Tanker 116 in Boise

We shot this photo of U.S. Forest Service air tanker 116, an HC-130H, in Boise on April 20. It was there to deliver the MAFFS unit it has been using so that the Reno National Guard folks can train with it and the other one normally assigned to Reno. After the training the unit will be retrieved by T-116 and hauled back to McClellan in California where that tanker is based.

Two C-130’s and their crews from each of four military bases — Channel Islands, Cheyenne, Colorado Springs, and Reno — are going through their annual training and recertification in Boise this week.

20 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contracts this year

We also have updates on the MD-87’s, as well as the HC-130H aircraft the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.

The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.

air tankers contract wildfire 2017
This does not include Call When Needed, Single Engine, or scooper air tankers.

In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)

2016 call when needed wildfire air tankers

There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.

Future contracts

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.

The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.

Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.

MD-87’s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.

Coast Guard HC-130H’s

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.

The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.

500 nautical mile radius
500 nautical mile radius from Sacramento, California. Fire Aviation graphic.

None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.

Tanker 116 Mather California
Tanker 116, an HC-130H, landing at Mather Airport east of Sacramento, February 28, 2017. Photo by Jon Wright.

None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.

The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.

Tanker 116 at Mather

Jon Wright took this photo of Air Tanker 116, which is one of the first of the seven HC-130H aircraft the U.S. Forest Service acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard to be converted to an air tanker.

Mr. Wright said it spent several hours on February 27 and 28 conducting approaches at Mather Airport east of Sacramento.

One of the last steps in the conversion of a Coast Guard aircraft into a USFS air tanker

Tanker 116 is scheduled to be transferred to McLellan Air Field at Sacramento this month.

Above: Sam Vigil, 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Support Squadron aircraft painter at Robins AFB in Georgia, touches up the new paint on an HC-130H that is being converted into a U.S. Forest Service air tanker. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tommie Horton)

One of the last steps in the conversion of a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H into an air tanker for the U.S. Forest Service is applying 80 gallons of paint. The aircraft that just received the new livery is the first of seven that will be going through the transformation over the next several years.

Much of the work is being done at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. This was a unique project for the Air Force. Normally the paint the workers use is designed to minimize the visibility of their aircraft, but the goal for an air tanker is just the opposite. They had to do shiney gloss red and white, instead of flat grey.

USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H
T-116 at Robins AFB in Georgia, August, 2016. Photo by Bill Tinney.

The article below does not specify, but it is likely that the aircraft being worked on is Tanker 116, formerly Coast Guard #1708, which is scheduled to be delivered to McClellan Air Field this month. It will operate with a slip-in MAFFS 3,000-gallon retardant system until a permanent retardant delivery system can be installed.

****

By Jenny Gordon, Public Affairs officer

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Georgia

Painting a C-130H with a new glossy paint scheme doesn’t happen very often in the Corrosion Control Flight at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex.

Most of the time its professional cadre of aircraft painters spray on the customary flat gray color familiar on many a surface of weapon systems that visit Robins from across the globe.

But earlier this month things turned a bit more colorful inside one hangar on the flight line, thanks to a visit from one particular aircraft making its way through the final stages of programmed depot maintenance here.

During its visit here, the Coast Guard aircraft received a new center wing box, replacement of its outer wings and work on its elevator, all before its upcoming transfer to the U.S. Forest Service where it will eventually assist in firefighting missions.

The new USFS paint scheme – the first to be laid out on an aircraft – involved hours of tedious work from a team of nearly 45 painters. Much of it involved the careful laying of tape across parts of the plane. That’s so that once a different color of paint was applied to an area masked over, a precise fine line could be seen once the tape was removed.

What you want is a nice, sharp edge on those areas where colored paint is applied. Putting down that tape didn’t involve a laser level of any kind – it was all done freestyle by hand.

“It was a real challenge,” said Ronnie Harrell, Corrosion Control supervisor.

One of the first things you’ll notice is an eye-popping ‘poppy red’ shade that spans from the nose to the tail, and under both wings, along with a thin layer of black that carefully curves along the edges of the former’s dominant color scheme.

There are some nine different colors represented on the aircraft, ranging from yellow and light gray, to matte black and white.

