Senator pushes for the conversion of the Coast Guard C-130s

C-130 paint design
C-130 paint design, by Scheme Designers

Colorado Senator Mark Udall continues to push the U.S. Forest Service and now the Air Force to expedite the retrofitting of the seven C-130Hs that will be used as air tankers. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 that was passed in December required that the aircraft be transferred to the Air Force where they will be updated with new wing boxes as needed and receive retardant tank systems. After the conversions they will be owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but operated and maintained by private contractors while being used to help suppress wildfires.

Senator Udall wrote letters to the USFS and the Air Force “requesting assistance in expediting the necessary upgrades to the C-130H aircraft”. He also asked for reports that describe the “expected timeline for the completion of the upgrades to these C-130H aircraft and identification of possible issues that could delay this timeline”.

Coast Guard C-130H, before transfer to US Forest Service

For Anthony, who enjoys reading about female aviators successfully advancing through the ranks, we present a tweet sent out today with a photo that happens to include Coast Guard C-130H #1719, which is being transferred to the USFS to be converted into an air tanker.


Congratulations, Jeanine Menze.

Forest Service to enlist help of Coast Guard to manage C-130 airtankers

A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709, October, 2008. This is one of the seven C-130Hs being transferred to the USFS. Photo by Bob Garrard.

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.

C-23B Sherpas

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.

C-23B. Department of Defense file photo.

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.

Wing box replacements in the USFS C-130s

Coast Guard C-130H No 1714
Coast Guard C-130H No 1714, October, 2008. This is one of the seven C-130s being transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by PhantomPhan1974

The legislation that enabled the transfer of seven C-130H aircraft from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service to serve as air tankers required that the wing boxes be replaced and other maintenance be performed.

C-130H wing box, diagramA wing box is the core or backbone of an aircraft. In a C-130 it sits atop the fuselage and forms the attachment point for both wings. A failure of the wing box during flight could be catastrophic.

In the mid-2000s, center wing boxes (CWB) on C-130s began showing cracks earlier than expected. Many of the aircraft were grounded or placed on restricted flight status, including some that were flying in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006 the Air Force began a program to replace them on all C-130 models except the C-130J which entered the inventory in February, 1999. By 2020, 155 C-130s will have new CWBs that are the same ones being manufactured today for the C-130J.

Removing C-130H wing box at Robins AFB
Removing a C-130H wing box at Robins AFB. USAF photo by Sue Sapp.

The total cost of a CWB kit in 2011 was $6.7 million, including installation which takes about 10 months.

C-130 1706 wing box replacement
A Coast Guard C-130, #1706, receiving a CWB replacement at Robins AFB. It was completed August 12, 2012. This aircraft is one of seven being transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. (U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

A couple of years ago the Coast Guard identified six C-130Hs to undergo CWB replacements. The first, #1706 seen in the photo above, was completed August 12, 2012. A second C-130 began the process in November, 2012 and should have been complete by September, 2013. The other six aircraft numbers that are being transferred to the USFS are 1708, 1709, 1713, 1714, 1719, and 1721. Many of the CWB replacements for the Air Force and Coast Guard aircraft are being done at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

The Coast Guard expected that the CWB and other upgrades would allow the C-130Hs to serve until 2027, after which they would be replaced by new aircraft. They have already started ordering C-130Js, tagging on to Air Force procurement programs..

Wildfire Today has found information which indicates the seven C-130s being given away by the Coast Guard were manufactured between 1983 and 1987, but this is not yet confirmed. If the data is accurate, they are 27 to 31 years old now, and will be 40 to 44 years old in 2017. A person might wonder why the Coast Guard can buy new C-130Js while the U.S. Forest Service has to make do with hand-me-down aircraft being discarded by another agency.

A C-130H of Israel Air Force receives a new wing box
A C-130H of Israel Air Force receives a new wing box. Photo by IAI.

In addition to replacing the CWBs, the legislation requires “progressive fuselage structural inspections” for the seven Coast Guard C-130s being transferred to the USFS. If they receive the standard primary structure inspection — known as programmed depot maintenance — that process will take between 180 and 200 days. In February, 2013, the Ogden Air Logistic Complex at Hill Air Force Base in Utah began performing some of the programmed depot maintenance on the Coast Guard C-130s, aircraft which are similar to the C-130s flown by the Air Force, but they have more avionics for radios and radar.

The legislation directed that no more than $130 million be spent by the Department of Defense to modify and maintain the seven C-130s before the transfer; any additional funds would have to come from the USFS. Doing a little math here, if the CWB replacement costs $7 million each, the programmed depot maintenance runs $3 million per aircraft (to pick a number out of the air), and the installation of the retardant tank system is $4 million (Coulson’s preliminary estimate is $3.5 million each for their Aero Union/Coulson RADS tank), we are looking at a total of about $98 million — within the $130 maximum allowed by Congress. If $14 million is subtracted for CWB replacements that have already occurred on two aircraft, that total is brought down to $84 million.

