Tanker 160 photographed at the retardant grid test

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Tanker 160 retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Jeff Zimmerman took this photo of Aero Flite’s Tanker 160, an Avro RJ85 which was converted into an air tanker by Conair. It was shot during the grid test at Fox Field in southern California December 13, 2013. More photos and a video of Tanker 160 at the grid test can be found HERE. The test involves dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds of cups, intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground.

Last year Aero-Flite received a contract for two Avro RJ85 air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service as part of the agency’s next-generation air tanker program.

You can see more of Jeff’s photography at his site. Thanks Jeff.

Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101, an MD-87, went through the same tests last week.

Tanker 101 dropping retardant at the grid test

Tanker 101, an MD-87
Tanker 101, an MD-87, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

Jeff Zimmerman took this excellent shot of Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101, an MD-87, dropping retardant during the grid test at Fox Field in southern California January 15, 2014.

Erickson Aero Tanker received a contract for two MD-87s air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service as part of the agency’s next-generation air tanker program.

You can see more of Jeff’s photography at his site. Thanks Jeff.

Video of CL-415s scooping, up close and personal

CL-415 scooping at Santa Fe Dam

CL-415 scooping at Santa Fe Dam

The images above are screen shots from the videos below, which were shot at Santa Fe Dam on Thursday. In addition to being the Incident Command Post for the Colby Fire at Glendora, California, east of Los Angeles, it has been the scooping point for the two CL-415 water-scooping air tankers working the fire. Los Angeles County Fire Department has been contracting for scoopers every fall for many years. In 2013 the contract was scheduled to end in December, but because of the drought and very dry fuel moistures the County extended the contract.

Being directly below the aircraft just after they lifted off the lake with full loads was not the safest place to be. Probably the pilots were wishing the folks with the cell phones were not there.

Below is one more screen shot from one of the videos.

CL-415 very close Colby Fire

Forest Service to enlist help of Coast Guard to manage C-130 airtankers

A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709, October, 2008. This is one of the seven C-130Hs being transferred to the USFS. Photo by Bob Garrard.

Until now the U.S. Forest Service has never had to manage a fleet of 22 medium and large transport aircraft. But in the coming months the agency that was created to grow trees will be reminded of the phrase, “be careful what you wish for”, as they become the owners of seven large four-engine C-130H transport planes and 15 smaller C-23B Sherpa transport planes “given” to them by the Coast Guard and the Army. The Forest Service is still going to grow trees and clean toilets in campgrounds, while taking on this air force of 22 very expensive aircraft.

Transfers to take place no later than February 11

The legislation requiring the transfer of the aircraft required that both the C-130Hs and C-23B Sherpas be transferred within 45 days after the bill was signed, which makes February 11, 2014 the last day for the transfer to take place. The C-130Hs will go first to the Air Force which will arrange for maintenance, upgrades of the air frame, and the installation of the retardant system. Then the Air Force will transfer them to the U.S. Forest Service. The Sherpas will be transferred directly from the Army to the USFS by February 11.

Last week a USFS employee with knowledge of how their aviation section is organized told Wildfire Today that up to that point the agency had not made any decisions about an organizational structure that would manage this air force within the agency. Individual short-term tasks were being handed out one at a time, while multiple functional areas were trying to get involved, lobbying for their piece of the pie.

Initially bringing the 22 aircraft into the agency will be extremely complex and time-consuming, with FAA approvals, inspections, evaluating, painting, writing then awarding contracts for maintenance and pilots, deciding on a tanking system, contracts for installing tanking systems, avionics, etc. And, something the USFS has not done well, developing a comprehensive PLAN of how to manage the aviation assets now and in the future. The Air Force will do some of this, other than the planning, before the actual final transfer of the C-130s to the USFS (the Sherpas will not receive retardant tanks), but the Forest Service has to be involved in the decision making. Then, after the 22 aircraft are completely up and running, managing the programs on a continuing basis is not simply a part time job for one person.

Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center, told us today that the agency, at this point anyway, plans to use a Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO) model for the seven C-130H aircraft. The government will own them and the maintenance and operation will be handled by private contractors. The 15 Sherpas will be owned by the Forest Service — some will be flown by USFS pilots and others by contractors. All of the Sherpas will be maintained by private industry under contract, similar to how the existing four C-23A Sherpas are maintained. You could call this GO/CO-GO I suppose.

