State Senator organizes air tanker demonstration

A Colorado state senator who is also a candidate for county Sheriff hosted a demonstration for an air tanker yesterday. Senator Steve King, who has been very outspoken about the need for the state to have their own aerial firefighting resources, invited Coulson to display their C-130Q air tanker at the Centennial airport on the southeast side of Denver. The aircraft, which has a contract with the U.S. Forest Service, conducted a drop near the runway after flying in from their base in Sacramento.

The video below details some of the sophisticated imaging and mapping capabilities of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, including identifying targets and a data link for transferring them to the C-130.

Interior of the S-76
Interior of the S-76. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Another report on the air tanker demonstration that has better shots of the C-130 drop can be found at KWGN.

Farm bill allows “leasing” of 5 air tankers

A provision in the farm bill (H.R.2642) passed by the House on Wednesday authorized the U.S. Forest Service to “establish a large airtanker and aerial asset lease program”, allowing the agency to “enter into a multiyear lease contract for up to five aircraft that meet the criteria described in the Forest Service document entitled `Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy‘ and dated February 10, 2012, for large airtankers”. That 2012 strategy stated that the next generation of large airtankers would have a 3,000 to 5,000 gallon capacity and would be turbine powered. These are the specifications of the seven next-gen air tankers that received contracts in 2013. The USFS has been contracting for large air tankers for decades. So, we were confused about the purpose of this language in the farm bill, placed there by two Senators from Colorado, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. It seemingly allows for what the USFS does routinely, but does not appropriate any additional funds.

We checked with the U.S. Forest Service to try to understand if there was an intended difference between the routine contracting for air tankers that has been going on for decades and this new “leasing” language. We received the following, uh, explanation from their Washington, DC office:

The language in the Farm Bill clarifies our existing authority to lease up to five airtankers annually. Depending on our budget resources, this authority may be useful. At present, the Forest Service is relying on next generation airtanker contracts and the seven C-130 planes transferred in the Defense Appropriations Bill to modernize the fleet as we retire the legacy airtankers in the coming years.

That certainly clears that up.

We reached out to the offices of Senators Bennet and Udall, and received the following from James D. Owens, Press Secretary for Senator Udall:

The United States Forest Service is allowed to acquire large air tankers in two ways: (1) as surplus from other federal agencies or (2) contracting. The provision that Senator Udall successfully included in the Farm Bill gives the Forest Service a third, more flexible option to acquire air tankers, i.e. leasing.

“Leasing” might involve renting the air tankers without pilots, and possibly without a maintenance agreement. We have a hard time understanding why the USFS would want to become involved in that type of situation. They are going to have a hard enough time arranging for the operation and maintenance of the 15 Sherpas and 7 C-130Hs recently acquired from the military and the Coast Guard  — aircraft which they will own.

The bill is now in the Senate. The White House says President Barack Obama will sign it if it reaches his desk.

Legislation to be introduced in Colorado would provide 4 firefighting helicopters and an air tanker

A Colorado state senator will be introducing legislation that would provide $9 million for four helicopters and an air tanker to suppress wildfires. A bill approved last year created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) but failed to appropriate any funds to run the agency or acquire any aviation assets.

The legislation specifies that a contract be issued for one Type 1 air tanker or a very large air tanker and four helicopters.

(The rest of the story, including the permanent acquisition of four air tankers, is on Wildfire Today.)

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