Last week during the Aerial Firefighting conference there were two interesting aircraft at McClellan Airfield parked in the hangar near the static display of the 747 Supertanker and other firefighting aircraft.
The other aircraft in the same hangar was a Coast Guard C-27J Spartan. A few years ago the U.S. Forest Service attempted to acquire a bunch of the former military aircraft to use them as air tankers. But the Coast Guard intervened, and unloaded seven of their old C-130Hs to the USFS, so they could get the C-27Js.
More information about the C-17J from the Coast Guard, December 18, 2015:
Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento is preparing to become the first permanent home of C-27J Spartan medium range surveillance aircraft, with operations expected to start in 2016.
The HC-27J Asset Project Office will assist with the transition by providing a forward-deployable maintenance team and pilot, aircrew and maintenance technician instructors, said Cmdr. Peter Beavis, APO executive officer. An aircraft to be used for training was repositioned to the air station Dec. 2.
Four aircraft will be transferred to the air station in fiscal year 2016, said Lt. Robert Hovanec, C-27J platform manager with the Office of Aviation Forces. Sacramento will have six aircraft at full capacity, with the remaining two arriving in 2017.
In 2013 the U.S. Forest Service was expecting to receive seven C-27J aircraft from the Air Force. The Air Force was giving them up even though the oldest were only a few years old, and the newest ones were still to be delivered from the manufacturer.
In mid-2013 the USFS contracted for a report about the aircraft prepared by Convergent Performance, LLC in Colorado Springs, Colorado at a cost of $54,000. The report’s conclusions:
If used as an air tanker it could carry up to 1,850 gallons of retardant in a conventional gravity-assisted tank, or 1,100 gallons in a mini-MAFFS slip-in tank, if a mini-MAFFS were designed, built, and purchased.
It could transport between 24 and 46 smokejumpers.
The C-27J could carry two 20-person crews, except, for example, at Reserve, New Mexico, elevation 8,143′ with a 4,777′ runway, it could land with two crews, but could take off with only one.
The aircraft could carry between 12,222 and 25,353 pounds of cargo.
The hourly flight cost would be between $5,800 and $7,400 if used for 250 to 400 hours a year.
The C-27J is training intensive and requires constant skill application by the aircrews to remain proficient and mission-ready.
“What GAO Found
As of January 2015, the Coast Guard had transferred 2 of the 14 C-27J aircraft it is receiving from the Air Force to its aircraft maintenance facility, with plans to field 14 fully operational C-27Js by 2022. According to initial Coast Guard estimates, while the aircraft come at no cost, the Coast Guard needs about $600 million to fully operationalize them. This process is complex and significant work and risk remain. For example, the Coast Guard must establish its needs and purchase a set of spare parts for each aircraft, but faces hurdles due to potential pricing issues and delivery delays from the manufacturer.
Also, the Coast Guard does not have access to the manufacturer’s technical data that are required for modifications to the aircraft’s structure to, for example, incorporate radar. These and other risks may inhibit the Coast Guard’s ability to operate the aircraft as planned. However, the Coast Guard is working to mitigate these risks.
The C-27J will improve the affordability of the Coast Guard’s fixed-wing fleet, but the fleet as currently planned may not be optimal in terms of cost and flight hour capability. The Coast Guard submitted a business case to Congress in 2013 that determined the C-27J would save $837 million over 30 years, compared to the program of record, without reducing fleet performance. GAO estimates that the fleet the Coast Guard is currently pursuing achieves nearly all of these savings. However, the source of these savings has shifted. A significant portion of the savings now results from an 18 percent drop in flight hours due to a change in the mix of aircraft the Coast Guard intends to pursue.
GAO used updated information in conducting its analysis, such as the expected service life of each aircraft type. Consistent with congressional direction, the Coast Guard is conducting a multi-phased analysis of its mission needs—including its flight hour goals and fleet of fixed-wing assets—but will not present the full results prior to its 2019 budget request. In the meantime, the Coast Guard has prudently paused its existing HC-144 acquisition program.
However, since 2000, the Coast Guard has received 12 HC-130Js without budgeting for them and it may continue to receive these aircraft while it studies its fixed-wing fleet needs. If the Coast Guard continues to receive these aircraft in the near term, the capability and cost of the Coast Guard’s fixed-wing fleet runs the risk of being dictated by the assets the Coast Guard already owns rather than what it determines it needs.
Why GAO Did This Study
The Air Force is transferring 14 C-27J aircraft to the Coast Guard. Once modified into surveillance aircraft, the C-27Js will be a part of the Coast Guard’s fixed-wing aircraft fleet. In 2007, the Coast Guard established a baseline of aircraft quantities and costs known as the program of record. This baseline established the cost and quantity of aircraft necessary to achieve its goal of 52,400 flight hours per year. The Coast Guard’s aircraft, including the HC-144 and HC-130J/H, are integral to its missions, such as counterdrug and search and rescue.
