While it certainly is not ready to drop retardant over a fire today, the conversion of Coulson’s C-130Q into an air tanker is progressing very well.
The company was selected this week by the U.S. Forest Service to receive an exclusive use contract for the 32-year old aircraft that had been sitting in a Wisconsin museum for the last 10 years. Before that it was used by NASA for research, but it began it’s life as a strategic communications link aircraft 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.
A C-130Q is similar to a C-130H, but the “Q” model was outfitted with a complex antenna system for communications with submarines and bombers.
In addition to building and installing the retardant tank, the work going on at the San Bernardino airport includes inspections which required that some of the skin be removed from the wings and other surfaces. The inspection is almost done and the aircraft is being put back together.
Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that the top portion of the retardant tank is finished and the bottom is nearing completion. They expect to conduct flights in June leading toward FAA approval for a restricted category type certificate. They will also need to go through a test for the Interagency AirTanker Board which involves dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground to determine consistency and quantity.
ABC7 in Los Angeles produced the video report below about the aircraft:
In a Coulson company newsletter published on the internet in February, 2012, Jim Messer, Chief Operating Officer, described the process they went through in selecting the aircraft to be used as an air tanker:
…To get to this point we conducted an extensive review of various aircraft capabilities and performance, looking at over 30 aircraft before concluding that the C-130 is the best available.
In the process to acquire an aircraft specific for the airtanker role, Coulson focused on those airframes that were designed specifically for the mission profile of aerial fire fighting. Although many retired high time airlines designed for high altitude point to point flights were available at lower cost they were discounted for the mission required in the fire fighting role.
The C-130Q aircraft was designed to undertake aerial wildland fire operations. Its manoeuvrability, and performance, operating at low levels at low speed with, heavy loads in rugged terrain, immediate power response, and STOL capabilities makes the C-130 a natural fit as an Airtanker.
The U.S. Forest Service announced today they intend to award contracts to five companies for what the agency is calling “next-generation” air tankers, used for dropping water or fire retardant on wildfires.
The U.S. Forest Service expects to award exclusive use contracts to:
Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. (See below for more information on the “legacy” aircraft contract).
The new next-gen contracts are for a base period of five years with five one-year options (a total of 10 years if all contract options are exercised).
In a press release the USFS said the contracts allow the companies to provide additional next generation air tankers in future years, contingent on funding and other circumstances…
…to reach the total of 18 to 28 recommended in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy that the Forest Service submitted to Congress in February 2012.
These new contracts for next-gen air tankers require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons.
The USFS said the five were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.
We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.
The USFS said they plan to bring the seven next-gen air tankers into service over the next year. Most of these aircraft, except for the DC-10, are not ready to drop retardant on fires. Some are still being converted from airliners into air tankers, have not passed the drop tests required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, or they do not have an FAA Type Certificate. Even if the progress on some of these air tankers goes as the companies optimistically hope, it could be months before they are seen dropping retardant over a fire.
The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers 523 days ago on November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012.
These next-generation air tankers can fly faster, should be more reliable, and can carry more retardant than the “legacy” P2V air tankers that were designed in the 1940s for maritime patrol. The Korean War vintage P2Vs have two 18-cylinder radial piston engines with many moving parts, requiring more maintenance than the turbine or turbofan engines of these newer aircraft. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000 gallons of retardant and can cruise at 225 mph.
On March 28, 2013 the USFS announced that contracts were awarded to Neptune Aviation and Minden Air, for what the agency called “legacy” air tankers. Exclusive use contracts were awarded to Minden for one P2V and to Neptune for six P2Vs and one BAe-146. These contracts are for six to eight aircraft over the next five years, when optional years for various line items are considered.
The USFS expects legacy air tankers to continue to be part of the fleet until there are adequate numbers of next generation large air tankers.
With the 7 contracts for next-gen air tankers announced today, plus the 8 legacy contracts, this will make 15 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts if and when the 7 next-gen aircraft are converted and obtain approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and the FAA. In addition, the government can call up 8 military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers.
