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.

Air tankers discussed in Senate hearing

Richard Zerkel

(UPDATED November 19, 2015. Scroll down to see the updated information.)


Air tankers was one of the topics discussed today in a Washington D.C. hearing convened by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Richard B. Zerkel, President of Lynden Air Cargo, was one of six witnesses who testified, two of whom brought up issues about firefighting aircraft.

One of Mr. Zerkel’s main points in his prepared testimony was the “double standard” used by the U.S. Forest Service in managing their government owned air tankers and privately owned air tankers. The USFS will not operate the seven HC-130H air tankers obtained from the Coast Guard according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations as Part 121 air carrier aircraft, but will instead fly them as public use aircraft. This allows them to make up their own standards, or, as they announced, use procedures created by the Coast Guard who will advise the USFS about maintenance of the aircraft. (Fire Aviation wrote about this issue in September, 2015.)

Mr. Zerkel, in referring to the first of the USFS HC-130Hs which began spraying retardant on fires this summer, described it as “equipped with the obsolete MAFFS II dispersant system and operated without appropriate FAA oversight.” The MAFFS system uses compressed air to force the retardant out of the 3,000-gallon tank. Spraying the liquid, rather than allowing gravity to let it fall from the tank, breaks up the retardant into small droplets which does not penetrate tree canopies as well as a conventional gravity-powered system. The plans are to eventually replace the MAFFS tanks with conventional gravity systems, but the Air Force, the agency converting the aircraft into air tankers, has been dithering about the contracts for the retardant system since July of 2014, without any result so far.

Mr. Zerkel argued that the federal fire aviation fleet should operate their aircraft under the same standards they require of their contractors, FAA Part 121. The Chair of the Committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, the state in which Lynden Air Cargo is based, agreed, saying the current system “is absolutely unacceptable. You go with your highest standard.”

Lynden Air Cargo has skin in the game. The company took one of their seven L-382 cargo planes, a civilian version of the Hercules C-130, and spent $4.5 million, according to Mr. Zerkel, to retrofit it as an air tanker and train personnel to fly and maintain it. That aircraft is leased to Coulson who operates it as Air Tanker 132, currently on a firefighting contract in New South Wales, Australia. It was disqualified from competing for the USFS next-gen Version 2 air tanker contract earlier this year because part of the Supplemental Type Certificate had not been awarded from the Federal Aviation Administration by the USFS deadline, which was a couple of months before the contracts were awarded.

Mr. Zerkel said, “The commercial aerial firefighting industry is entirely capable of providing all of the Forest Service’s Large Air Tanker requirements at considerably less expense than the current planned use of C-130H aircraft.” And further, “The non-regulated, public aircraft format, proposed for the government owned large air tanker fleet is inherently less safe than the rigorous standards the commercial fleet must adhere to and has set an unfair double standard.

Chris MaischAnother witness from Alaska brought up the issue of inconsistent “carding”, or qualification of fire aviation assets. John “Chris” Maisch, the Alaska State Forester who was also representing the National Association of State Foresters, provided some examples of problems with “carding” individual pilots and aviation platforms.

  • Colorado sent its multi-mission fire detection and mapping aircraft, which was approved by the Forest Service in its Region 2, to Oregon where it had to be carded again by Forest Service Region 6.
  • A state of Alaska contract helicopter based out of California had been carded at the beginning of the fire season by the Forest Service and had to be re-carded by the Department of Interior’s Office of Aircraft Services when it reported to Alaska for work.

The video recording of the hearing can be viewed at the Committee’s web site.


UPDATE: On November 19, 2015 we heard from Richard B. Zerkel, President of Lynden Air Cargo, who testified at the hearing. He wanted to make it clear that he does not recommend that the U.S. Forest Service operate their air tankers under CFR Part 121. But he would like to see them under CFR Part 137 Agricultural Aircraft Operations that covers aerial dispensing. Failing that, Mr. Zerkel thinks they should at least be required to obtain Supplemental Type Certificates for all modifications and document any maintenance and or operational training which should then be available to the general public.

Coulson to supply retardant systems for Airbus C295W

The Coulson Group has signed a memorandum of understanding to provide fire retardant systems for Airbus’ C295W aircraft. 

C295 test drop
C295 test drop. Airbus photo.

Under the terms of the agreement Coulson will develop and manufacture a version of its Retardant Dropping System (RDS) which is already being used in two C-130 air tankers operated by Coulson.

The system installed in the C295W will consist of two roll-on/roll-off internal tanks which can be removed after the fire season. The aircraft will then be available for its conventional role as a ramp-equipped, multi-role transport able to carry cargo, troops, paratroops, or stretchers.

C295W Airbus graphic

The RDS for the C295W will include two internal tanks of 924 gallons each (3,500 liters), for a total of 1,848 gallons (7,000 liters). When dropping, the flow-rate can be adjusted via the cockpit control panel according to the desired coverage, aircraft speed, and height over terrain.

A prototype C295W air tanker has been flying since 2013 as a proof of concept. After it was deemed a success, Airbus turned to Coulson to adapt their existing C-130 system to the smaller C295W.