GAO was asked to review the transfer of the C-27J to the Coast Guard. This report assesses (1) the status of the transfer and risks the Coast Guard faces in fielding the transferred aircraft; and (2) the extent to which acquiring the C-27J affects the overall cost and performance of the Coast Guard’s fixed-wing aviation fleet.
GAO analyzed program documents and maintenance records for the C-27J. GAO interviewed Coast Guard and Air Force officials and private contractors. GAO also analyzed the Coast Guard’s C-27J business case.
What GAO Recommends
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Coast Guard should advise Congress of the time frames for the Coast Guard’s fleet analysis and to modify the provision of additional HC-130Js, as appropriate, in the interim. DHS agreed with the first recommendation, but did not agree with the second recommendation. If the Coast Guard accepts additional HC-130Js before completing the fleet mix study, the aircraft may be in excess of the Coast Guard’s need.”
You may remember that the U.S. Forest Service wanted to acquire 14 C-27J aircraft that were being disposed of by the military, hoping to convert them into air tankers. The agency appeared to be confident they would receive them and even awarded an aircraft engineering support services contract for up to $300,000 to Aeronautica. The contract required experience as an engineer with the G222, C27A or C27J. But instead of the C-27Js, the USFS got seven C-130Hs that the Coast Guard was throwing away, and the Coast Guard received the 14 C-27Js which were only a few years old.
The first C-27J to complete the Coast Guard’s regeneration process arrived at the C-27J Asset Project Office (APO) in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Nov. 13, where it will be used to train and qualify Coast Guard aircrew and maintenance personnel, as well as develop flight and maintenance procedures for Coast Guard-specific mission profiles. Ultimately the aircraft will receive the equipment and systems needed to perform the full spectrum of Coast Guard missions.
Regeneration is the complex process that leads to flight clearance of planes being re-activated from long-term preservation. Working at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group’s facility in Tucson, Arizona, where 13 of the 14 C-27Js being transferred to the service are stored, the Coast Guard’s regeneration team investigated the aircraft’s history, verified the details of its configuration and inventoried the installed components, performed extensive inspections and necessary maintenance actions, and conducted a functional check flight. The plane was then released for transit to the APO.
While CG-2714 underwent regeneration, the APO commanding officer, Capt. Shannon McCullar, sent his executive officer, Cmdr. Peter Beavis, and operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth Bethea, to Italy for training to be rated as C-27 pilots. The APO also prepared the hangar at the Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City to house and support the aircraft.
A second C-27J should complete regeneration before the end of this year, and two others are expected to finish by mid-2015.
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.
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.
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.
On Thursday the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 that contains provisions for the Forest Service to receive seven C-130H aircraft in lieu of the C-27Js they had been expecting. The bill passed with a vote of 350 to 69. Its next stop will be the Senate, which is tied up debating executive nominations, but they are expected to take up the bill next week before they adjourn on December 20.
The last time we reported on the possible transfer of excess C-27J aircraft from the Air Force to the Forest Service, there had been a proposal to instead, give all 14 of the remaining C-27Js to the Coast Guard if the Coast Guard would transfer seven C-130Hs to the Forest Service to be used as air tankers. With an agreement reached on December 9 regarding the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 between Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that proposal remained alive.
The bill passed by the House today:
Requires the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the Air Force.
Requires the Secretary of the Air Force to spend up to $130 million to upgrade those seven aircraft to make them suitable for Forest Service use a firefighting aircraft.
Requires the Forest Service to accept the upgraded HC-130H aircraft in lieu of exercising their right to take seven excess C-27J aircraft.
Transfers 14 excess C-27J aircraft from DOD to the Coast Guard.
Transfers up to 15 C-23 Sherpa aircraft from DOD to the Forest Service.
Before transferring the C-130Hs to the Forest Service, the Air Force would:
…perform center and outer wingbox replacement modifications, progressive fuselage structural inspections, and configuration modifications necessary to convert each HC-130H aircraft as large air tanker wildfire suppression aircraft.
Of the 507 amendments that have been introduced to modify the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (Senate Bill 1197), 8 of them are sponsored by Senator John McCain. All of the Senator’s lengthy amendments, covering many topics, have nearly identical language requiring the Department of Homeland Security, referring to the Coast Guard in this case, to transfer seven C-130H aircraft to the Air Force without reimbursement. Then the Air Force will be required to :
…perform center and outer wingbox replacement modifications, progressive fuselage structural inspections, and configuration modifications necessary to convert each HC-130H aircraft as large air tanker wildfire suppression aircraft.
The aircraft will then be transferred to the Forest Service to be used as air tankers, again without reimbursement.
If the bill passes and Senator McCain’s amendment remains intact, two big IFs, we assume that the USFS would use the C-130H air tankers as Government-Owned/Contractor-Operated assets, a new type of venture for the agency. CAL FIRE has been using this model for years with their fleet of 23 S-2T air tankers and it seems to work well for them.