It took about 80 gallons of paint to cover every inch. But it couldn’t all be done in one sitting. Once areas were masked, touch-ups were made, sanding happened and things were rinsed. Thousands of surface points were then seam-sealed, similar to a caulking process, which in this case keeps water from penetrating into the aircraft and causing corrosion.

Once that’s done, PreKote is added across the aircraft, which acts as an adhesion promoter so paint sticks. Once this dries, then the masking process starts. All this before a coat of paint even touched anything.

A coat of white was first applied over the entire aircraft. Then you wait for it to dry. Then it’s applied two more times. Because so many different colors were involved, there was a lot of waiting, sometimes as much as a 12-hour dry time in between paint applications.

Workers had it down to a routine by the end, alternating between demasking areas of the plane, masking, painting, drying, then waiting. Then they repeat the process once other colors are added.

In getting ready to first apply a coat of poppy red over a large swath of the aircraft, you had to make sure the paint underneath was dry. Then mask the surrounding area so any overspray wouldn’t get anywhere.

“You want to give the paint plenty of time to dry between the two so it won’t peel off,” said Harrell.

On this C-130, which stayed in the hangar a little over two weeks earlier this month, a gloss paint was used, making things a little more interesting.

“You have a fine line between getting a good shine and a run,” said Harrell, referring to the careful technique of applying coats of gloss. “You have to worry about running with a gloss, but not as much as with flat. It will run, but not as much.”

He added, “It’s hard to get a big area like this painted, and a challenge not to have paint colors bleeding into the others.”

Some of those challenging areas were laying out the tape prior to applying poppy red, adding stripes, and adding tape under the belly of the plane. Curves toward the tail also required some fine tuning as that involved quite an intricate layout.

A gray paint was also used for a walkway up on top. It’s a gritlike, sandy substance that prevents anyone who’s walking up there from sliding off due to the gloss.

In applying gloss, what you’re looking for is a nice sheen, not a heavy buildup, according to several aircraft painters. In applying the first coat of white, you put on an even coat, and by the final pass you’re trying to get it to shine.

A good estimate is to apply a coat at a distance of 14 to 16 inches away from the surface. It also depends on how fast you paint, since the closer you are to the aircraft, the faster you’ll paint in your spray pattern. Do it for awhile and you get a feel for how things should look, or in this case, shine.

“It looks a lot better than I thought it would due to the paint system we used,” said Paul Lowery, work lead. “It’s good to put out something different.”

Mark Stoddard, a quality assurance representative at Robins from the Coast Guard’s Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, N.C., has been following the aircraft closely for many months. Until the plane is installed at a later time with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (fire retardant system), the Coast Guard will still maintain configuration management of the airframe and its maintenance procedures.

“Things have gone very well on this first aircraft,” he said.

Added Harrell, “We were really looking forward to this job. Once stencils were added and things started to take shape, it really started to look like what we do. The first thing people will see is that paint job.”

Photos of USFS Air Tanker 116

Earlier this week we posted a photo that showed a portion of Air Tanker 116. This is one of the seven HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted to air tankers. Now we have four more photos that were taken by Bill Tinney while the aircraft was at Robins Air Logistics Compound in Warner Robins,Georgia. Thanks Bill.

The expectation is that T-116 will be delivered to McClellan Air Field by September 15. Sometime after that it will be operated as an air tanker using one of the eight slip-in MAFFS retardant systems until a permanent retardant delivery system is installed.

USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H

 

USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H

The photo above shows external fuel tanks hanging from the wings. I would be very surprised if the USFS operated the aircraft as an air tanker with the tanks. The HC-130H is designed as a long range search and rescue platform with a 5,000 mile range, longer than the typical C-130. In an air tanker role, fuel is not usually an issue, since it has to continually land to reload with retardant.

New paint for Air Tanker 116

It should be delivered to McClellan Air Field in California by September 15.

Above: New paint for what will be Air Tanker 116, formerly Coast Guard HC-130H #1708. Photo by Brian Miller.

The HC-130H that is being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service that will be designated as Air Tanker 116 has recently received a new paint job. The projected delivery date to McClellan Air Field in California is September 15. Sometime after that it should be in service as an air tanker, but will be using on a temporary basis one of the eight USFS slip-in MAFFS retardant systems until a permanent retardant delivery system can be installed.

