AVID air tanker report released

Tanker 07 on the Myrtle Fire, 2012
Tanker 07 on the Myrtle Fire, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service has released another study on air tankers (large 10mb file), which is one of nine commissioned by the agency on the topic since 1995. The $380,000 contract for this one was awarded to AVID, a Virginia-based company that employed a crew of retired and current aviation professionals for this project.

It would be helpful if an expensive 117-page report like this clearly stated the objectives for the study, but all we could find was this:

The purpose of this study is to build analytical data that can be used to estimate the requirement for airtankers in the future.

The report includes a huge quantity of statistics about how air tankers have been used over the last several years. I was expecting to see some concrete recommendations about how they should be used in the future, but there was little along those lines.

This study, like the RAND report, included no information about Very Large Air Tankers. But while the RAND study was favorable toward scoopers, this AVID report addresses them like this:

There is a relatively small amount of USFS background data that documents the use of scooper aircraft, making it difficult to come to conclusions regarding their use. While continued analysis of scooper usage is warranted, the focus of the current analysis is primarily on large airtanker usage, followed by heavy helicopter usage.

There was little else in the report about scoopers, reinforcing the perception that the USFS has a bias against them.

There was definitely some interesting data in the study, and below are two illustrations. Click on them to see larger versions.

Wildfire probability June 14 Unable to fill requests vs number of air tankers

Other air tanker studies

USFS releases study on C-27J

C-27JThe U.S. Forest Service has released a study on how the C-27J could be used by the agency if the Air Force gives them seven as expected. This ninth air tanker study since 1995 was a surprise to us — somehow the Forest Service kept this one under wraps.

The report was prepared by Convergent Performance, LLC in Colorado Springs, Colorado at a cost of $54,000. We can’t find a date on it but the document must have been released very recently. We found a link to it on the Forest Service web site.

If used as an air tanker

The report confirms one thing that we were told by Art Hinaman, USFS Assistant Director for Aviation, on July 1 when we talked with him at the dedication of the memorial site for the crash of MAFFS 7 a month ago. Mr. Hinaman said he thought the C-27J would hold around 1,800 gallons of retardant when outfitted with a conventional, gravity-fed, constant flow tank, and that is what the Convergent study came up with. Of course, Mr. Hinaman had probably already seen Convergent’s findings when we talked about it.

The report concluded the C-27J could carry 1,850 gallons of retardant if 3,200 pounds of unneeded equipment were removed, including flight deck armor (approximately 1,100 lbs), miscellaneous mission equipment such as litter stanchions, tie-down chains, ladders etc. (approximately 1,000 lbs), and the cargo loading system (approximately 1,200 lbs).

If a mini-MAFFS slip-in retardant system was designed for the C-27J cargo space, which is smaller than a C-130, it would hold approximately 1,100 gallons if the same excess equipment was removed. A MAFFS2 has a maximum capacity of 3,000 gallons, but frequently carries less depending on density altitude and fuel load. The mini-MAFFS would not have an air compressor, therefore requiring the aircraft to depend on air compressors being prepositioned at air tanker bases. The USFS has six mobile air compressor systems that were built to support the original MAFFS, but the latest generation, MAFFS2, has an onboard air compressor.

If used as a smokejumper ship

C-27, jumping from rampSmokejumpers could exit the C-27J through the two side doors or the aft ramp. Depending on how the aircraft was configured, it could transport between 24 and 46 jumpers.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

The C-27J aircraft is very compatible with the smoke jumper mission. The aircraft is specifically designed as an aerial delivery platform for personnel as well as cargo. The C-27J is a high wing aircraft keeping the disruptive airflow above the jump platform; a distance of 41” between the propeller and fuselage to keep turbulence well away from the jumpers; and a horizontal stabilizer on the tail that sits well above the jumper path practically eliminating any parachute contact. The high wing design and the cockpit’s 16-windows provide the best conditions for air to ground visibility and the robust avionics suite with HUD allows pinpoint GPS accuracy for each airdrop. The side doors have a very safe and comfortable height of 6’ 4” and the rear door opening is 7’ 5” high. Free-fall jumpers can be deployed from either side door exit or from the aft ramp. Static line jumpers can only be deployed using the side door exits.