In addition, the McCain amendments require the Army to transfer, in FY 2014 without reimbursement, up to 15 Short C-23B+ Sherpa aircraft to the Forest Service to be used in fire management.
Apparently Senator McCain has given up on his previous proposal. In July of 2012, with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) he introduced legislation known as the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012 (S. 3441) ”to help replenish the agency’s aging airtanker fleet”. It would have required the transfer of 14 C-27Js to the Forest Service. The bill died, and since then the USFS has said they want 7 of the aircraft.
The Coast Guard would like to have all 21 of the C-27Js that the Air Force is giving away, but since Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the October 28 decision to give seven of them to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), that left the USFS and the Coast Guard to fight over the remaining 14. In an interview we posted November 13, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp said they wanted all 21, but ”…we are going to press ahead and get as many of those [remaining 14] as we can.” Then he floated the idea of trading their old C-130Hs for the seven C-27Js that appeared to be heading to the USFS.
The upgraded C-130H with the wingbox replacement and an Aero Union RADS 3,500-gallon constant-flow GPS-regulated retardant tank could be an excellent air tanker for the USFS. This is basically what Coulson has done with their Tanker 131, a C-130Q which is nearly identical to the C-130H.
If they receive them, the USFS could use the Short C-23B+ Sherpa aircraft for smokejumping and for hauling cargo. In 1991 the agency acquired six Shorts 330 Sherpa’s and has used them as smokejumper platforms. The 330s are similar to the C-23B+ Sherpa but have smaller engines and a lower cruising speed.
The U.S. Forest Service has awarded an aircraft engineering support services contract to Aeronautica. Issued on November 4, the specifications in the solicitation require the contractor to have experience as an engineer with the G222, C27A or C27J. It is also necessary for the contractor to have a Designated Engineering Representative on staff that is fluent in Italian.
The USFS hopes to acquire seven Italian-designed C-27Js from the U.S. Air Force, but the Coast Guard is battling them and wants to get all of the remaining 14, possibly giving the USFS some old Coast Guard C-130s instead. The C-27Js are almost brand new and the USFS wants to use them as air tankers, smokejumper platforms, or for hauling cargo and firefighters.
Since the engineering contract specifically mentions the C-27J, the USFS must have been pretty certain when the solicitation was issued August 2, 2013 that they were going to obtain the aircraft. However the one to five-year contract, with a not-to-exceed amount of $300,000, has provisions that could apply to other planes as well, including:
Aircraft operational loads monitoring
Assist in determining contract compliance for other aircraft
Small Scale Engineering Projects
Integration of retardant delivery systems on large aircraft
The fate of the 21 almost new C-27J Spartan aircraft that the Air Force wants to get rid of is still not clear. On October 28 Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the decision to give seven of them to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), but he has not determined the fate of the remaining 14 according to Pentagon spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. The U.S. Forest Service wants 7 of them for firefighting operations.
In the video above, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp said they wanted all 21, but “…we are going to press ahead and get as many of those [remaining 14] as we can.” The portion of the interview in which the C-27J is discussed begins at 4:25.
Adm. Papp also broke the news that the Coast Guard is negotiating with the U. S. Forest Service to give them some old C-130s if the Coast Guard can get all 14 C-27Js after SOCOM takes the first 7.
Of course this throws a large monkey wrench into the Forest Service plans. But, the C-27J would not qualify as a next-generation air tanker since it could only carry 1,850 gallons of retardant according to a study that cost the agency $54,000. They want large air tankers that can carry at least 3,000 gallons, however there is something to be said about a mix of aircraft with their individual niche capabilities. A C-27J might be better used as a smokejumper platform, to haul cargo to fires, and transport two or three 20-person fire crews.
The Admiral did not say what model of C-130s the Coast Guard wants to get rid of, although he did mention C-130Js at one point. Nor did he say WHY the Coast Guard wants to get rid of the old C-130s (and get almost brand new replacement aircraft!). If they are low-usage C-130Js in good shape with lots of life left in them, the USFS could create a government-owned, contractor-operated large air tanker program. But Coast Guard aircraft are used in a maritime environment, much like the old P2Vs which were converted to air tankers, which could accelerate aging issues.
The text below is a transcript of a portion of Adm. Papp’s statement in the interview:
We were interested in getting our hands on all 21 of them. Special Operations Command I believe is going to get 7 of them and some number of aircraft were promised or at least directed to the Forest Service for firefighting.
It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of the negotiations right now but we’re working with the Forest Service to make sure that that is the particular aircaft that would suit their needs. We have C-130s that we can convert and turn over to them that might be better for them but we have staff that are working right now. Ideally out of the remaining aircraft we would like to get 14, that allows us to fully outfit 3 air stations and anything less than that, we would have to go back and really reevaluate the project… We are going to press ahead and get as many of those as we can.
The report the USFS commissioned 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).
Smokejumpers 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. 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 maximum allowable flying weight for a hotshot crew is 5,300 pounds.
The study said the aircraft could carry between 12,222 and 25,353 pounds of cargo.