USFS has one fully operational C-23B

The U.S. Army transferred 15 to the U.S. Forest Service

Air Tanker Base Observation team sherpa C-23B
Air Tanker Base Observation Team and Aircrew with a C-23B, August 23-29, 2016. L to R: Shane Ralston (MSO), Billy Phillips (MSO), Abe Fandrich (MSO), Brad Richards (RDD), Matt Huse (IWA), Robbie Cline (BJC), Leslie Casavan (SBD), Frank Castillo (MSO), Marc Durocher (SMX). The team of agency airtanker base and fixed-wing base qualified personnel were tasked by the USFS Washington Office Aviation Division to observe a number of airtanker bases and fixed-wing bases in terms of how they manage the aircraft. They also asked questions about training and experience of the base personnel.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 signed by the President December 13, 2013 not only transferred seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted into air tankers, it also directed that 15 C-23B Sherpas be transferred from the U.S. Army to the USFS. The legislation directed that the change of ownership occur within 45 days of the bill being signed.

Now that over 2 1/2 years have passed, the USFS has one Sherpa that is fully reconfigured, operational, and available to be used on a daily basis. The agency refers to it as the National Logistical Sherpa and is using it this year to haul cargo. It will not be used this year for paracargo or smokejumper missions.

According to an information sheet distributed by the Forest Service, the aircraft has a crew of four, two pilots and two loadmasters. It can carry up to 18 passengers or a payload of 7,280 pounds of fuel and cargo. It has a range of 550 miles (with 4,000 pounds of cargo), a cruise speed of 198 knots, is IFR capable, and costs $2,310 an hour to operate.

The military version of the aircraft is called the C-23B. The civilian variation is variously known as SD3-60, SD-360, and Short 360. 

The Forest Service is calling their aircraft an SD3-60 because they are pursuing Federal Aviation Administration civil certification of the non-certificated C-23B aircraft. This would enable the agency to use them to perform several aerial firefighting missions in addition to delivering smokejumpers and cargo.

These tasks could include transporting fire crews, incident management teams, and other overhead and support personnel to airfields and airports that larger transport planes could not use; transporting cargo and communications equipment; and supporting all-hazards incidents. In the future SD3-60s could also be used for off-season/non-fire personnel/administrative support; interagency cooperative agreements (i.e. DoD jumpers, Air Force Academy, Customs & Border Protection); smokejumper and rappel boost; large fire support; Law Enforcement and Investigations Rapid Response Teams; tactical supply support; infrared mapping; search and rescue; wild horse feeding; and as a training platform.

The USFS expects to bring 9 more of the 15 aircraft into service beginning in 2017 primarily to be used as smokejumper aircraft. One will be used for parts while four will remain in storage for the time being.

The aircraft will be flown by USFS and contractor pilots, under a  Government-Owned/Mixed-Operations (GO/MO) model for the SD3-60 fleet.

C-23B at Neptune
C-23Bs being worked on by Neptune Aviation. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the aircraft which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.

Neptune completes their part of the conversion process on two USFS Sherpas

Photo above: C-23Bs being worked on by Neptune Aviation. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation has finished their portion of the process of converting two of the U.S. Forest Service C-23B Sherpa aircraft to civilian SD3-60 certificates. The contract Neptune received last year could involve converting another 13 of the former U.S. Army Sherpas. The USFS expects to use them to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

Neptune’s project began at the USFS facility in Ogden, Utah where the first two aircraft were done, but is in the final stages of being moved to the company’s facilities in Missoula, Montana for the remaining aircraft.

Field Aviation in Oklahoma City began the process in October, 2015 of converting the analog cockpits in the Sherpas to glass flight decks using the Garmin G950 system.

USFS Sherpas to get glass flight decks

The analog instrumentation on the Sherpa aircraft the U.S. Forest Service obtained from the Army will be converted to glass flight decks using the Garmin G950 system. The work is being done by Field Aviation in Oklahoma City who started on the first one in October of last year.

Garmin 950
Example of a Garmin 950 flight deck. It can be configured as a two-display or three-display system with 10- or 12 inch flat-panel LCDs. Garmin photo.

