The image above depicts what Coulson’s C-130Q, Air Tanker 131, should look like when it first appears over a wildfire, which is scheduled to happen in early August. The inspections and maintenance are nearing completion, the engines and props have been reinstalled, the tank is installed, most of the painting is complete, and the wrap shown above will be applied in the middle or end of July. Britt Coulson told us today that they expect to start doing run-ups the first week of July. He said they expect to be ready for their contract-specified Mandatory Availability Period which begins August 1.
The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.
The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.
The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.
The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.
The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.
It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.
Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.
Coulson Aviation is putting the finishing touches on the 3,500-gallon retardant tank for their C-130Q, and they expect to roll it into the aircraft soon. Yes, it has wheels. Britt Coulson told Wildfire Today that they can install or remove it within 30 minutes. With or without the tank the air tanker can be pressurized. Without the tank, the C-130Q could be used for hauling cargo, or even smokejumpers, I suppose, if it were approved as a jumper platform.
Last week we posted an article, with photos, about the work the company is performing on the aircraft in a hangar in San Bernardino, California.
According to Mr. Coulson, the company bought from Aero Union “all the rights, engineering, and the drawings. We re-drew everything in Solidworks and re-designed the tank then manufactured it.” They are working with the USFS on the requirements for tests that involve dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground.
Use a similar tank for the C-27J?
Mr. Coulson said they are very interested in building tanks for the C-27J (an aircraft that the USFS may inherit from the Air Force) based on the same design, but scaled down to hold less retardant. He said the company responded to the U.S. Forest Service’s Request for Information posted in August to provide tanks for the aircraft, but the agency has not solicited for actual contract proposals yet. He believes the C-27J could carry somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 gallons in an internal gravity-fed tank. Not all knowledgeable aviation folks we have talked with are optimistic that it could carry that much of a load. We have heard 1,800 gallons mentioned, and my own estimate is 1,800 to 2,300, but I am no expert.
(UPDATE, May 20, 2013: It was pointed out to us that converting the military version of the C-27J into a civilian air tanker would result in thousands of pounds of hardware being removed, perhaps with 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of weight savings. This could increase the retardant capacity by as much as 450 gallons, raising our estimate of the tank size to 2,000 to 2,650 gallons. This assumes an internal, gravity-fed tank system. A pressurized design, like the military MAFFS, would have a much lower capacity, requiring tanks for compressed air, additional valves and piping, and an air compressor.)
The Air Force has decided they don’t want any of their five-year-old C-27Js. You have to wonder why an agency would want to give away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of almost-new aircraft.
Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, was quoted in the Missoulian Tuesday on the subject of the C-27J:
“We are still working with the Department of Defense to see if we can get up to seven C-27J Spartans,” Harbour said. “If we acquire those platforms, we would modify them so we could use them as a medium air tanker. They’re not the size that is going to be able to carry type 1, large air tanker-capacity tanks, but we think they’re a very capable platform.” The Spartan is an Italian-made turboprop-powered cargo plane. The U.S. Air Force has offered to transfer up to 14 of the planes free to the Forest Service. Harbour said the plane is capable of carrying smokejumpers, but has only had preliminary testing as a retardant bomber.
If the USFS does procure and convert the C-27Js into air tankers, they may choose to pay contractors to fly and maintain them, similar to the CAL FIRE model for their 23 S-2T air tankers. CAL FIRE’s current support contractors are DynCorp and Logistics Specialties Incorporated. DynCorp provides air tanker and airtactical plane pilot services, and all aircraft maintenance services. (All CAL FIRE helicopters are flown by CAL FIRE pilots, but maintained by DynCorp.) LSI provides procurement and parts management services.
Fire Aviation has learned that some USFS aviation personnel have talked informally with DynCorp about a government-owned, contractor-operated program. According to the Missoulian article, Neptune would also be interested in bidding on a contract to provide these services.
Is the Air Force buying more C-27Js?
