Senators urge USFS to convert C-27Js into air tankers

The three-person congressional delegation from South Dakota sent a letter to the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service on April 16 encouraging Chief Tidwell to acquire military surplus C-27J aircraft to be converted into air tankers. The Defense Department may be getting rid of all of their C-27Js, and legislation has given the Secretary of Agriculture the first right of refusal if that occurs.

C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

At least three other Senators have been pushing for this since last July. This newest letter was signed by Senator John Thune, Senator Tim Johnson, and Representative Kristi Noem. In spite of the fact that their letter shows a lack of understanding of how air tankers are managed in the federal government, they offered some advice, suggesting that “one or two” of the C-27Js be stationed at Ellsworth Air Force base in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The Senators and the Congresswoman failed in their letter to indicate that they would introduce legislation to appropriate dollars to maintain and operate the aircraft or supply funding to convert them into air tankers, which would require many millions of dollars. Talk and letter writing is very easy to do. Using their powers as elected officials representing taxpayers to actually facilitate change on this matter is something that they have not done, and can’t delegate to the intern that may have written the letter.

The C-27J is an interesting aircraft and appears to be a baby brother of the C-130J. It uses two of the same turbo-prop engines as the C-130, which has four of the 4,640 hp Rolls-Royce engines. If converted into an air tanker, at only five years old they would be by far the youngest large air tankers being used in the United States. The P2Vs that currently comprise most of the large air tanker fleet on exclusive use contracts are over 50 years old. Even Tanker 40 (N146FF), the recently acquired jet-powered BAe-146 operated by Neptune, is 27 years old.

The C-27J has a short but spotty history, with some reports of maintenance problems and difficulties in acquiring parts from the Italian suppliers. According to Wikipedia:

On 23 March 2012, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will cut the C-27J from its inventory in fiscal year 2013 after determining that its per-aircraft lifecycle costs are higher than those of C-130 aircraft performing the same combat resupply mission.

It is difficult to estimate how many gallons of retardant a C-27J could hold, but it could be between 1,800 and 2,300. This compares to an average of 1,948 for a P2V, a little less than 3,000 for a BAe-146, and 11,600 for a DC-10.


Thanks go out to Jim

Caylym continues to develop containers for dropping retardant

Caylym system
Caylym system dispersing a liquid after exiting an aircraft. Screen grab from Caylym video.

Since Wildfire Today last covered their disposable container for delivering retardant over wildfires,the Caylym company has continued to develop and promote their concept. The system consists of containers constructed of cardboard, plywood, a plastic bladder, and dozens of yards of straps. They hold 264 gallons each and are designed to be carried in military aircraft such as the C-130 or C-27 using the standard cargo system. The containers when empty weigh 100 pounds.

Caylym system exiting an aircraft
Caylym system containers exiting an aircraft. Screen grab from Caylym video.

After they leave the aircraft the container lids, attached by four straps, separate, and act like a parachute. The straps then put pressure on the plastic bladders, ripping them open, allowing the liquid to be dispersed. The 100 pounds of the other components, the plywood, and cardboard, fall to the ground tethered by the nylon straps. The plastic bladder, hopefully empty, falls separately.

The company says 16 units fit inside a C-130. We estimate that each one weighs 2,212 pounds, and 16 of them would hold 4,224 gallons for a total weight of 35,392 pounds. They claim a C-27J can carry 6 units, which would be 1,584 gallons with an estimated weight of 13,272 pounds. A C-130 with a Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) usually carries 2,200 to 3,000 gallons of retardant, depending on the density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. Last summer the MAFFS were dropping an average of 2,394 gallons per flight.

In November the Romanian Air Force tested the Caylym system using a C-27J Spartan to drop the containers. According to the company:

…Expectations from testing were surpassed — all aspects of safety, handling and deployment of the Guardian System by the C-27J are anticipated to achieve certification from the Alenia test and evaluation team. Follow-up training is planned for the spring of 2013 in Romania.