The USFS received 15 of the aircraft which are known by a confusing list of names: Sherpa, C-23B+ (the military designator), and the civilian names of SD3-60, SD-360, and Short 360.

SD3-30. (Similar to, but not one of the SD3-60 aircraft recently received from the Army). USFS photo.

The contract, which has a potential value of $19 million, was awarded on July 29, 2015. At a minimum it will cover the flight deck installations in four of the SD3-60 aircraft with the possibility of converting 11 more.

The USFS expects to use the planes for delivering smokejumpers, cargo, and possibly firefighting personnel. They already have four SD3-30s, a variation, which is a little smaller with less powerful engines. According to Wikipedia the larger SD3-60 has a cruising speed of 249 mph, a range of 732 miles, and can carry 36 passengers (but fewer smokejumpers).

The schedule calls for the delivery of the first aircraft by the end of the third quarter of this year. Modifications on the remaining three Sherpas should be complete by the end of 2017.

On the Garmin G950 system, flight plan information is overlaid on a dynamic map displaying airspace, rivers, lakes, parks and woodland areas – typical landscapes for USFS missions.

The platform, which is 250 pounds lighter than the round dial analog system, also incorporates a terrain awareness and warning system, wide area augmentation system, and localiser performance with vertical guidance approach capability.


Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill.

The last Forest Service DC-3 retires

The last DC-3 operated by the U.S. Forest Service retired this week following a ceremony at the Missoula smokejumper base.

N115Z smokejumper DC-3
The last U.S. Forest Service DC-3 departs from Missoula December 10, 2015 after retiring from smokejumper duty. Image by Jason Junes.

Known to the jumpers it hauled as Jump 15, it took off December 10 from Missoula and a flew to McClellan Airfield in Sacramento at 16,000 feet and 200 mph, unpressurized of course. There it will await an auction and a new owner.

The 71-year old aircraft, first operated by the Royal Air Force, was manufactured as World War II was winding down. The radial piston engines were replaced 24 years ago with turbines by Basler extending its life while providing more reliability and less maintenance. The aircraft’s sister, Jump-42, another DC-3, retired in November, 2012.

Approximately 607 DC-3s were built between 1936 and 1942. At that time their cost was $79,000. Most of them had 14-cylinder Pratt and Whitney radial engines.

With the two DC-3s now gone, the smokejumpers will be using some of the 15 C-23B Sherpa aircraft they received from the Army and two De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters. The Forest Service has been contracting for two additional Twin Otters but those will be phased out as the C-23Bs transition into the fleet after going through modifications, maintenance, and painting.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

More details about Neptune’s Sherpa maintenance contract

KGVO radio, in the video above, interviewed Kevin Condit of Neptune Aviation about the contract the company received June 30, 2015 for maintenance on the C-23B Sherpa aircraft the U.S. Forest Service recently acquired. Up to 15 Sherpas were authorized to be transferred from the U.S. Army the the USFS by legislation signed in December of 2013. The agency expects to use them to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

The specifications of the contract list a number of tasks that will be performed, including inspection, maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, and alteration of the Sherpas. Individual orders may include inspection, repair, painting, overhaul, rebuilding, testing, and servicing of airframes, engines, rotors, appliances, or component parts.

The work will be done primarily at Ogden, Utah, but may also be required at Missoula, Montana; Redmond, Oregon; Redding, California; and Tucson, Arizona.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris and Jared.

Not all Forest Service aircraft are FAA type certified

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design that will be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard. The aircraft will be maintained and operated according to Coast Guard guidelines, rather than Federal Aviation Administration procedures.

After the Governor of Montana wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Agriculture complaining about what he called “nonsensical restrictions” that prohibit the use of the state’s five UH-1H helicopters on U.S. Forest Service protected lands, we started looking into the root of the problem. The former military helicopters are actually owned by the USFS, and are leased to the state under the provisions of the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program which require that the helicopters be maintained in full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. But the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) apparently does not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates for the helicopters.

However, the USFS does not maintain all of their government owned aircraft in strict compliance with FAA regulations.