If used to transport firefighters

According to the report, the aircraft configuration can be changed and fitted with standard outer and center seating to accommodate 68 passengers with limited personal equipment plus 2 loadmasters.

The USFS asked Convergent to analyze how the C-27J could be used to transport two 20-person crews to high-elevation airports with relatively short runways. (The maximum allowable flying weight for a hotshot crew is 5,300 pounds.) The examples given were Alturas, CA (KAAT), 4,378′ above sea level; Reserve, NM (T16), at 6,360′; and Negrito Airstrip, Reserve NM (0NM7), at 8,143′. The conclusions were that landing would not be a problem. At two of the three airports taking off would be possible, but at Reserve (T16) with the 4,777′ runway, the aircraft would usually be able to carry only one crew when departing.

If used for cargo

The aircraft could carry between 12,222 and 25,353 pounds of cargo.

Cost

If the C-27J accumulated 250 flight hours annually, Convergent estimated it would cost about $7,400 an hour over a 20 to 30 year life span. At 400 hours a year the cost would be about $5,800 an hour over 20 to 30 years.

Training

From the report:

The C-27J is training intensive and requires constant skill application by the aircrews to remain proficient and mission-ready. Although highly automated, this is not an aircraft that can be effectively and safely operated with min-run training and skill. It requires highly skilled professional aircrew. The training available is thorough and adequate, but it is time consuming (2- 3 months) and relatively expensive in its current form. The length of training and lead-time required to have a fully qualified crewmember to meet fire season operational demand will require structured, deliberate, action. Training is only offered by two sources, one being the manufacturer, but it is conducted overseas with equipment not representative of the aircraft the Forest Service would receive and is generally limited to new purchase customers as part of the point of sale agreement. The only US based training offered is in Warner-Robbins, GA.

Other air tanker studies

Senators support transfer of C-27Js to USFS

Six senators signed a June 29 letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressing their support for the transfer of up to seven C-27J aircraft from the Department of Defense to the U.S. Forest Service. Here is the text of their letter:

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“Dear Secretary Hagel:

As you near the completion of a divestiture plan for the C-27J Spartan aircraft, we want to draw your attention to Section 1091 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, P.L. 112-239 (NDAA), which governs the transfer of excess military aircraft deemed useful by the U.S. Forest Service for suppressing wildfires.

We are deeply concerned that the Forest Service’s wildfire air tanker fleet is stretched alarmingly thin and urgently needs to be recapitalized. According to press reports, there were about 914 requests to deploy air tankers at various wildfires in 2012 but about half of those requests were denied as “unable to fill” because of fierce competition for a shortage of air assets. To help address this shortfall, the Forest Service has proposed acquiring the C-27J as a 21st century platform capable of multiple wildland-fire missions including smokejumper and cargo delivery, fire crew transport, and aerial application of fire retardant.

Section 1091 of the NDAA 2013 clearly gives the Forest Service the first right of refusal on up to seven of the twenty-one C-27J aircraft deemed excess to the needs of the Department of Defense (DoD). We understand that U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), a division of DoD, may request up to 8 of the C-27J aircraft, which is consistent with Section 1091. However, in a memorandum to you from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), dated June 10, 2013, Secretary Janet Napolitano expressed an interest in obtaining up to 14 of the C-27J aircraft on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) under a “direct military-to-military transfer.” We want to remind you that a transfer of 14 of the C-27J aircraft to USCG (which operates under the service of DHS, not the DoD (14 U.S.C. §3)) is inconsistent with the language of Section 1091. Congress specifically relegated USCG’s priority in obtaining excess C-27J second to the Forest Service. This interpretation of Section 1091 is shared by experts at the Congressional Research Service, an objective legal and policy analysis branch of the Library of Congress.

We would appreciate knowing what steps you are taking to prepare the C-27J for transfer and request to be immediately notified when a plan is near implementation. We would also appreciate a reply explaining your interpretation of Section 1091 in light of the request by Secretary Napolitano.

Sincerely,

John McCain, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, Mark Udall, Mike Johanns, Bill Nelson”

Tanker 910 at Santa Maria

Tanker 910 at Santa Maria air tanker base
Tanker 910 at Santa Maria air tanker base July 28, 2013, supporting the Aspen Fire. Photo by Jim Kunkle. (click to enlarge)

Jim Kunkle sent us this photo of a DC-10 air tanker, T-910, making its first visit to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base while supporting the Aspen Fire south of Yosemite National Park in California. Thanks Jim.