However, there will no doubt be other work that will have to be done to the aircraft, such as installation of radios, a real time location tracking system, and perhaps other avionics and a stress monitoring system. It is also possible that unneeded equipment such as a cargo handling system and armor will have to be removed, all of which could require more USFS dollars unless these items are included in the total conversion project funded by the military, rather than done later by the USFS. These additional tasks would push the price closer to the $130 million threshold.

Report: two Coast Guard C-130s to be transferred to USFS will not need major maintenance

Coast Guard C-130H No 1719
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1719, one of the aircraft to be transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo taken October, 2008 by Rico Leffanta.

A reporter for Gannett newspapers in D.C. interviewed me yesterday for an article he later wrote about the transfer of the seven C-130Hs and up to 15 C-23B Sherpas from the Coast Guard and the military to the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting division. To the regular readers of Fire Aviation there is little new information in the piece. However, he told me that a spokesperson for Senator John McCain, who wrote the amendment that requires the transfer, said two of the seven C-130Hs will not require major maintenance and could be available as air tankers this year after they are converted to air tankers.

The reporter also interviewed Florida State Forester Jim Karels, who led the 54-person team that investigated the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The article looks to be pretty factual, except that he misquoted me saying the C-130H maintenance at the Depot “may be placed ahead of the line”. I told him there was no indication, in spite of the fact that the maintenance is required to be promptly scheduled, that they would be placed at the head of the line. Scheduling the work and performing it are two different things. The reporter also said the Pfeiffer Fire continues to burn, however according to InciWeb 100 percent containment was expected on December 20, 2013.

More information about the transfer of Coast Guard and military aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service.

Link to the legislation authorizing the transfer.

Defense bill passes, clearing way for C-130H transfers to the USFS

Late Thursday night the Senate passed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 84-15, which passed the House last week. President Obama has already said he will sign it which clears the way for the aircraft transfers we have written about previously. (UPDATE, December 27, 2013: the President signed the bill December 26, 2013.)

The bill contained provisions for the U.S. Forest Service to receive seven C-130H Coast Guard aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, in lieu of the C-27Js they had been expecting. It requires the Air Force to “promptly schedule” the “center and outer wing-box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system in each such HC–130H aircraft”.

The Air Force will spend a maximum of $130 million of for all of the maintenance and modification work on the seven aircraft. The bill also specifies that no more than $5 million shall be spent on each HC–130H aircraft for the “gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system”. If the modifications exceed these limits, the additional funds will have to be provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service will also receive up to 15 C-23B+ S Sherpa aircraft which are expected to be used as smokejumper platforms. Earlier this week representatives from the USFS were in Oklahoma evaluating the Sherpas they were expecting to receive.

If C-130s are transferred to the USFS, they will have gravity retardant tanks

We were able to find documentation that if the seven Coast Guard C-130H aircraft are transferred to the U.S. Forest Service as required in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (NDAA), they WILL have gravity assisted retardant tanks, rather than a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) pressurized tank like is used on the military MAFFS C-130s.

The NDAA passed in the House on December 12 with a vote of 350 to 69. Its next stop will be the Senate, which is expected to take up the bill this week before they adjourn on December 20.

We found the retardant tank requirement in the 1,106-page NDAA bill along with some other interesting details. There are time elements mentioned, such as allowing 45 days after the act passes to begin the transfer of the C-130Hs. And “at the first available opportunity, promptly schedule” the “center and outer wing- box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system in each such HC–130H aircraft”.

A maximum cost of $130 million of Air Force funds was established for all of the maintenance and modification work on the seven aircraft. The bill also specifies that no more than $5 million shall be spent on each HC–130H aircraft for the “gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system”. If the modifications exceed these limits, the additional funds will have to be provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

Redding smokejumpers' Shorts 330 Sherpa
Redding smokejumpers’ Shorts 330 Sherpa. USFS photo.

The transfer of “not more than” 15 C-23B+ S Sherpa aircraft” is required to begin within 45 days of the passage of the bill. If they receive them, the USFS could use the Sherpas for smokejumping and for hauling cargo. In 1991 the agency acquired six Shorts 330 Sherpas and has used them as smokejumper platforms. The 330s are similar to the C-23B+ Sherpas but have smaller engines and a lower cruising speed. The military C-23B+ S Sherpas also have a rear drop-down cargo door which could be used by smokejumpers. The transfer of the Sherpas would allow the USFS to stop contracting for jumper aircraft such as the Twin Otters and have an all-Sherpa jumper fleet that is Government-Owned/Contractor Operated, bringing some standardization to the jumper fleet. The acquisition of 15 Sherpas might even make the retirement of the DC-3 more palatable.

House passes bill to transfer C-27J aircraft to Coast Guard; USFS would receive C-130Hs


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.


Thanks go out to Ross