Ten things to know about MAFFS, military air tankers

MAFFS 5 Peterson AFB Colorado, 9-9-2011
File photo of a MAFFS II unit being loaded into a C-130 at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, September 9, 2011. Air Force Reserve photo.

Military C-130s can be used as surge resources when the privately owned contracted air tankers are committed to going fires or initial attack. They are transformed into air tankers when outfitted with the 3,000-gallon slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS).

Here are ten things you may not have known about MAFFS air tankers.

  1. Operating one of the eight MAFFS aircraft costs $5,000 to $6,000 per hour. This is paid by the U.S. Forest Service or is charged to the fire.
  2. After the crash of MAFFS 7 on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota in 2012, the  “MAFFS 7” number was retired.
  3. Since one of the MAFFS slip-in units was destroyed in the crash, MAFFS 9, a new number, is using what was the spare ninth unit. Now there is no spare unit.
  4. The U.S. Forest Service supplies the ground-based marshaling and retardant loading personnel when MAFFS are activated.
  5. Maintenance and repairs of the MAFFS slip-in units are performed by a crew of six technicians supplied by the USFS. Some of them are former Aero Union employees. The MAFFS units were made for the USFS under contracts awarded to Aero Union.
  6. The Aero Union company, after going through bankruptcy, now consists of one person who is dealing with the remaining financial issues until the doors are closed for the last time. If any new MAFFS units are manufactured, it would likely be done by another company.
  7. The USFS has copies of the technical and engineering documents and they believe they have the rights to have additional MAFFS 2 units manufactured if they desired, according to what we were told by a person who is very knowledgeable about the system. The bank that now owns Aero Union may or may not agree.
  8. The retardant is pumped out of the 3,000-gallon tank by compressed air stored in two tanks at 1,200 psi. The compressed air tanks on the new MAFFS 2 units are refilled by two onboard air compressors which can fill the tanks in 15 to 20 minutes. Or, they can be refilled by one of six portable USFS air compressors on the ground (in about 14 minutes) that are moved around to air tanker bases as needed when the MAFFS aircraft are activated. The first generation MAFFS 1 units, no longer used, did not have onboard air compressors and had to be refilled on the ground. The contracts for the MAFFS 2 units specified that the air tanks had to be refilled by the onboard air compressors in no more than 30 minutes.
  9. The military personnel working on a MAFFS aircraft typically fly for seven days, and then are relieved by a replacement crew.
  10. The USFS has no plans to ever again use the first generation MAFFS 1 units.
MAFFS compressor
A MAFFS air tanker is being refilled with compressed air and water during training at Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 7, 2013. The compressor (on the left) is one of six owned and operated by the USFS, and is moved around to air tanker bases as needed when MAFFS are activated. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Photos of the MAFFS aircraft taken during annual refresher training at Cheyenne, Wyoming May 7, 2013.

Conversion of Coulson’s C-130 nearing completion

Coulson's C-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q undergoing maintenance and tank installation in San Bernardino, CA. Coulson photo.

While it certainly is not ready to drop retardant over a fire today, the conversion of Coulson’s C-130Q into an air tanker is progressing very well.

The company was selected this week by the U.S. Forest Service to receive an exclusive use contract for the 32-year old aircraft that had been sitting in a Wisconsin museum for the last 10 years. Before that it was used by NASA for research, but it began it’s life as a strategic communications link aircraft for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces.

A C-130Q is similar to a C-130H, but the “Q” model was outfitted with a complex antenna system for communications with submarines and bombers.

In addition to building and installing the retardant tank, the work going on at the San Bernardino airport includes inspections which required that some of the skin be removed from the wings and other surfaces. The inspection is almost done and the aircraft is being put back together.

bottom of Coulson tank
The lower portion of the retardant tank being installed in the C-130Q. Coulson photo.

Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that the top portion of the retardant tank is finished and the bottom is nearing completion. They expect to conduct flights in June leading toward FAA approval for a restricted category type certificate. They will also need to go through a test for the Interagency AirTanker Board which involves dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground to determine consistency and quantity.

Coulson's C-130Q tank
The top portion of the tank for Coulson’s C-130Q. Coulson photo.

ABC7 in Los Angeles produced the video report below about the aircraft:

Coulson C-130Q
The engineering drawing of the RADS tank for Coulson C-130Q. Courtesy of Coulson.

In a Coulson company newsletter published on the internet in February, 2012, Jim Messer, Chief Operating Officer, described the process they went through in selecting the aircraft to be used as an air tanker:

…To get to this point we conducted an extensive review of various aircraft capabilities and performance, looking at over 30 aircraft before concluding that the C-130 is the best available.

In the process to acquire an aircraft specific for the airtanker role, Coulson focused on those airframes that were designed specifically for the mission profile of aerial fire fighting. Although many retired high time airlines designed for high altitude point to point flights were available at lower cost they were discounted for the mission required in the fire fighting role.

The C-130Q aircraft was designed to undertake aerial wildland fire operations. Its manoeuvrability, and performance, operating at low levels at low speed with, heavy loads in rugged terrain, immediate power response, and STOL capabilities makes the C-130 a natural fit as an Airtanker.

 


Thanks go out to Britt and Ryan

The air tanker industry’s opinion on the C27J as an air tanker

C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

A trade association that represents aerial firefighting companies, including Neptune Aviation, has issued a news release about the push by some politicians for the U.S. Forest Service to accept some C27J aircraft no longer wanted by the U.S. Air Force so that they could be converted into air tankers. If this occurred, it could upset the current paradigm of contractor-owned, contractor-operated air tankers, depending on how the owner/operator arrangement was configured.

Neptune’s direction has been to convert BAe-146 airliners into air tankers, at a considerable investment of time and money. Two are complete and were used last year on fires. They have at least one more at their Missoula facility that they intend to convert, with plans to eventually replace all of their P2Vs with the newer BAe-146s.

Below is the complete text of the news release issued today by the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association. It is a revised version of what the Association sent out earlier, which had a misquote from, uh, Bill Gabbert. They fixed it, thankfully, before it was widely distributed.

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“Industry Group Cites Problems With Military Aircraft Acquisition By Forest Service

Washington, DC, May 9, 2013

Association (AHSAFA) has cited significant airframe modification and operational issues, should the US Forest Service (USFS) pursue a proposal to acquire surplus C27J cargo aircraft for deployment as air tankers in wildland firefighting.

Under the National Defense Authorization Act of FY 2013, up to 14 of the twin-engine, turboprop airplanes—built in Italy by Alenia–would be transferred to the USFS, at no cost, from the Air Force, which no longer wants them. In a recent development, South Dakota Senators John Thune and Tim Johnson, as well as South Dakota Representative Kristi Noem, sent a letter to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell urging the agency to consider the C27J option. AHSAFA, however, alerted Congress and the USFS that it would be years before those aircraft would be mission-ready and that private industry offers a more immediate solution to increasing the number of large air tankers, and replacing the aging aircraft slated for retirement.
Continue reading “The air tanker industry’s opinion on the C27J as an air tanker”

Neptune CEO interviewed about failure to win Next-Gen contract

An ABC affiliate TV station in Montana conducted an interview with Ron Hooper, the CEO of Neptune Aviation, after the company failed to win one of the contracts for next-generation air tankers announced by the U.S. Forest Service May 6. The reporter made it sound like the company was definitely going to file a protest about the contract, but Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, told us yesterday that they would make a decision about a possible protest after receiving a debriefing from the USFS contracting officer.

The Missoulian also has an interesting article about the award of the next-gen contracts.