Coast Guard HC-130H 1708
Coast Guard HC-130H #1708 in its previous life. Photo by Andrew Sieber 7-20-2009.

The paint design is similar what was approved over two years ago and the one on the recently acquired Sherpa C-23B aircraft, but varies a bit from the design, in that the engine cowlings are not red on the top as they are in the design and on the Sherpas.

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design approved in January, 2014 that was to be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard.

The USFS has a wide assortment of paint schemes on their firefighting aircraft fleet. This may have something to do with the power the regional aviation officers have over the programs in their regions, as opposed centralizing power in a national aviation program. We collected photos of some of the aircraft in January of 2014.

On August 11 we published a comprehensive update on the status of the transfer of the seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft.

Update on USFS HC-130H’s and other air tankers

four CL-415 cody wy
Four CL-415 water-scooping air tankers at Cody, Wyoming during the week of August 1, 2016. Some of them had been working the nearby Whit Fire and scooping out of Buffalo Bill Reservoir six miles from the fire. Photo by Becky Lester Hawkins.

Ten additional air tankers brought on temporarily

In the last few weeks the U.S. Forest Service has brought on ten additional air tankers on a temporary basis. This includes CL-415 water-scoopers, CV-580’s, and Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130’s. Two of the aircraft were acquired through Call When Needed (CWN) agreements; four via agreements with Alaska and Canada; two MAFFS through an agreement with the Department of Defense; and two water scoopers through other contracts.

HC-130H’s

The U.S. Forest Service expects to have two HC-130H aircraft at McClellan Air Field in September. These are part of the seven aircraft fleet of HC-130H’s that the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015.

Last year one of the HC-130H’s worked out of McClellan using a MAFFS, a slip-in 3,000-gallon pressurized retardant system that pumps the liquid out the left side troop door. That was aircraft #1721 designated as Tanker 118, still painted in military colors. T-118 is now undergoing scheduled depot-level maintenance and should be replaced in September of this year by #1708 designated as Tanker 116. It will also use a slip-in MAFFS unit, one of the eight owned by the USFS, but should be sporting a new USFS air tanker paint job. After T-118 left, another former Coast Guard aircraft took its place, #1706. It is being used for training the contracted pilots and will not serve as an air tanker.

Early in 2015 the plan was to have two HC-130H’s at McClellan. One would be used as an air tanker, and the second would be used as a training platform. Below is a portion of that early 2015 plan which we covered February 9, 2015.

Forest Service C-130H schedule
The USFS plans in early 2015 for incorporating the seven HC-130H aircraft into a Government-Owned/Contractor-Operated fleet of air tankers. Click to enlarge.

Eventually the USFS hopes to have all seven converted to air tankers with removable retardant tanks. A contract for the installation of the retardant delivery systems was awarded to the Coulson Group in May. There is also much other work that has to be completed on the aircraft including programmed depot maintenance, painting, and wing box replacement on most of them. The work is being done or coordinated by the U.S. Air Force. They were directed by Congressional legislation to use their own funds, up to $130 million, so it is no surprise that the schedule keeps slipping as delays continue to occur in awarding contracts and scheduling the maintenance.

In 2014 Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS, said all seven aircraft would be completely converted by 2018. In early 2015 the USFS changed that to 2019. Now, a year and a half later, it’s anybody’s guess when or if this project that started in December of 2013 will be finished.

CL-415’s

The USFS has two water-scooping CL-415 air tankers on exclusive use contract. As noted above they recently temporarily brought on two more on a call when needed basis. All four are operated by AeroFlite and as seen in the photo above were together at Cody last week.

Air Spray

There was some discussion in the comment section of another article on Fire Aviation about the status of the BAe-146 aircraft being converted to air tankers by Air Spray. The company has five of the 146’s; two are out of the country and the other three are at the company’s Chico, California facility. Ravi Saip, their Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told Fire Aviation that they expect to begin flight testing one of them in air tanker mode around the first of the year. After they receive a supplemental type certificate from the FAA, work on the second one would shift into high gear. Then conversion of the other three would begin.