Coulson Aircrane manager, Britton Coulson said:

We are an on-going partner for Airbus and expect to deliver multiple systems per year on a continuous basis. There are over 130 C-295’s flying around the world with many more on order that are potential RDS upgrade candidates.

C295 Chilean Navy Airbus
C295 operated by the Chilean Navy. Airbus photo.

The C295, manufactured in Seville, Spain, was introduced in 2001. An enhanced performance version with winglets and uprated engines, the C295W, was announced in 2013. As of August, 2015, Airbus had delivered 136 of the C295 series aircraft with another 26 on order.

Coulson had the following promotional video produced for the 2015 Hercules Operators Conference.

GAO denies protests of Next-Gen air tanker solicitation

GAO logoThe Government Accountability Office has denied two protests over the solicitation for “up to seven” Next-Generation air tankers published by the U.S. Forest Service. Erickson Aero Tanker and Coulson Aviation protested some of the terms of the solicitation process before any announcement was made about awarding contracts. The USFS had hoped to have the air tankers working by May 30, but the protests halted the contracting process. Coulson’s was denied on July 8 and Erickson’s on July 17.

The next step is for the USFS to decide what companies they want to issue contracts to, and then they have to abide by a strange law that requires they notify Congress of their intent, and then wait 30 days before actually awarding any contracts.

At that point, the process will again be vulnerable to an another round of protests over the awards themselves, each of which will take up to 100 days to be adjudicated by the GAO.

Photos of helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia

Fire on Sproat Lake S-61
One of Coulson’s S-61 helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia. Photo by Britt Coulson.

Britt Coulson of The Coulson Group sent us these photos of the wildfire burning along the lake near the company’s Martin Mars base in British Columbia. One of their S-61 Type 1 helicopters assigned to the fire can be seen in two of the photos, the black and white ship.

helicopter fire on Sproat Lake
One of Coulson’s S-61 helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia. Photo by Britt Coulson.
Helicopters fire Sproat Lake
Helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia. Photo by Britt Coulson.

Earlier we wrote about the inquiry the British Columbia Wildfire Service made about possibly activating the Martin Mars using their existing call when needed contract.

CWN contracts awarded for 22 next-gen air tankers

Coulson T-132 grid test
Coulson Aviation’s L-382G during the grid test in early May, 2015.

The U.S. Forest Service announced yesterday that they awarded Call When Needed (CWN) contracts to five companies for a total of 22 next-generation air tankers. Not all of the aircraft exist yet in flyable, modified, inspected, and carded form. In fact, we estimate only about half of them are ready to go now if the phone rang.

The companies receiving the six-year CWN contracts include:

  • Neptune Aviation, 6 BAe-146s
  • Coulson Aviation, 1 Lockheed L-382G
  • Air Spray USA, 4 BAe-146s
  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, 5 DC-10s
  • Aero Flite, 6 BAe Avro 146 RJ85s

These CWN contracts are in addition to the 14 air tankers currently on Exclusive Use Contracts, and the additional aircraft that could be added, up to seven, when the bidding process that is being protested now is settled. Later this year there could be up to 21 air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus the CWN aircraft on this contract that was just awarded. Many of the air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts are also listed on the new CWN contract, so there is some duplication.

An exclusive use contract commits an aircraft to working non-stop, except for days off, for an extended period of days, 160, for example.

However on a CWN contract the aircraft may never be used by the USFS. It could sit for years without being activated by the agency. That was one reason the 747 “Supertanker” ceased to exist. It was parked for years on a CWN contract and was not used.

This, of course, can be a very expensive and risky proposition for a private company. They have to decide if they are going to maintain the aircraft in a continuous airworthy condition and hire flight crews and maintenance personnel. The USFS thinks it’s a great deal since they spend nothing if an air tanker is not used. But even if a CWN aircraft had been at one time fully certified, by the time the USFS decides to activate it, the aircraft and the staff to operate it may or may not be ready to fight fire. And the CWN rates are usually much higher than a multi-year exclusive use contract.

Walt Darren, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away a couple of years ago, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker ready to go.

Ravi Saip, the General Manager and Director of Maintenance for Air Spray at Chico, California, said none of their BAe-146s are fully operational today. They are working on two of them, and hope to have one finished by the end of this fire season. He said most of the work is done on that aircraft, and they are working closely with British Aerospace on the cutouts in the belly through which the retardant will flow. In about two months they hope to begin flight tests, and they still need to get the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and the Interagency AirTanker Board certifications.

Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker told us they have three completed DC-10s. Two are carded and are being used today on fires in California, T-911 and T-912. The third, which replaced and upgraded the older T-910, will retain that tanker number and is waiting for the USFS to issue their certification.

Britt Coulson of Coulson Aviation said they hope their recently converted Lockheed L-382G will be carded by the USFS next week. A civilian version of the C-130, it completed the grid test in early May.

The full list of air tankers receiving CWN contracts is below. Click on the image to see a larger version.

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