UPDATE July 30: The Santa Maria Times has an article about the aircraft.

Photos of helicopters working the Aspen Fire.

Aerial firefighting on the Brown Road Fire

Information Officer Shawna Hartman wrote this description of the air attack operation on the Brown Road Fire July 25 near Orofino, Idaho.

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“The job of Air Tactical Group Supervisor in the firefighting world is somewhat like a traffic policeman at a busy intersection. In Orofino on Thursday, the Air Tactical Group Supervisor, James Grasham, Zone Assistant Fire Management Officer from Idaho Panhandle National Forest stationed in Grangeville, with pilot Dave Parker coordinated the air support on the Brown Road Fire which greatly assisted in putting that fire out. Air support working the fire in Orofino, included 4 helicopters, 4 single engine air tankers (SEATS), 2 heavy air tankers, and a lead plane. With 11 aircraft over the fire, one could imagine the chaos that could ensue, hence the need for someone to coordinate the effort.

Due to effective regional communication and local pre-positioned air resources, aerial attack was immediate for the Brown Road fire. The terrain in that area makes on the ground firefighting difficult, and the aerial attack allowed the local firefighters to respond directly to the homes for structure protection. Circling above the fire, Grasham, is able to talk with firefighters on the ground as well as the air craft supporting the fire. In coordination with the ground Incident Commander, the Air Tactical Group Supervisor sets objectives for the fire and directs each retardant or water drop on the fire.

In Orofino last week, the helicopters were able to dip from nearby ponds and cool hot spots while the SEATs returned to Grangeville Tanker Base where they reloaded with retardant. The heavy air tankers were flown in from Missoula to assist with the Braun Road fire also. The “heavy” tankers are larger planes that may carry up to 2,000 gallons of retardant and also require a lead plane. The lead plane identifies the line in which the air tanker will drop their retardant load. While identifying that line the lead plane leads the tankers in and “checks the air”. These larger planes returned to Missoula to be refilled and one of them returned with another load to Orofino.

The SEATs hold up to 800 gallons of retardant per load; however, for safety reasons each load is usually only 725-750 gallons. The SEAT pilot can control the amount or coverage of retardant on each drop. If the fuel on the ground is heavy timber the pilot will likely release their complete load to ensure that it will reach the ground and coverage is good. The pilots stationed in Grangeville are highly qualified for wildfire and each year attend training and are recertified to continue to pilot SEATs.

When the SEATs get to the Grangeville Air Base, support personnel on the ground manage the safety of the “ramp”, the site of the retardant reloading station. SEAT managers keep track of flying time, safety, roll times loading and compliance with contract standards. There are at least 5 interagency dispatched personnel at the base that assist with the tanker base. As fire activity increase in the area, the more aircraft are called in and in turn more support personnel will arrive to help manage the Tanker Base.

The Idaho Department of Lands and the US Forest Service work closely together and share use of the SEATs. The Idaho Department of Lands holds the contract with the SEAT companies while the US Forest Service provides the airport support and staffing to maintain the Grangeville Tanker Base. This mutual aid agreement allows both entities use of this valuable firefighting resource without carrying the financial burden alone. The SEATs usefulness and efficiency of all personnel involved was exhibited on the Brown Fire and the air show over Orofino was entertaining as well.”

MAFFS drops on the Mountain Fire

California Air National Guard MAFFS drops
A C-130 MAFFS from the California Air National Guard drops retardant near the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on the Mountain Fire.  Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicholas Carzis.

There probably will not be a great need for air tanker drops on the southern California Mountain Fire for at least another day or two. It rained much of the day on Sunday and two weather stations near the fire measured between 1 inch and 2.3 inches in the 24-hour period, triggering a flash flood watch.

Night flying helicopter used on the Mountain Fire

The U.S. Forest Service has been using their new night flying helicopter and air attack ship on the Mountain Fire west of Palm Springs, and proudly produced this graphic.

Night flying data, Mountain Fire

And, they should be proud. It is a big step for an agency that is not known for innovation in their aerial firefighting program. The night flying helicopter concept was reintroduced in the USFS during the first part of June this year.