Coulson to convert 737’s into air tankers

Coulson Aviation is adding not only additional air tankers to their fleet, but is branching out into a different model of aircraft. The company has purchased six 737-300’s and intends to convert them into 4,000-gallon “Fireliner” air tankers. Britt Coulson said they saw an opportunity when Southwest Airlines made a decision to replace their 737-300’s with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two of the 737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they have a relatively low number of hours in the sky.

The first conversion has started, with a freshly painted 737 scheduled to roll out of the paint shop in Spokane on May 22, 2017. The next step is to add the gravity-based tanks which will have the same technology used on their C-130’s.

The air tanker is being designed as a multi-use aircraft with the ability to haul passengers. Mr. Coulson said, “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

The company likes the three C-130’s that they have already converted to air tankers, but finding additional C-130’s for the civilian market is very difficult.

A 737 will be able to use some air tanker bases that larger aircraft, like the C-130, can’t, with a wingspan that is about 38 feet shorter.

Mr. Coulson said they expect to begin installing the retardant system in June with a completion date of December of this year. When that is complete they will start on another. The first conversion will be done by Coulson Aircrane Canada.

Picture day for Coulson’s C-130’s

While Coulson’s three C-130-type air tankers were all together in Reno last month for carding by the U.S. Forest Service and pilot training the company took the opportunity to grab some photos of the aircraft while they were flying in formation.

They are all variants of Lockheed’s C-130 platform — Tanker 131 is a C-130Q while Tankers 132 and 133 are L-382G’s. Tanker 133, the newest addition to the fleet, just became operational a couple of weeks ago.

Scroll down to see how Dan Megna got the photos.

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tanker

To take the photos Coulson rented an OV-10 that conveniently has a small compartment in the rear. Professional photographer Dan Megna sat in that tiny space to get the shots.

Air Spray and Coulson to roll out additional air tankers

Both companies expect to introduce new air tankers in the next few months.

Coulson's "new" Tanker 133
Coulson’s “new” Tanker 133 just after the decorative wrap was applied. Coulson photo.

Coulson

Britt Coulson told us today that their most recently converted air tanker, Tanker 133 will be complete by the end of this week (see above photo). It will be the third in the C-130 series that the company has converted and is their second L-382G, which is a civilian version of the C-130. Their first L-382G, Tanker 132, was first grid tested in 2015 and in recent months was on contract in Australia. T-133 should be complete before the company begins pilot training at the end of this month.

Coulson is also working on a fourth air tanker. The “new” Tanker 134 is the second C-130Q that they have acquired and should be ready to go about four years after their first C-130Q, Tanker 131 reported for duty. The aircraft needs heavy maintenance, and to get it done they will remove the tail and wings and truck it down the highway from Tucson to another facility in Mesa. Britt Coulson said they expect to have it complete by the end of this summer.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s L-130Q which will become Tanker 134 later this year. Coulson photo.

The C-130Q’s began as strategic communications links for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces. They are similar to the C-130H, but the 12 “Q” models that were made were outfitted with complex electronics systems, including a six-mile long trailing wire antenna, for communicating with submarines and bombers. Tanker 131 still has the remains of a vent for cooling the winch that was used to reel in the long antenna.

Privately owned C-130’s are extremely hard to find, and it is likely that very few more, if any, will be converted to air tankers in the near future.

Air Spray

Meanwhile Air Spray expects to roll their first converted BAe-146 out of the hangar in a week or so to begin static tests of the retardant system while the aircraft is parked on the ground. After that is complete they will start flight tests and work towards the grid test, dropping retardant into a matrix of cups on the ground at Fox Field. Ravi Saip, the company’s Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told us today that he expects the tanker will be ready to fight fire sometime this summer.  They are also working on a second BAe-146, which, so far, has the interior stripped out. Air Spray has been working on the first one since at least 2013, when the estimated completion date was fire season 2014.

Air Spray's BAe-146
Air Spray’s BAe-146s as seen in a 2013 Air Spray photo. Ravi Saip said when they roll the nearly completed aircraft out of the hangar he will send us a better picture.

Mr. Saip told us that the recent contracts for federal air tankers require that instead of being certified in the “restricted” category, they must comply with the requirements of a “standard” aircraft. The Forest Service, and especially the FAA, have been pushing for this change for jet-powered air tankers for a while.While it complicates the conversion and approval process, it also opens the  possibility of air tankers being allowed to carry passengers if the Forest Service wanted to plug that into the contracts.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) — three on wheels, and five on floats. They are on contract with Alaska, Oregon, the Forest Service, and one is on Call When Needed.

Mr. Saip said the one with the Forest Service at John Day, Oregon is the only SEAT the agency has on contract and is instrumented with strain gauges like the large air tankers.

The Bureau of Land Management usually does all of the contracting for the federal SEATs. Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the BLM, told us in March that the number of SEATs on exclusive use contracts was expected to be the same as in 2016 — 33 aircraft.

C-130Q en route to Australia

The air tanker will begin an 84-day contract in Victoria on December 15.

Above: Tanker 131’s route from Santa Maria, California to Hawaii.

Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, a C-130Q, is en route to Australia to begin a firefighting contract for the state of Victoria. It departed from Phoenix on December 8 and is expected to arrive in Avalon, Victoria on December 12 after flying for a total of 27 hours. These dates and the ones below are U.S. time.

Tanker 131 itinerary
Tanker 131’s itinerary. From Coulson.

In Australia it is designated as Tanker 390 and is named “Hercules”. On the way to Avalon it scheduled stops at Santa Maria (California), Kahului (Hawaii), Pago Pago, and Norfolk Island. Britt Coulson said Friday night that it had just landed at Pago Pago (NSTU).

The 84-day contract for T-131 begins December 15th.

