Airbus begins tests of C295 air tanker

C295 test water drop
C295 test drop. Airbus photo.

Airbus Military has begun tests near Cordoba, Spain of a C295 aircraft modified as an air tanker. The flights went well, according to the company, and further tests are planned in the near future to make a more detailed analysis of the C295 as a firefighter aircraft.

The C295 looks similar to the C-27J but it has less impressive performance. According to Wikipedia (see the links above) the payload capacity of the C295 is about 5,000 pounds less and the engines have 57 percent of the horsepower of the C-27J. It would probably carry about 400 gallons less retardant than the C-27J, with a capacity of around 1,400 to 1,700 gallons is our guess.

Comparison, C-27J and C295
Comparison, C-27J and C295. Info from Wikipedia. (click to enlarge)

Rumor has it that France is considering replacing their fleet of Conair Turbocats, which are retrofitted Grumman S-2 Trackers.

A Polish Air Force CASA C-295M
A Polish Air Force CASA C-295M

 

Thanks go out to Walter

Air Force transfers C-27Js to boneyard

C-27JThe Dayton Daily News is reporting that twelve C-27J aircraft have been taken out of service, some of them at Mansfield Air Force Base in Ohio, and flown to the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. At least 21 were scheduled to be retired by October 1, 2013. There have been 15 C-27Js stationed at Air National Guard bases and another two at an L-3 Communications plant in Waco Texas. Four more are still being built by Alenia Aermacchi in Italy which will be sent directly to the boneyard.

The U.S. Forest Service has expressed an interest in acquiring seven of them and converting them into air tankers, smokejumper planes, or using them to haul passengers and cargo. They recently paid $54,000 to have a report prepared which details how the aircraft could be used if the agency is successful in obtaining them from the Air Force.

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).

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.

 

Thanks go out to Dave and Glenn

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”

USFS Chief Tidwell testifies about next-gen air tankers

USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, 5-22-2013In addition to talking about the C-27J in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell discussed at length the air tanker program, especially the contracting process for the next-generation air tankers.

During the hearing, which was primarily about the USFS budget, Senators Jack Reed (Rhode Island) and Jon Tester (Montana) asked many questions about the air tanker program. The entire hearing lasted almost two hours; you can watch a video of it HERE. You will see that there were three people in the audience, and only about five or six senators were present, out of the 30 that are members of the committee.

Chief Tidwell said he has the authority to override the protest filed by Neptune for being passed over for the next-gen air tanker contracts. If he does, it would be within the next couple of weeks and would be based on an “emergency” — a shortage of air tankers. On May 17 Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake.

In reading between the lines of Senator Testor’s statements and questions, he appeared to be chiding Chief Tidwell for not awarding any next-generation air tanker contracts to a particular business in his state, Neptune Aviation. Neptune has two BAe-146s with at least interim approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board, and two more that the company expects to have ready to go later this summer. Neptune did, however, receive contracts on the “legacy” air tanker solicitation for some of their P2Vs and one BAe-146. [UPDATE May 23, 3013; Neptune was recently able to add a second BAe-146 to the contract as “additional equipment”.]

I transcribed some sections of the dialog:

At 43:28, Tidwell: “We will have an adequate air tanker fleet this year. We are anticipating between 24 and 26 planes to be available. We currently have nine aircraft under what we call a legacy aircraft which is seven P2s plus two BAe-146As that are currently on contract. We are in the process of awarding contracts for seven more aircraft which we call our next generation which are the faster planes we are trying to move forward to, that carry larger payloads. In addition to that we continue to work with the Air Force and Air Force Reserve to make sure the MAFFS units, the C-130Js and Hs are available again this year as a backup. We’ve also taken steps to be able to work with Alaska and Canada to bring down their [Convair] 580 planes if we need those aircraft.

So based on everything we’re moving forward with this year I feel confident that we will have a set of aircraft that we can respond.

In addition to that we are anxious to see what the Air Force, the decision that they make, if the C-27s are surplus and they become available, and we would definitely like to have seven more of those aircraft to be part of our overall fleet. They would be government owned but contractor operated. We are moving forward to actually look at what it would take to take our MAFFS units and modify those to fit into the C-27s so if those planes become available that we will be able to move as quick as we can to build those MAFFS units for those C-27s. ”

Senator Jack Reed
Senator Jack Reed

(Senator Reed asked a question about next gen contracts. Are you confident that you will have those next-gen aircraft under contract and useful this fire season?)

Tidwell: “Mr. Chairman, we are working through the process of the contract for the next generation and we have received a protest, that we will work through that protest. I do have the authority to override that protest and as we go through the process I’ll make that determination to ensure that we have the aircraft we need to be able to respond to fires this year.

We estimate that with the C-27s it would cost about $3 million per aircraft to build the MAFFS units and then to make some changes on the aircraft to make them usable for our mission and take some of the military equipment and armor off those aircraft that is no longer needed for our mission.”