And just to confuse the issue further, when I was searching FedBizOpps.gov for the USFS Request for Information about the C-27J retardant tanks, the search results included a Sources Sought Synopsis survey placed there by the Air Force May 10, 2013. The agency is looking for companies that can manufacture more C-27Js. While the military says they don’t want the ones they have, and are giving those away and saying good riddance, they are considering buying more. Their reasoning is, they are….
…contemplating procurement of C-27J aircraft, in accordance with Congressional language that states “The secretary of the Air Force shall obligate and expend funds previously appropriated for the procurement of C-27J Spartan aircraft for the purposes for which such funds were originally appropriated.”
Here’s an idea.
Instead of buying more C-27Js at $53 million each, contemplate instead, if it is economically feasible, designing and building some purpose-built air tankers to enhance our homeland security.
I spent part of the day Tuesday at the refresher training and recertification for the crews of four military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) aircraft at Cheyenne, Wyoming. Let’s see… what time was I there?
MAFFS can be activated to provide surge capacity when the small feet of contracted federal air tankers is tied up on going fires or initial attack.
The training incorporated some of the changes to the system that were influenced by the crash of one of the MAFFS air tankers, MAFFS 7, last year in South Dakota. It appeared to be very thorough. Here is the training — by the numbers:
4 — MAFFS C-130 aircraft plus one for backup
6 — Lead Planes
160 — people from the two Air National Guard units, plus one or two dozen ground support personnel mostly from the U.S. Forest Service
49 — missions
373 — drops
80 — flight hours
At Cheyenne we talked with the Air National Guard MAFFS managers from the two units participating in the joint training, Major Jeremy Schaad from Wyoming’s 153 Airlift Wing, and Lt. Col. Brian Rachford from North Carolina’s 145 Airlift Wing.
One of the changes that has been implemented is the development and use of standardized written pilot qualifications for all four military bases that can each activate two aircraft and crews. When four people on the MAFFS #7 crew were killed last year no such uniform guidelines existed. Until 2013, each Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve MAFFS base used their own criteria for determining the requirements to serve on a MAFFS aircraft. The new standards specify how many base flight hours and hours spent on previous MAFFS missions are required to be the pilot in command and the copilot. They also formalize across the four MAFFS bases procedures, training, and written manuals.
There is now an increased focus on taking the time to analyze the specific scenario for each mission, including the weather conditions and the influences of the fire.
The Air Force report about last year’s MAFFS 7 crash on the White Draw Fire said a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm was one of the causes. During a previous retardant drop on the fire about five minutes earlier, the aircraft experienced a drop in airspeed despite operating under full power. Before the second drop the crew discussed the air speed problem but decided they could adjust to the conditions. The plane crashed on the second drop. Firefighters on the ground reported very strong wind speeds about the time of the fatal drop. One estimate was 50 mph.
The MAFFS 7 flight crew obtained a detailed weather forecast for the fire they expected to fly that day in 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire at Colorado Springs, but they did not have one for the fires in South Dakota, nor did they request one when they were diverted from the Arapaho Fire in Wyoming to fires in South Dakota.
The last time the four MAFFS bases sent their eight aircraft and crews to one location for joint training was in 2010. In 2012 all four bases conducted the training on their own. This year the California and Colorado bases each did their training independently, and the Wyoming and North Carolina bases joint-trained in Cheyenne.
The crash report did not specifically state that the lack of joint training the year of the accident was an issue, but it did say this:
Local training did not include different terrain conditions, density altitudes and congested pit operations, all of which are essential components in order to comprehend what live MAFFS operations entail. Additionally, all four MAFFS units were not integrated in order to provide a more realistic learning environment for new and seasoned MAFFS crewmembers.
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.
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.
After the crash of MAFFS 7 on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota in 2012, the “MAFFS 7” number was retired.
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.
The U.S. Forest Service supplies the ground-based marshaling and retardant loading personnel when MAFFS are activated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The military personnel working on a MAFFS aircraft typically fly for seven days, and then are relieved by a replacement crew.
The USFS has no plans to ever again use the first generation MAFFS 1 units.
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.
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.
ABC7 in Los Angeles produced the video report below about the aircraft:
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.