The C-27J Spartan is an ideal aircraft for the aerial firefighting mission,” said Rick Goddard, managing director of Caylym. “The versatility and responsiveness of the C-27J in a firefighting mission, using the Guardian System gives the Romanian Air Force the ability to drop more than 1,500 gallons (6000 L) per mission, from a safe altitude over all types of terrain, day and night.”

We talked with Rick Goddard, the Managing Director of Caylym, who told us that in their tests the system could deliver six to eight gallons per 100 square feet and even more if the containers were loaded in two rows so that they would exit the aircraft two at a time. Mr. Goddard said they do not expect to spend $100,000 to conduct a standard cup test to determine the exact uniformity and quantity of the retardant coverage until the U.S. Forest Service expresses more of an interest in using the system.

Below is a video that was uploaded by Caylym on January 22, 2013. It shows their containers being assembled, filled, and then dropping from an aircraft.

Caylym has rebranded their system. Formerly called a “precision container aerial delivery system” (PCAD), they have renamed it “Guardian Deployment System”.

If these were ever actually used on a wildfire, there would have to be an even greater emphasis than usual on removing firefighters and other personnel from the target area than there is now when only liquids fall from the sky. In addition, the owner of the land would either have to be OK with leaving the debris from the containers in place after the drop in perpetuity, or crews would have to search the area and carry it out for disposal in a landfill. Debris removal would have to be included in the estimated costs of using a system like this, which could be difficult or even impossible in some areas, complicated by topography and vegetation. Depending on the climate, it could take many years or decades for the plastic bladder, plywood, cardboard, and straps to decompose if it were not removed.

C-27J used for first time on missions in the United States

C-27J assisting with recovery from Hurricane Sandy
C-27J assisting with recovery from Hurricane Sandy, delivering generators and other equipment to the New York area, November 3, 2012. National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. David Speicher.

A bill was introduced in the Senate in July to transfer 14 surplus C-27J Spartan aircraft from the Department of Defense to the U.S. Forest Service to be used as air tankers. Nothing has happened to the bill, S. 3441, except to be transferred to a committee, where only 3 percent of the bills introduced in 2009-2010 were enacted.

The Air Force no longer has any C-27Js in Afganistan, but recently they were used for the first time on a mission in the United States. Air National Guard crews from Ohio, Mississippi and Maryland flew the first-ever C-27J domestic operations missions transporting power generation equipment and Humvees to Stewart Air National Guard Base, N.Y., to help provide needed power resources to areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.

According to 1st Lt. Ken V. McGee, a public affairs officer for the Ohio Army National Guard, the 1484th Transportation Company was convoying about 70 trucks and 118 soldiers to set up a food and water distribution point in New York City as part of Ohio’s response to assist neighboring states. An advance team was airlifted by three C-27Js: one each from Maryland, Ohio and Mississippi ANG units.

“This gets the equipment there faster than on the ground,” said Lt. Col. Gary Laubach, an aircraft commander from 135th ASQ.

The C-27J crew flew their plane to Macon, Ga., Oct. 27 – safely out of the path of Hurricane Sandy. On Wednesday, they returned and were immediately put on alert for disaster relief missions.

“It feels different when you are so close to home and closer to your state,” said Laubach while talking about the difference between this mission and past disaster relief missions. “One of our pilot’s mothers is in the affected area and will be out of power for a week. This mission was great – extremely satisfying. It feels good to get stuff to the people who need it; I only wish I could be there when the generators get plugged in where the people need the electricity. This is the best mission you could get.”

Another aircraft the military wants to stop using is the C-23 Sherpa. A Florida Army Guard C-23 transported 6,500 pounds of Meals Ready to Eat from Fort Belvoir, Va., to Farmingdale, N.Y., over the weekend. The U.S. Forest Service has at least one C-23 that they use for dropping smokejumpers.