Senator Jon Tester
Senator Jon Tester

(At 1:03 Senator Tester asked about the status of the aircraft on the next-generation contracts:)

Tidwell: “Once we work through the protest and actually award the contracts it is our expectation that those contractors that have the new contract awards will have their planes ready to go withn 60 days for testing.”

(Senator Tester asked, after the tests, when will they “be ready to fly?”)

Tidwell: “It’s our expectation that when they complete the tests they will be ready to fly. The aircraft that are being considered they are all FAA certified already so there isn’t that problem, they don’t have to deal with that. So they have to get their tanking systems to be able to use our performance tests.”

Senator Tester asked if they took into consideration when evaluating the potential contractors if they would be ready to fly this summer. Tidwell said, yes, they were expected to be able to be ready in 60 days. The contingency plan, he said, is to bring down the [Convair] 580s from Canada and to use the MAFFS.)

Tidwell: “We’ve been asking for the C-27s so that we at least have part of our fleet that is government owned so there is a guarantee that we will have some aircraft. So this has been an ongoing problem with these contracted aircraft.”

Tester: “My problem is not with the contracted aircraft per se, and I’m not for privatizing government, but my problem is that there were better options on the table that could be taken up by the Forest Service from my perspective and they didn’t do it. And you know exactly what I’m saying and all that.”

Tidwell: “We have a set of procedures that we follow when we award contracts. I can guarantee that there has been a high level of oversight provided and the process of being able to protest and have another level of review, that’s the process that we have to follow. And because of that our folks go to great lengths to be able to make sure that we are making right decisions based on what the contractors provided us and we have to make our best decisions.”

Tester: “The bottom line is we need to get the biggest bang for the buck and I’m not sure that because of the fact that we don’t know if these planes are going to be operational or not, whether we got the best bang for the buck.”

Tidwell said that “within the next week or so” he will make a decision about overriding the protest or not.)

At 1:39, Tester questioned again whether the seven next gen aircraft have FAA certification. Tidwell said it is his understanding that six do, and one made some air frame modifications, so it may not have the FAA certification. Tester asked Tidwell to confirm and get back to him.

Tester asked about the status of the C-27 transfer. Tidwell said it is his understanding that the Air Force is doing a study to determine if they want to do the transfer or not. The study could be done by September.

Tidwell anticipates the payload of the C-27 to be 1,800 gallons. Maintenance would be contracted. He said it would cost between $21 and $26 million to convert seven C-27s into air tankers.

USFS Chief Tidwell wants to install MAFFS units in the C-27Js

In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell said the agency hopes to obtain the C-27J aircraft that the Air Force may decide to declare surplus, and the USFS would outfit them with scaled down versions of the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank systems that are used in military C-130s. When asked, he said the C-27Js would hold 1,800 gallons of retardant in the MAFFS unit. When used in C-130s, the systems can carry up to 3,000 gallons, during favorable density altitude and fuel load conditions.

MAFFS unit in Cheyenne
MAFFS unit in Cheyenne, showing the 2-person loadmaster crew. May 7, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Some would say that choosing a MAFFS design rather than a conventional gravity powered tanking system is misguided. The retardant in a MAFFS is pumped out by a complex compressed air system and the delivery has been criticized as not being able to penetrate tree canopy as well as a gravity system. A MAFFS would have a much lower retardant capacity since it requires an air compressor, tanks for compressed air, and a complex system of additional valves and piping. All of that extra equipment means less capacity for carrying retardant. It also requires two loadmasters, in addition to the two or three person air crew, to operate the MAFFS, doubling the personnel cost.

I just don’t see the advantage of installing a MAFFS unit in a government-owned air tanker rather than a conventional gravity system. It holds less retardant and does a less than desirable job of retarding the spread of a timber fire.

Sure, you would be able to remove the MAFFS and use the plane for hauling cargo in about a day, but how often during the winter does the USFS need seven cargo planes? It could be used during fire season to haul firefighters, smokejumpers, and fire equipment, but then that makes it unavailable as an air tanker. So you’re either going to use it for hauling stuff, or as an air tanker, but not both.

It should be relatively simple to scale down an Aero Union gravity tank, which has been tested, approved, and used for decades in C-130s, to fit into a C-27J.

Coulson is using an Aero Union designed tank, slightly modified, for the C-130Q they are building right now in San Bernardino. The tank has wheels, and Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that they can install or remove the tank in about 30 minutes, making it available to haul cargo.

More information about Chief Tidwell’s testimony about air tankers on Wednesday.

Retardant tank for the C-27J. And, is the Air Force buying more C-27s?

Retardant tank for Coulson C-130Q
Retardant tank, freshly painted, for Coulson Aviation’s C-130Q. Coulson photo

Coulson’s tank for their C-130Q

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.

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.
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