Tanker 131
Tanker 131 in Maui, Thursday December 8 US time. Coulson photo.
Tanker 131
Tanker 131 over Maui, Thursday December 8 US time. Coulson photo.

Tanker 131 concluded its 2016 fire season in the United States on November 30, accumulating 350 hours of flight time and 520 drops for a total of 1.77 million gallons delivered over wildfires — an average of 3,404 gallons per drop.

Tanker 131
Tanker 131 at Pago Pago Friday December 9 US time. Coulson photo.

Coulson’s other C-130 type air tanker, T-132, a C-130H, has been in New South Wales since September 6, 2016. Known as “Thor” down under, it just had its contract extended for another month and will continue to be based at Richmond RAAF base until mid-January.

Update on Coulson’s C-130s

They have concluded their 2016 contracts in the United States, and will soon have a second air tanker in Australia.

air tanker 132 at Avalon
Air tanker 132 at Avalon, New South Wales during the 2015-2016 Australian fire season.

Coulson’s Tanker 131 concluded its 2016 fire season in the United States on November 30, racking up 350 hours of flight time and 520 drops for a total of 1.77 million gallons delivered over wildfires — an average of 3,404 gallons per drop.

Next on its schedule is a flight down under to Australia where it will join, at least within the same country if not the same state, its sister, Tanker 132 which has been there since September 6, 2016.

Air Force awards contract to install retardant systems on USFS HC-130H air tankers

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.

After a solicitation process that dragged on for almost two years, the U.S. Air Force has awarded the contract to build and install retardant delivery systems for up to seven of the seven HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. 

The Coulson Group announced today that they received the contract. In one sense this is not unexpected because the company has installed and successfully operated two similar systems in C-130s — Tanker 131 and Tanker 132. In another sense, it is a surprise after the Government Accountability Office denied the company’s protest of the terms of the request for proposals in August of 2015.

C-130 retardant tank unload
Coulson’s retardant tank being removed or installed in one of their air tankers, T-131, in 2013. Coulson photo.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to work with the United States Air Force to provide them with state of the art retardant aerial delivery systems (RADS) for their fleet of C-130s,” says Wayne Coulson, CEO and President of Coulson Aviation.

The 3,800-gallon (3,500 gallons dispensable payload) retardant system will be gravity-based with retardant tanks that can be quickly removed, making it possible for the air tankers to also haul cargo or passengers.

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft began working out of McClellan Air Field near Sacramento last summer. Since it did not have a permanent retardant tank it borrowed one of the Forest Service’s eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that can be inserted into the cargo hold of a military C-130 to provide a surge capacity of air tankers during a time of heavy wildfire activity. The MAFFS pump the 3,000 gallons of retardant out of a pipe through the door using compressed air, rather than letting it drop out of the belly with the assistance of gravity as is done with conventional air tankers.

The Air Force is responsible for the retrofitting and performing the heavy maintenance that must be completed before the seven HC-130Hs are finally turned over to the USFS over the next three years. This contract is for the installation of one trial “kit”, one verification kit, and three production kits. There is an option for the installation of two additional production kits.

Coulson Aviation has 25 years of experience in aerial fire suppression and they operate both Type 1 helicopters and large fixed wing air tankers. Coulson is one of the few companies to hold multi-country aerial firefighting contracts, including Canada, the United States, and Australia.

Tanker 131 en route to Australia

T-131 C-130Q
Tanker 131, a C-130Q. Photo November 23 in Edmonton by Matt Ralph.

Air Tanker 131 (N130FF), Coulson’s C-130Q, arrived in Hawaii on Thursday after completing the first leg of its trip to Victoria, Australia. It is under contract with Emergency Management Victoria for their summer bushfire season, along with Conair’s Tanker 162, an RJ85, (N355AC).

Two other air tankers are already down under working for New South Wales, T-910 (N612AX) a DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, and Coulson’s Tanker 132, an L-382G (N405LC) which is a civilian stretched version of a C-130.

Tanker 131 just received a new retardant tank and a redesigned “Next Gen Smart Controller” to operate the retardant delivery system.

air tanker 131 retardant tank
The new retardant tank for Tanker 131 is on the right. The original tank is on the left. Photo by Matt Ralph.

The newer tank holds about 500 gallons more than the original tank and should enable an average retardant load of 4,200 USG and a maximum capacity of about 4,500 USG, according to Britt Counson. Tanker 132, an L-382G, also has the new version of the tank system.

Victoria to again have two large air tankers under contract this summer

Emergency Management Victoria will have two large air tankers from North America under firefighting contract again during their down-under summer.

Tanker 161 RJ85.
Tanker 161, an RJ85. Photo supplied by RJ85 Australia.

Beginning December 1 they expect to have the same types of aircraft that they employed in the 2014/2015 bushfire season — one of Conair’s RJ85s, and Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q (known in Australia as Bomber 390).

The RJ85, N355AC, is en route now island hopping across the Pacific after departing Abbotsford, British Columbia at 2:04 p.m. MST on November 14. When heard from last, it left Guadalcanal Nov. 17 at 3:03 p.m. MST on its final leg and was due in Australia Nov. 17 at 8:52 p.m. MST, a six-hour flight.  Last year because of the limited range of the RJ85, they used fuel bladders for the multi-day trip.

Coulson’s Tanker 131 (N130FF) is getting a new 4,000 USG tank and Smart Controller upgrade and is expected to depart for Australia by the end of next week.

During the 2014/2015 fire season the two air tankers completed 81 drops of fire retardant on fires in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

New South Wales already has two air tankers on duty, T-910 (N612AX) a DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, and Coulson’s Tanker 132, an L-382G (N405LC) which is a civilian stretched version of a C-130.