The USFS still has not announced new contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10 or 747, which expired December 31, 2012. However, and surprisingly, one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s received a contract on this new next-gen solicitation. The agency had extended the call-when-needed contract for the DC-10 while they struggled with issuing new contracts. There have been no contracts for the 747 “Supertanker” operated by Evergreen in recent years.
Below are the specifications for air tankers that we compiled, including some aircraft being considered for conversion into air tankers. Click on the image to see a larger version.
The Press-Enterprise has an article about the air tanker conversion that Coulson is working on at the San Bernardino, California airport, converting into an air tanker what the article identifies as a C-130Q. According to the article test flights are scheduled to begin in April. Coulson is hoping to receive a next-generation air tanker contract for the aircraft.
The Santa Maria Public Airport 55 miles north of Santa Barbara, California has reduced the landing fees charged to air tankers using the airport. An article in the Santa Maria Times says the fees will be reduced from $1 per 1,000 pounds to 50 cents per 1,000 pounds. In addition to this fee, firefighting aircraft have to pay ramp handling fees and fuel flowage fees.
After being downgraded to a call-when-needed air tanker base for three years, the Los Padres National Forest in October, 2011 restored it to full-time status during the fire season.
Contracts for next-generation air tankers
Late in the day last Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for eight “legacy” air tankers, which included seven P2Vs and one BAe-146. Some people within the agency thought contracts for next-generation air tankers would also be announced last week, but that did not happen. The USFS is probably bending over backwards this time in an attempt to minimize the chances of the awards being protested again. Last summer after the awards were announced but not yet finalized, two companies that were not slated to receive contracts filed protests, which sent the agency back to the drawing board, starting the process over again after making dozens of changes in the solicitation.
It has been 487 days since the USFS began the solicitation process for next-generation air tankers.
Most of the work on Coulson’s project to convert a C-130H into an air tanker is taking place at the San Bernardino, CA airport. Workers are making good progress, according to Brit Coulson. When it is complete, the internal tank will be able to be easily removed using the attached wheels so that the aircraft can be used at night, with a double crew, to transport cargo, such as fire trucks or other wildland fire equipment. More information about the project was in an April 9, 2012 article at Wildfire Today.
The Associated Press has a recent story about the conversion. Below is an excerpt from the article, in which Wayne Coulson has been promoted to “tycoon”. Congrats Wayne!
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — A Canadian tycoon is converting a 30-year-old ex-military plane into a high-tech firefighting aircraft, hoping to win a federal contract before the onset of this year’s wildfire season.
The Navy C-130 owned by Wayne Coulson is undergoing a nose-to-tail renovation at San Bernardino International Airport, the regional air tanker base for the U.S. Forest Service.
When finished, it will boast a 3,500-gallon tank for fire retardant, night-vision equipment and a GPS system that will make pinpoint drops when guided by a laser device mounted in an accompanying helicopter, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported Wednesday.
Test flights are scheduled for next month, and Coulson hopes to win a Forest Service contract by June.
Coulson, a timber and aviation tycoon, also owns a converted World-War II-era Martin Mars seaplane that has fought fires throughout California..
It has been 470 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded. Coulson is hoping to receive one of the new contracts.
Coulson Aviation has modified two helicopters so that they can be flown at night. The company, according to Vertical Magazine, took one of their four Sikorsky S61s and a Bell 206B Jet Ranger to Boise, Idaho to get Aviation Specialties Unlimited to make the modifications necessary to be compatible with night vision goggles (NVG).
Coulson also installed a hoist and a medivac interior on the S61, similar to the systems on Los Angeles County’s SH-3 Sea King helicopters, so that it could be used to extract injured personnel from remote areas day or night. This capability could save the lives of firefighters who are victims of accidents after sunset.
Two of the company’s S61s, including the NVG-equipped ship, are in Australia now working on a fire contract. Night flying is not part of the agreement but Coulson hopes to demonstrate to the authorities the benefits of fighting fire at night, when fires move more slowly and firefighting can be more effective.