When we asked the USFS why the agency does not allow the non-certificated Montana aircraft to be used on USFS lands, Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones, told us:

The Forest Service and the State of Montana Department have different standards and regulations to which each must adhere. Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety.

The USFS and the rules governing the loan of FEEP aircraft require the Montana helicopters to be maintained and modified according to FAA standards. Since these requirements are not met, the helicopters can’t be used on USFS fires.

Even though the USFS requires compliance with FAA procedures for their contracted air tankers and helicopters — and the state of Montana’s aircraft — the following USFS aircraft are not FAA certified, nor will they be:

  • Tanker 118, the HC-130H acquired from the Coast Guard that has been dropping retardant on fires this summer using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Neither the aircraft or the MAFFS have ever been certificated by the FAA.
  • The other six HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.
  • Four C-23A Sherpas used for smokejumping and hauling cargo.
  • Two AH-1 Cobra helicopters.
  • The eight MAFFS units used in military C-130s for fighting wildfires, and the modifications made to the C-130s so that they can use the MAFFS.

After the seven HC-130H aircraft are finished with their heavy maintenance and air tanker retrofitting, they will be owned by the USFS and maintained and operated by contractors. But they will not be brought under the FAA umbrella, according to Mrs. Jones:

The U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting mission is a Public Use mission in government owned aircraft. The Forest Service maintains airworthiness on Tanker 118 in accordance with Coast Guard maintenance standards, and the Coast Guard maintains engineering authority.

The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130s used to drop retardant with the MAFFS are maintained, modified, and operated according to military procedures.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS solicitation for the Next-generation V. 2.0 air tankers, issued November 26, 2014. From Section C:

Aircraft shall conform to an approved type design, be maintained and operated in accordance with Type Certificate (TC) requirements and applicable Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs). The aircraft shall be maintained in accordance with an FAA approved inspection program and must include an FAA approved Supplemental Structural Inspection Document (SSID), Structural Inspection Document (SID), or Instruction for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) for the airframe structure, as applicable with an ICA and Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS) approved by the manufacturer (or equivalent) and the FAA for the airtanker role.

The USFS is not the only federal agency operating former military aircraft that bypasses the FAA. Others include the Coast Guard, NASA, and NOAA.

We asked a person in the commercial air tanker industry (who did not want their name disclosed) about the USFS not following FAA procedures:

The FAA governs the largest fleet of commercial aircraft in the world and are looked upon by foreign agencies as the golden standard. They can certify an A380 to pack 700 people but cannot certify a restricted category airtanker? The USFS is hiring a ton of ex-military people who all stick together with their other Air Force buddies and think the military is the be-all-end-all.

I think it would be fair to argue that the FAA knows much more about airtankers than the Air Force or the Coast Guard. The USCG maintenance program is not setup for an airtanker mission profile, nor is the USAF. I talked to the FAA guy who was on all the calls with the USFS about this program and he was in disbelief when they finally made the decision not to have any FAA involvement.

Forest Service awards contracts for conversion and maintenance of C-23B aircraft

C-23B Forest Service
C-23B. USFS photo.

(Originally published August 5, 2015; updated August 8, 2015)

Over the last year the U.S. Forest Service has awarded or solicited for at least five contracts for conversion and maintenance of the 15 C-23B aircraft that were authorized to be transferred from the U.S. Army to the USFS by legislation signed in December of 2013. The C-23B is the military version of the Shorts 360 (also known as a Sherpa and SD3-60). The USFS plans to use these aircraft to replace all of the USFS owned and contracted aircraft used for smokejumping except for two agency-owned DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otters that will be retained for backcountry operations.

