Coulson demonstrates their C-130 tank system

Coulson Aviation USA has produced a video that demonstrates some of the capabilities of their 3,500-gallon Coulson RADS-XL Tank and the C-130Q which began flying under contract this fall, designated as Tanker 131. They shot the video at and near the San Bernardino air tanker base using cameras in their Sikorsky S76 helicopter, Firewatch 76. It shows the air tanker making down hill drops, which not every modern air tanker can accomplish very well.

The company bought the intellectual property for the RADS tank from Aero Union and in the last few months has been asked for price quotes for the tank system from a number of potential customers.

Britt Coulson told us:

Our plan is to manufacture and assemble the upper hopper and sell lower hopper subassembly kits where either we can complete the airframe install or another Lockheed Service Center can do the work.

Mr. Coulson said they have not finalized a price yet but it will be somewhere around $3.5 million installed. It would not surprise us if the U.S. Air Force will be calling for a quote, since they will be putting gravity tanks in the seven C-130Hs which will be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service after new wing boxes and fire retardant tanks are installed. The tank’s previous approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board will eliminate one very costly and time-consuming step in the process of converting an aircraft into an air tanker.

Defense bill passes, clearing way for C-130H transfers to the USFS

Late Thursday night the Senate passed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 84-15, which passed the House last week. President Obama has already said he will sign it which clears the way for the aircraft transfers we have written about previously. (UPDATE, December 27, 2013: the President signed the bill December 26, 2013.)

The bill contained provisions for the U.S. Forest Service to receive seven C-130H Coast Guard aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, in lieu of the C-27Js they had been expecting. It requires the Air Force to “promptly schedule” the “center and outer wing-box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system in each such HC–130H aircraft”.

The Air Force will spend a maximum of $130 million of for all of the maintenance and modification work on the seven aircraft. The bill also specifies that no more than $5 million shall be spent on each HC–130H aircraft for the “gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system”. If the modifications exceed these limits, the additional funds will have to be provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service will also receive up to 15 C-23B+ S Sherpa aircraft which are expected to be used as smokejumper platforms. Earlier this week representatives from the USFS were in Oklahoma evaluating the Sherpas they were expecting to receive.

If C-130s are transferred to the USFS, they will have gravity retardant tanks

We were able to find documentation that if the seven Coast Guard C-130H aircraft are transferred to the U.S. Forest Service as required in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (NDAA), they WILL have gravity assisted retardant tanks, rather than a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) pressurized tank like is used on the military MAFFS C-130s.

The NDAA passed in the House on December 12 with a vote of 350 to 69. Its next stop will be the Senate, which is expected to take up the bill this week before they adjourn on December 20.

We found the retardant tank requirement in the 1,106-page NDAA bill along with some other interesting details. There are time elements mentioned, such as allowing 45 days after the act passes to begin the transfer of the C-130Hs. And “at the first available opportunity, promptly schedule” the “center and outer wing- box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system in each such HC–130H aircraft”.

A maximum cost of $130 million of Air Force funds was established for all of the maintenance and modification work on the seven aircraft. The bill also specifies that no more than $5 million shall be spent on each HC–130H aircraft for the “gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system”. If the modifications exceed these limits, the additional funds will have to be provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

Redding smokejumpers' Shorts 330 Sherpa
Redding smokejumpers’ Shorts 330 Sherpa. USFS photo.

The transfer of “not more than” 15 C-23B+ S Sherpa aircraft” is required to begin within 45 days of the passage of the bill. If they receive them, the USFS could use the Sherpas for smokejumping and for hauling cargo. In 1991 the agency acquired six Shorts 330 Sherpas and has used them as smokejumper platforms. The 330s are similar to the C-23B+ Sherpas but have smaller engines and a lower cruising speed. The military C-23B+ S Sherpas also have a rear drop-down cargo door which could be used by smokejumpers. The transfer of the Sherpas would allow the USFS to stop contracting for jumper aircraft such as the Twin Otters and have an all-Sherpa jumper fleet that is Government-Owned/Contractor Operated, bringing some standardization to the jumper fleet. The acquisition of 15 Sherpas might even make the retirement of the DC-3 more palatable.

House passes bill to transfer C-27J aircraft to Coast Guard; USFS would receive C-130Hs

C-27J

On Thursday the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 that contains provisions for the Forest Service to receive seven C-130H aircraft in lieu of the C-27Js they had been expecting. The bill passed with a vote of 350 to 69. Its next stop will be the Senate, which is tied up debating executive nominations, but they are expected to take up the bill next week before they adjourn on December 20.