Coast Guard to assist with managing C-130Hs

We were surprised to hear from Mrs. Jones today that a joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. The Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics. They have 24 older C-130Hs which are being upgraded with new center wing boxes and cockpit equipment with new multi-function displays. In 2008 they began replacing some of the C-130Hs with new C-130Js; they have six now with three more on order. All these numbers were valid before the Coast Guard agreed to send seven C-130Hs to the USFS if the Coast Guard could get the 14 almost new C-27J aircraft from the military that had been earmarked for the Forest Service.

Before we heard that there was going to be a USFS/Coast Guard collaboration, we asked a former fighter pilot for his opinion about how the C-130Hs should be managed. Gary “Bean” Barrett was a Navy Captain, the Commanding Officer of an adversary squadron and of a GO/CO squadron of heavy aircraft:

I would recommend standing up an organization like a composite group. One single individual in charge of the entire group [no rule by committee … it won’t work]. Since there are mission differences between C-23’s and C-130’s the group commander should probably have two “squadrons” under him. One for C-23’s, one for C-130’s and perhaps one or two maintenance squadrons depending on how the USFS choses to organize themselves. I am familiar with both the USAF concept of independent maintenance squadrons and the Navy concept of an integrated operational squadron with its own maintenance department. Either can work with contract maintenance but either way, the group commander has to “own” the program budget and the maintenance and the operations programs and the COTAR has to work for the group commander. When maintenance is directly involved in producing sorties instead of off in another state independently “fixing airplanes” the entire process seems to work better. Heavy or Depot level maintenance should be a separate contract.

Modification of the C-130 is a big hurdle since there is no military equivalent modification but I would think that it would be far easier to incorporate the tanker mod into a mil based maintenance program than to be forced to operate C-130’s under the FAA FAR’s. and the FAA C-130Q type rating.

C-23B Sherpas

The Sherpas have been stored at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma for an extended period of time but have been under a maintenance contract and could be put into service fairly quickly. While at Fort Sill, on a regular basis they have been started, run up to 80 percent power for five minutes, systems have been cycled, and the aircraft have been taxied. No scheduled maintenance has been performed so they may be due for some routine work. The USFS will need to run the Sherpas through the Smokejumper Aircraft Screening and Evaluation Board (SASEB), which is the focal point for all interagency smokejumper/paracargo aircraft, much like the Interagency AirTanker Board evaluates air tankers. Other items on the to-do list include painting, avionics, removal of any unneeded military equipment, and ensure conformance with the FAA Certificate, but since they will not be used as air tankers, retardant tank systems will not have to be installed.

C-23B. Department of Defense file photo.

Ms. Jones said the C-23B Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. They are capable of carrying up to 10 smokejumpers or 30 passengers and up to 7,000 pounds of cargo. The C-23B Sherpas will replace all four U.S. Forest Service owned C-23A Sherpas and the DC-3T currently used for smokejumper missions. The additional aircraft will eventually replace contracted smokejumper aircraft and support other fire missions. They expect to begin using two of the newer Sherpas in 2014 to drop cargo and will begin using it in 2015 to deliver smokejumpers.

The C-23B Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp which can be opened during flight which could be used for paracargo or by smokejumpers, both of which would be new to the USFS. The C-23A Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp, but it does not open in flight.

Type 2 helicopter contracts contested

Kern County Helicopter 407
Kern County Helicopter 407, a Type 2 helicopter.  Photo by Kern County FD.

WorldWind Helicopters has protested the contracts that were awarded for 31 Type 2 helicopters used to fight wildland fires. On December 17 the U.S. Forest Service announced exclusive use contracts for the award period that began December 17 and ends April 30, 2015 with options for three additional years. The solicitation was first announced on April 5, 2013 and took over eight months to complete.

WorldWind Helicopters began the 2013 fire season with three helicopters on contract, but after the company had some problems making the one at Peppermint, California available when the season started, the USFS cancelled their contract for that location and later awarded it to Hillsboro Aviation.

WorldWind again submitted bids for three helicopters on this latest contract but was only given two, for John Day, Oregon and Arroyo Grande, California, for a Bell 210 and Bell 205, respectively. The USFS did not announce any award for one line item, Trimmer, California, leaving it blank on the list.