These contracts include:

  • Development installation, and certification of an integrated flight deck and avionics system on 4 to 15 of the aircraft. Awarded July 29, 2015 to Field Aerospace.
  • Paint up to 15 of the aircraft. Awarded August 19, 2014 to Straube’s Aircraft Services.
  • Aviation maintenance services to support USFS fleet aircraft in Boise, Idaho. This also includes other aircraft: Aero Commander AC 500B, Beechcraft King Air Series, Bell 206BIII, Bell AH-1 Cobra, Cessna Citation 550 Bravo, Cessna C-185, Cessna TU206, DeHaviland DHC-2 Beaver, DeHaviland DHC-6 Twin Otter, Piper PA18-150, and Shorts C-23A Sherpa. Awarded December 15, 2014 to Turbo Air, Inc.
  • Avionics maintenance services to support for USFS fleet aircraft within a 150 nautical mile radius of Redmond, OR, Ogden, UT, and Missoula, MT. This also includes support for Aero Commander AC 500B, Beechcraft King Air Series, Bell 206BIII, Bell AH-1 Cobra, Cessna Citation 550 Bravo, Cessna C-185, Cessna TU206, DeHaviland DHC-2 Beaver, DeHaviland DHC-6 Twin Otter, Piper PA18-150, and Shorts C-23A Sherpa. There is no indication on that this has been awarded.
  • Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Support Services to include subscriptions to technical publications, maintenance technical support, engineering data, engineering technical support, and maintenance support. On July 9, 2015 a sole source award was given to Shorts Brothers, doing business as Bombardier Aerospace.
  • Maintenance services Contractor Logistics Services (CLS) in support of smokejumper operations, primarily in Ogden, Utah. Awarded to Neptune Aviation, June 30, 2015.

The agency will use a Government Owned-Mixed Operations (GO/MO) model for the C-23B fleet. Some will be operated by Forest Service pilots and others will be operated by private industry under contract. The aircraft will also be maintained under a GO/MO model with contractor and agency maintenance

USFS smokejumper aircraft replacement

C-23B Forest Service
C-23B. USFS photo.

The information below is from the U.S. Forest Service, and addresses the use of the 15 C-23B aircraft that were authorized to be transferred from the U.S. Army to the USFS by legislation signed in December of 2013. Unsurprisingly, the agency still has not made “final decisions” on what exactly they will do with the aircraft a year and a half later. I think we’ll coin a new phrase: Paralysis by Lack of Analysis.


“Final decisions have not yet been made, but initial indications are that ten of the C-23B+/SD3-60s will be used to replace all of the Forest Service owned and contracted aircraft used for smokejumping except two agency-owned DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otters that will be retained for backcountry operations. Consequently, the future Forest Service smokejumper fleet will consist of two aircraft models – the C-23B+/SD3-60s and the De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters.

The Forest Service currently owns a total of 7 aircraft to transport smokejumpers, including 4 Short Brothers C-23As; 2 De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters; and 1 Douglas DC-3 TP turbine aircraft. The agency currently contracts for a total of 5 aircraft to transport smokejumpers, including 2 Dornier D0228s; 2 De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters; and 1 Casa 212 for smokejumper operations.

Decisions regarding exact placement of individual aircraft will be made by each Forest Service Region according to their operational needs. The current planning is to replace existing aircraft on a one-for-one basis except for DC-3’s which could possibly be replaced on 2 to 1 ratio for additional lift capability.

Operations and Maintenance

The Forest Service will own all of the Shorts C-23B+/SD3-60 Sherpa aircraft. The agency has chosen a Government Owned-Mixed Operations (GOMO) model for this fleet. This means that some will be operated by Forest Service pilots and others will be operated by private industry under contract. The aircraft will also be maintained under a GOMO model with contractor and agency maintenance. The GOMO model will enable the Forest Service to retain a qualified pool of experts in the smokejumper mission who can help ensure that contract pilots operate the government owned aircraft safely and effectively.
The Forest Service is working to minimize the impacts of this transition on agency and contractor employed pilots as much as possible. Existing Forest Service pilots will be retained as active crewmembers in order to maintain a high level of mission standardization, oversight, and quality assurance for the program. Forest Service pilots will be blended with contractors in most missions. Agency and contract pilots will serve as second-in-command until they achieve agency captain rating for the C-23B+/SD3-60 aircraft.

The Forest Service will issue contract solicitations for operation and maintenance services sometime in Fiscal Year 2015, which began October 1, 2014, to be ready for operations in Fiscal Year 2016, which begins October 1, 2015.”