The last time we reported on the possible transfer of excess C-27J aircraft from the Air Force to the Forest Service, there had been a proposal to instead, give all 14 of the remaining C-27Js to the Coast Guard if the Coast Guard would transfer seven C-130Hs to the Forest Service to be used as air tankers. With an agreement reached on December 9 regarding the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 between Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that proposal remained alive.

The bill passed by the House today:

  • Requires the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the Air Force.
  • Requires the Secretary of the Air Force to spend up to $130 million to upgrade those seven aircraft to make them suitable for Forest Service use a firefighting aircraft.
  • Requires the Forest Service to accept the upgraded HC-130H aircraft in lieu of exercising their right to take seven excess C-27J aircraft.
  • Transfers 14 excess C-27J aircraft from DOD to the Coast Guard.
  • Transfers up to 15 C-23 Sherpa aircraft from DOD to the Forest Service.

Before transferring the C-130Hs to the Forest Service, the Air Force would:

…perform center and outer wingbox replacement modifications, progressive fuselage structural inspections, and configuration modifications necessary to convert each HC-130H aircraft as large air tanker wildfire suppression aircraft.

 

Thanks go out to Ross

Air Force evaluates MAFFS activity in 2013

MAFFS and Chinook on Black Forest Fire June 12, 2013
Military aircraft, a C-130 MAFFS and an Army CH-47 Chinook, work the Black Forest Fire at Colorado Springs, June 12, 2013. Photo by Travis Leland.

The Air Force held a three-day after action review earlier this month to evaluate the use of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or “MAFFS”-equipped C-130 aircraft in their fire suppression role this year. Below is a report from Mary McHale, AFNORTH Public Affairs.

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12/10/2013 – TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Representatives from across the United States wildfire fighting enterprise met for a three-day after action review of the 2013 season Dec. 3-5 at the Heritage Club at Tyndall AFB, Fla.

During his opening remarks welcoming the group, Lt. Gen. William Etter, CONR- 1 AF (AFNORTH) commander, praised their efforts of the past season and encouraged the participants to engage in candid conversations about how to improve current practices and procedures.

“This meeting is really needed because this is such an important mission,” Etter said. “It’s vital we continue to refine our lessons learned and this gathering is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

According to Col. Al Wimmer, A3 director, this was one of the busiest modular airborne firefighting season in 41 years of operations.

“This After Action Review is a vital step in closing out the season for MAFFS,” said Wimmer. “The team in attendance not only captured lessons but applied them in the form of revised publications, orders and deployment plans for the upcoming season. The Air Component often acts as the central point of focus, bringing together many different groups from the whole of government to make a mission happen for the American people.”

After the initial greetings, participants broke into working groups for the rest of the meeting to study and discuss those lessons learned and develop a way ahead for the 2014 season.

“It was three days packed full of activities and hard work from everyone,” Lt. Col. Dawn Junk, meeting facilitator from the AFNORTH Operations Directorate. “The results of everyone’s hard work produced positive way aheads.”

At the outbrief for Etter, she presented those way aheads. Primary among them was using incident awareness and assessment assets during an event because there’s such a large variety of variables that apply to their use.

“We studied this carefully and determined we need to come up with a systematic, across the board process to present this option,” Junk said. “We want to develop a concept of operations that clearly presents the capabilities of an IAA asset, no matter its source or whether it’s manned or unmanned.”

Other group accomplishments included reviewing the AFNORTH operational order and training requirements as well as examining the financial elements of the season.

USFS awards sole source air tanker contract to Neptune

Tanker_41
One of Neptune’s BAe-146s, Tanker 41, at Missoula, a next-generation air tanker. Photo August 11, 2012 by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.

Today the U.S. Forest Service awarded a sole source contract to Neptune Aviation to supply two next-generation air tankers for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014. The estimated value of the contract is $141,000,000 and has a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. The hourly rate begins at about $8,000 and increases to about $12,000 by the end of nine years.

For the contract, Neptune is expected to use two BAe-146 airliners that are being converted to 3,000-gallon next-generation air tankers. Some of the requirements to qualify as next-gen are that they are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Those two Neptune aircraft would be in addition to the first two BAe-146s they converted which have been active on a “legacy” air tanker contract this year.

Issuing a sole source contract is much more unusual than allowing multiple companies to submit bids. To only consider one source, the federal government has to provide justification, and in this case they used the “industrial mobilization exception”, which includes a necessity to “keep vital facilities or suppliers in business or make them available in the event of a national emergency, or prevent the loss of a supplier’s ability and employees’ skills”.