This is the fourth time in the last two years that USFS fire aviation contracts have been protested. The others were for the next-generation air tankers which were protested twice (for the first and second decisions) and the no-competition award to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers. In all three previous instances, the companies that fought the awards ultimately received favorable outcomes. Coulson and 10 Tanker, which did not receive awards for next-gen air tankers, got them after the protest of the first decision. Neptune, which protested the second version of the next-gen contracts, suddenly and without explanation dropped the protest a few weeks after filing it, but six months later received no-competition contracts for two BAe-146s.

The Government Accountability Office will be arbitrating the bid protest. Their decision is due by April 7, 2014. The GAO can’t do much until the USFS provides to them a report on the protest, which has not yet been received by the GAO.

When the next-gen air tanker contract was protested the first time by Neptune, several months later the attorneys and U.S. Forest Service officials dealing with the protest decided that three of the seven line items on the solicitation were exempt because the company did not bid on those line items. As a result, three companies were issued five-year exclusive use contracts at that time. It is possible that in this 32-line-item helicopter solicitation there could be some unaffected contracts that could go forward, while the individual line items protested by WorldWind would be in limbo until a final decision is reached by the GAO, or the protest is dropped by WorldWind.

Below is a diagram outlining the GAO’s timeline for handling a bid protest. This particular protest was filed on December 26, 2013.
Continue reading “Type 2 helicopter contracts contested”

Wing box replacements in the USFS C-130s

Coast Guard C-130H No 1714
Coast Guard C-130H No 1714, October, 2008. This is one of the seven C-130s being transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by PhantomPhan1974

The legislation that enabled the transfer of seven C-130H aircraft from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service to serve as air tankers required that the wing boxes be replaced and other maintenance be performed.

C-130H wing box, diagramA wing box is the core or backbone of an aircraft. In a C-130 it sits atop the fuselage and forms the attachment point for both wings. A failure of the wing box during flight could be catastrophic.

In the mid-2000s, center wing boxes (CWB) on C-130s began showing cracks earlier than expected. Many of the aircraft were grounded or placed on restricted flight status, including some that were flying in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006 the Air Force began a program to replace them on all C-130 models except the C-130J which entered the inventory in February, 1999. By 2020, 155 C-130s will have new CWBs that are the same ones being manufactured today for the C-130J.

Removing C-130H wing box at Robins AFB
Removing a C-130H wing box at Robins AFB. USAF photo by Sue Sapp.

The total cost of a CWB kit in 2011 was $6.7 million, including installation which takes about 10 months.

C-130 1706 wing box replacement
A Coast Guard C-130, #1706, receiving a CWB replacement at Robins AFB. It was completed August 12, 2012. This aircraft is one of seven being transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. (U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

A couple of years ago the Coast Guard identified six C-130Hs to undergo CWB replacements. The first, #1706 seen in the photo above, was completed August 12, 2012. A second C-130 began the process in November, 2012 and should have been complete by September, 2013. The other six aircraft numbers that are being transferred to the USFS are 1708, 1709, 1713, 1714, 1719, and 1721. Many of the CWB replacements for the Air Force and Coast Guard aircraft are being done at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

The Coast Guard expected that the CWB and other upgrades would allow the C-130Hs to serve until 2027, after which they would be replaced by new aircraft. They have already started ordering C-130Js, tagging on to Air Force procurement programs..

Wildfire Today has found information which indicates the seven C-130s being given away by the Coast Guard were manufactured between 1983 and 1987, but this is not yet confirmed. If the data is accurate, they are 27 to 31 years old now, and will be 40 to 44 years old in 2017. A person might wonder why the Coast Guard can buy new C-130Js while the U.S. Forest Service has to make do with hand-me-down aircraft being discarded by another agency.

A C-130H of Israel Air Force receives a new wing box
A C-130H of Israel Air Force receives a new wing box. Photo by IAI.

In addition to replacing the CWBs, the legislation requires “progressive fuselage structural inspections” for the seven Coast Guard C-130s being transferred to the USFS. If they receive the standard primary structure inspection — known as programmed depot maintenance — that process will take between 180 and 200 days. In February, 2013, the Ogden Air Logistic Complex at Hill Air Force Base in Utah began performing some of the programmed depot maintenance on the Coast Guard C-130s, aircraft which are similar to the C-130s flown by the Air Force, but they have more avionics for radios and radar.

