop in the bottom of a drainage.”

Forest Service issues solicitations for CWN air tankers

Above: Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. The aircraft was under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

On June 15 the U.S. Forest Service issued solicitations for Call When Needed (CWN) air tankers. There are two separate requests for proposals (RFP), one for Large Air Tankers (LAT) and another for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT).

The verbiage in the LAT document implies that, perhaps, only air tankers that have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons will be considered:

Aircraft less than 3000 gallons or greater than 5000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft in the target volume, given the priority mission for these airtankers is initial attack.

And the VLAT RFP “prefers” aircraft that can carry at least 8,000 gallons.

Aircraft with greater than 8000-gallon (72,000 pounds) dispensing capacity are preferred. Aircraft less than 8000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft at the target volume, given the primary mission for these airtankers is large fire support.

It is interesting that the RFP has such imprecise language for this important specification, capacity, that can be easily required and measured. It is not subjective, unlike the editorial comments about one type of air tanker being prioritized for initial attack and another for large fire support. This assumes that LATs are not suitable for large fires and VLATs are not appropriate for initial attack. There are so few federally contracted air tankers available, now that the numbers have been cut again, that during periods of high fire activity too often no air tanker is going to arrive during the initial attack stage when a new fire is still small — unless it is on state land in California where CAL FIRE still believes in aggressive initial attack from both the ground AND the air. A VLAT, while carrying three to six times more than a LAT, can split their load, only dropping what is necessary, and land partially loaded with retardant if necessary.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and various congressional committees have been begging the Forest Service for many years to develop hard data to determine the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft and the liquids they drop on fires, so that better decisions can be made about how the $100 million appropriated annually for this activity should be spent.

The last time the Forest Service issued a solicitation for CWN air tankers was 222 days ago, on May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS at that time restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated VLATs from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the 747 carries up to 19,200.

Global Supertanker, the operator of a 747 VLAT, filed a protest which was upheld by the GAO. In their decision, the GAO wrote that the FS:

…failed to provide reasonable justifications for the challenged specification, such that we are unable to conclude that the challenged specification is reasonably necessary for the agency to meet its needs.

We recommend that the agency make a documented determination of its needs. Once the agency identifies its needs, the agency should revise its solicitation to include specifications that are reasonably necessary to meet those needs. We also recommend that the protester be reimbursed the costs of filing and pursuing the protest, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

In 2012 the FS began a program to answer some of the questions about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft, titled, Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study. The agency’s stated goal was to begin releasing summaries of the results in 2017, but so far have not done so. A couple of weeks ago when we asked Vicki Christiansen, the Interim Chief of the Forest Service, when the study’s results would be released, she responded by email:

The summaries are not currently available. Unforeseen delays with staffing changes, retrieving aviation use data, and completing final reviews has delayed their overall schedule. The AFUE work group is continuing their work to complete the summaries and they will be provided as soon as they become available.