On May 6, 2013 the U.S. Forest Service announced their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven next-gen air tankers. Neptune was not selected, and the company filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. The reasons Neptune was left out of that contract, according to information Fire Aviation has received, could have been their problems providing consistent retardant drop patterns with their new BAe-146 tank, and, one of the considerations in awarding the contract was crash history. This year Neptune has been working to improve the tanks and said that by 2014 their BAe-146s would all have modified versions of the tank system.

The protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30 when actual signed contracts were finally issued to three companies for three air tankers, which the contracting officers felt were not affected by the protest:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

Then suddenly on June 7 Neptune withdrew their protest which allowed the contracts for the remaining four aircraft to be awarded to:

  • Aero Air, for two MD87s
  • Aero Flite, for two Avro RJ85s

The awarding of the final next-gen contracts came 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for the aircraft.

Only two of those seven air tankers have been constructed and have passed the certification requirements of the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board — the DC-10 and the C-130Q. The other five missed their contractual start dates. In September the USFS issued “cure notices” to the three companies. They responded to the USFS indicating the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014.

In the sole source justification for the new Neptune contract the USFS wrote they are “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014”.

When Neptune suddenly dropped their protest of the next-gen contract in June neither the company nor the USFS would disclose the reason. There was speculation Neptune felt confident at that time there would be a development later in their favor.

Airbus completes second round of tests of C295 airtanker

Airbus C295 water drop test
C295 water drop test. Airbus photo.

As Fire Aviation told you on October 22, Airbus is experimenting with a C295 that has been converted into an air tanker. The first tests were designed to monitor the performance of the aircraft as the water was released. In the second phase the company conducted seven water drops at a range near Cordoba, Spain where water was dropped into a grid of cups which measured the amount of water. After the engineers analyze the data they will know the volume and consistency of the drop pattern across the grid. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires similar tests before issuing federal certification for air tankers in the United States.

C295 924-gallon tank
One of the two 924-gallon tanks that would be used to hold water or retardant in the C-295. Airbus photo.

During the tests the C295 was outfitted with one tank in the cabin which held 924 gallons (3,500 liters). The water was gravity-ejected through two doors installed in the belly of the aircraft. Airbus plans to use two of the roll-on/roll-off tanks, raising the capacity to 1,848 gallons (7,000 liters). This is about the same number of gallons the C-27J is expected to carry if it were converted into an air tanker.

The concept is similar to the system used on Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q which carries 3,500 gallons in what Coulson has named the Coulson RADS-XL Tank after they bought the rights package for the RADS tank from Aero Union. Britt Coulson told us that if anyone wants to outfit an air tanker with that tank they will need to talk to his company.

C-130 retardant tank unload
Removing the 3,500-gallon retardant tank from Coulson’s C-130Q. Coulson photo.

A new study looks at four possible air tankers for Colorado

Colorado Air tanker study cover

In case the 11 air tanker studies since 1995 are not enough, there is now a twelfth. As you can see on the cover above, it is named Analysis of Aircraft for the Fire Fighting Mission in Colorado. It compares four different aircraft, two of which have received certification from the Interagency AirTanker Board, and two that have never been converted into air tankers:

  1. BAe-146
  2. C-130H/Q
  3. C-27J
  4. S-3B

The study is Colorado-specific in that it looks at the retardant capacities if the aircraft were to fly out of four air tanker bases in the state: Denver, Durango, Grand Junction, and Pueblo, with elevations ranging from 4,726 to 6,685 feet, and runway lengths from 9,000 to 10,502 feet.

The study primarily considered four characteristics of the aircraft:

  • Retardant tank volume (certificated or estimated)
  • Mission payload capability from USFS air tanker bases in Colorado
  • Sustainability and after sales product support
  • Mission effectiveness expressed as gallons transported per hour and per day

The C-130J/Q led the field in all four categories.

Assuming the data compiled by Conklin & de Decker Aviation Information is correct, the retardant capacities at the Colorado air tanker bases “during typical summer temperatures (ISA + 30 degrees C)” for the C-27J and S-3B are stunningly low, averaging 184 and 181 gallons, respectively. The BAe-146 would have to download from the maximum of 3,000 gallons to 1,884, while the C-130Q/H would always, according to the report, carry their maximum load of 3,500 gallons.

The tables below are from the study on page 33.

Colorado Retardant delivery by four types of aircraftWe are curious to know who paid for the study, which was “prepared for [Colorado state] Senator Steve King”. A phone call to Conklin & de Decker Aviation Information was not immediately returned. Senator King has been very interested and vocal about the possible acquisition of firefighting aircraft for his state.

Earlier this year legislation passed in Colorado that allowed for the creation of a “Colorado Firefighting Air Corps”, but it did not authorize any funding for the agency. The bill was introduced by Senators Steve King and Cheri Jahn