The legislation directed that no more than $130 million be spent by the Department of Defense to modify and maintain the seven C-130s before the transfer; any additional funds would have to come from the USFS. Doing a little math here, if the CWB replacement costs $7 million each, the programmed depot maintenance runs $3 million per aircraft (to pick a number out of the air), and the installation of the retardant tank system is $4 million (Coulson’s preliminary estimate is $3.5 million each for their Aero Union/Coulson RADS tank), we are looking at a total of about $98 million — within the $130 maximum allowed by Congress. If $14 million is subtracted for CWB replacements that have already occurred on two aircraft, that total is brought down to $84 million.

However, there will no doubt be other work that will have to be done to the aircraft, such as installation of radios, a real time location tracking system, and perhaps other avionics and a stress monitoring system. It is also possible that unneeded equipment such as a cargo handling system and armor will have to be removed, all of which could require more USFS dollars unless these items are included in the total conversion project funded by the military, rather than done later by the USFS. These additional tasks would push the price closer to the $130 million threshold.

Four air tanker companies protest Neptune’s new contract

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
Neptune’s BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McClure.

Four air tanker companies are protesting the non-competitive contract that the U.S. Forest Service gave to Neptune Aviation for two BAe-146 air tankers on December 12. As we reported that day, the contract, with a potential value of at least $141 million over four to nine years, justified the refusal to allow competition because of 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”.

The Missoulian reported the information late on Tuesday. Below is an excerpt from their article:

Four aerial firefighting companies have protested the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to award two next-generation air tanker contracts to Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.

Neptune received the $8.7 million annual contract for two BAe-146 jet fire bombers on Dec. 13. The challengers, Coulson Aviation USA, Minden Air Corp. and 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC, each filed a protest on Dec. 23 with the Government Accountability Office.

GAO attorney Gary Allen said he could not discuss the protest claims Tuesday, because they contained “protected information” that couldn’t be disclosed until after a decision was rendered. That decision is due by March 28, but Allen said he expected a resolution would be reached before then.

An earlier version of the Missoulian article incorrectly reported that we had written at Fire Aviation that the Coulson gravity-assisted RADS retardant tank was going to be installed in the seven C-130H aircraft being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service, to convert them into air tankers. We had only said that “It would not surprise us if the U.S. Air Force will be calling [Coulson] for a quote” for the tank system. We thank reporter Rob Chaney for making the correction.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Scott and Dick

Robins Air Force Base supports MAFFS aircraft


MAFFS Cheyenne
A MAFFS unit inside a MAFFS 8, a Charlotte, North Carolina Air National Guard C-130 at Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 5, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We ran across the following article in an Air Force newsletter published June 21, 2013 at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.


Robins supports fire suppression capabilities

jenny.gordon at robins.af.mil

While the Black Forest, Colo., fire was small when it started June 11, it eventually scorched more than 14,000 acres and took the work of more than 600 people to get it under control.

The Air Force was among those listed to help.

It’s efforts included the use of the U.S. Forest Service-owned program known as MAFFS, or Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System.

MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system that fits inside special C-130 aircraft without requiring structural modification, which allows them to be loaded quickly.

At the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, one of its missions is programmed depot maintenance of C-130s. In all, four Air Force units have aircraft equipped with the firefighting system, including the 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

The MAFFS program is supported in another way at Robins by way of engineering support and troubleshooting.

“Our responsibility is to ensure the air-worthiness and safety of the C-130s using the MAFFS system,” said Barry Bunn, Tactical Airlift Division chief engineer.

That responsibility includes making sure the equipment is safe and in proper working condition, including its tubing and tanks.

A small team of engineers here can go out to an aircraft to test the equipment, but most of the oversight is done through up-front design reviews and testing which ensures the system can operate safely and is properly secured within the plane.

A recent example of a project was the addition of grounding wires to the MAFFS-equipped C-130s. When fire retardant is discharged out of the system, a nozzle extends. To err on the safe side, previous restrictions had been placed on how close a plane could fly to a thunderstorm. This is important because there are times when a plane may have to fly near a storm in order to quickly get to a fire.

The new grounding wires now provide additional safety measures which allow the aircraft to safely fly closer to storms as needed.

Robins also successfully performed a permanent modification to radios that are used on the aircraft when communicating with emergency personnel and Forest Service.

The project involves 32 aircraft, and provides a standardized installation, according to Robert Siperko, C-130 Modification program manager.

Aircraft that use MAFFS will soon be equipped with the same layout for all radios; all the wiring will be the same and radios will be installed in the same location.

Two Air Force Reserve Command C-130s and air crews from the 302nd Airlift Wing supported the Colorado firefighting efforts out of Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., earlier this month.