A fun fact: Mr. Hooper as recently as November, 2010 worked for the U.S. Forest Service as the Director of Acquisition Management for the agency. His name is also mentioned in a summary of the 1987 U.S. Forest Service “airtanker scandal”. When qualified as a contracting officer, he reportedly made a determination after the transfer of the 28 aircraft to private companies that the transfer was void and they should be returned to the government. At the time Mr. Hooper was the staff assistant to the Forest Service Deputy Chief for Business Operations.

Photos of MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS training at Cheyenne

Tuesday I found myself in Cheyenne, Wyoming where two Air National Guard units were conducting their annual training and recertification for using their Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS).

The 153 Airlift Wing from Wyoming and North Carolina’s 145 Airlift Wing got together along with six lead planes for ground-based meetings and airborne exercises.

I’ll write more about the MAFFS training later, but until then, here are some photos.

MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Filling the MAFFS with water (for training drops) and compressed air. The MAFFS also have an on-board air compressor which can be used if there isn’t one provided at an air tanker base.
MAFFS training at Cheyenne
The larger tank with the blue dot holds 3,000 gallons of retardant or water. The smaller white tank is for compressed air (at 1,200 psi) which pushes the retardant out of the larger tank.
MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Two Loadmasters operate the MAFFS unit in the cargo hold of the C-130.

More information:

All of the photos were taken by Bill Gabbert and are protected by copyright.

Neptune air tankers shut down Monday

After the U.S. Forest Service announced on Monday morning their intention to award contracts for next-generation air tankers to five companies, the pilots of all five Neptune Aviation air tankers that were currently working and available for fire assignments walked away from their aircraft in California and New Mexico at about 12:30 p.m MT. The aircraft were unstaffed until Tuesday morning. Neptune did not receive one of the next-gen contracts even though they supplied all but one of the large air tankers on exclusive use contracts for the last one and a half years. The company did, however, receive contracts a few weeks ago for one BAe-146 and six  P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract.

One person who contacted Fire Aviation assumed that the pilots walking off the job was a protest about the fact that the company did not receive a next-gen contract.

We contacted Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, who told us the following:

Neptune decided, for safety reasons, to stand-down our contract fleet (plus flight training in MSO) due to the number of questions and concerns that were flooding into Missoula from the crews in the field. The decision was made with the USFS’s full knowledge and done in accordance with the current “Legacy Contract”. We were notified of the contract awards at the same time of the USFS press release. The timing of the two messages did not give us enough time to send out a notice to our employees of the USFS decision and what it meant to the company and employees. We did not want our crews worried about the company’s future, their jobs, BAe program, etc, instead of being 100% mission focused. We took the opportunity to get clear and concise information to them and allow for questions and concerns to be addressed.

Bottom line, no one was told to walk off the job in protest and to my knowledge no one did it independently.

The first attempt to award the next-gen contracts on June 13, 2012 was overturned after protests by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson Aviation, who did not receive awards, were upheld by the Government Accountability Office. We asked Mr. Snyder if they planned to protest this latest contracting process, and he told Fire Aviation that their company would make a decision about that after a debriefing from the U.S. Forest Service contracting officer.

In their news release, the USFS said the five successful bidders were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing. A person who is familiar with the air tanker contracting process told Fire Aviation that the reasons for not selecting Neptune for this latest next-gen award were most likely based on price and their accident history.

If Neptune submitted the same bid structure on this latest next-gen solicitation as they did the first time, their price, based on the total cost estimate for the 5-year base period, would have been higher than all of the successful bidders in round two, except for the proposal for the DC-10 from 10 Tanker, who based their bid on delivering 5,000 gallons, compared to Neptune’s BAe-146 with a maximum capacity of around 3,000 gallons. The DC-10’s bid allowed for options for the additional 6,600 gallons in their 11,600-gallon tank. The solicitation’s specification was for tankers delivering between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. 10 Tanker shrewdly configured their bid to work within the constraints of the solicitation.

USFS announces contracts for next-generation air tankers

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87
Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service announced today they intend to award contracts to five companies for what the agency is calling “next-generation” air tankers, used for dropping water or fire retardant on wildfires.

The U.S. Forest Service expects to award exclusive use contracts to:

Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. (See below for more information on the “legacy” aircraft contract).

The new next-gen contracts are for a base period of five years with five one-year options (a total of 10 years if all contract options are exercised).

In a press release the USFS said the contracts allow the companies to provide additional next generation air tankers in future years, contingent on funding and other circumstances…

…to reach the total of 18 to 28 recommended in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy that the Forest Service submitted to Congress in February 2012.

These new contracts for next-gen air tankers require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least  3,000 gallons.

The USFS said the five were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.

We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.

The USFS said they plan to bring the seven next-gen air tankers into service over the next year. Most of these aircraft, except for the DC-10, are not ready to drop retardant on fires. Some are still being converted from airliners into air tankers, have not passed the drop tests required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, or they do not have an FAA Type Certificate. Even if the progress on some of these air tankers goes as the companies optimistically hope, it could be months before they are seen dropping retardant over a fire.

The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers 523 days ago on November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012.

These next-generation air tankers can fly faster, should be more reliable, and can carry more retardant than the “legacy” P2V air tankers that were designed in the 1940s for maritime patrol. The Korean War vintage P2Vs have two 18-cylinder radial piston engines with many moving parts, requiring more maintenance than the turbine or turbofan engines of these newer aircraft. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000 gallons of retardant and can cruise at 225 mph.

On March 28, 2013 the USFS announced that contracts were awarded to Neptune Aviation and Minden Air, for what the agency called “legacy” air tankers. Exclusive use contracts were awarded to Minden for one P2V and to Neptune for six P2Vs and one BAe-146. These contracts are for six to eight aircraft over the next five years, when optional years for various line items are considered.

The USFS expects legacy air tankers to continue to be part of the fleet until there are adequate numbers of next generation large air tankers.

With the 7 contracts for next-gen air tankers announced today, plus the 8 legacy contracts, this will make 15 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts if and when the 7 next-gen aircraft are converted and obtain approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and the FAA. In addition, the government can call up 8 military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers.

The USFS still has not announced new contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10 or 747, which expired December 31, 2012. However, and surprisingly, one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s received a contract on this new next-gen solicitation. The agency had extended the call-when-needed contract for the DC-10 while they struggled with issuing new contracts. There have been no contracts for the 747 “Supertanker” operated by Evergreen in recent years.

Below are the specifications for air tankers that we compiled, including some aircraft being considered for conversion into air tankers. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Air Tanker Specifications

 

Tanker 910 at Gorgonio Fire

Tanker 910, a DC-10, on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, Calif., 5-4-2013 used with permission. Credit Rachel Luna/The Sun.
Tanker 910, a DC-10, on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, Calif., 5-4-2013. Used with permission. Credit Rachel Luna/The Sun.

The day that Tanker 910, a DC-10, came on duty after being activated by CAL FIRE on a call-when-needed contract, it was used on at least one fire in California. These photos were taken May 4 on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, California, by Rachel Luna, a photographer with The Sun.

The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons, almost six times more retardant than a Korean War vintage P2V air tanker, which currently make up most of the large air tanker fleet contracted to the federal government. (Update: Trish said in a comment that the DC-10 dropped two loads on the fire, for a total of 23,200 gallons. That would have been 12 loads from a P2V, or 8 from a BAe-146.)

DC-10 Tanker 910
Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, Calif., 5-4-2013. Used with permission. Credit Rachel Luna/The Sun

The Gorgonio Fire was reported at 11:43 a.m. on May 5 in an area that was difficult to access. The spread was stopped that afternoon after it burned 650 acres near Highway 243 south of Banning and north of Pine Cove. The initial attack included a fast, aggressive response by ground and aerial fire resources, a strategy that is not seen often enough outside of California. As of Sunday afternoon, the fire is 75 percent contained.

KMIR TV has a video report on the fire which has a few seconds of the DC-10 dropping.