T-241
Air Spray’s T-241 finishing its amphibious conversion at the Wipaire facility in Minnesota. Air Spray photo.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 single engine air tankers that they have purchased since 2014. Five of them have received the amphibious conversion by adding floats, and the other three are stock, restricted to wheels.

Air Spray’s Tanker 498, an L-188 Electra, is currently in Sacramento being inspected and carded by CAL FIRE so that it can be used in a Call When Needed capacity.

747 SuperTanker

Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, told us that the FAA has awarded a supplemental type certificate for their reborn 747 SuperTanker — a major and sometimes very difficult barrier to overcome. Within the next two weeks they expect to receive the airworthiness certificate.

air tanker 747 T-944 colorado springs
T-944 at Colorado Springs May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Beginning next week representatives from the USFS will observe some additional static tests and then there will be an airborne descent test, a new test added in 2013, releasing retardant in a downhill drop. That test was not required when Version 1.0 of the 747 was certified. It may have been added after it was discovered that the first BAe-146’s that were converted and issued contracts still retained hundreds of gallons of retardant after downhill runs.

These steps should take less than two weeks, Mr. Wheeler said, after which they will submit the results to the Interagency AirTanker Board.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told Fire Aviation that the company was offered an opportunity to submit a proposal for a call when needed contract solicitation in 2015, along with numerous other companies, but declined to do so. Their next opportunity to obtain a contract will be when another general solicitation is issued in 2017, or perhaps sooner, Ms. Jones said. The agency issued a Request for Information a few weeks ago, which is usually followed some months later with an actual solicitation.

Judging from the list of CWN air tankers with contracts, apparently it is possible to submit a proposal and receive a USFS CWN contract even if the aircraft exists mostly on paper and could be years away from being FAA and Interagency AirTanker Board certified.

In the meantime Mr. Wheeler realizes that the USFS is not the only organization that hires air tankers and has been talking with a number of other agencies in various states and countries as well as companies involved in marine firefighting.

Global SuperTanker is in the process of finishing repairs on the 747 in Arizona after some of the composite flight control surfaces (flaps, spoilers, elevators) and engine cowlings were damaged by golf ball sized hail at Colorado Springs several weeks ago. There was no windscreen or fuselage damage.

Mr. Wheeler said that was the first severe hailstorm within the last seven years at the Colorado Springs airport. But, after the aircraft left to be repaired in Arizona a second hailstorm struck the airport that some have said was a 100-year event and did much more damage than the first one.

Permanent base for the HC-130H air tankers

On September 2, 2015 the USFS formally requested information from facilities that could support the seven-aircraft HC-130H fleet (Solicitation Number SN-2015-16), with responses due September 16. The agency was only asking for information from interested parties, and will not award a contract based on the Request for Information. A few politicians fell all over themselves arguing that the aircraft should be based in their state.

Since then no decisions have been made. Ms. Jones told Fire Aviation:

The U.S. Forest Service continues to cooperate with the Department of Defense to identify potential federal facilities, which must be considered first.

It is unlikely that more than one or two of the seven HC-130H’s would be at the new base at at any one time, except during the winter when they would not have to be dispersed around the country to be available for firefighting. While the base might not be a huge expansion of the aerial firefighting capabilities in an area, the stationing of the flight crews, maintenance, and administrative personnel would be a boost to the economy of a small or medium-sized city.

Two USFS HC-130H air tankers to be operational by September

Above: Tanker 118, an HC-130H, on the Lowell Fire, July 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rhodes.

If the schedule goes according to plan there will be two U.S. Forest Service HC-130H air tankers operational at McClellan Air Field by September, 2016.

In July of 2015 Tanker 118, Aircraft number 1721, showed up at McClellan and became available for fighting fires.

It is one of seven that are in the process of being transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the USFS. Much work has to be done before the transformation is complete, including installing an internal retardant tank (which has not been done on any of the aircraft yet), removal of unneeded military and Coast Guard equipment, programmed depot maintenance, painting, and most of them need to have the wing boxes replaced.

The U.S. Air Force is responsible for getting all of this work done, and with their own money. With that in mind, and considering other Air Force priorities must be taken into consideration, the expectation is that all seven aircraft will be fully converted and available for firefighting operations for the 2020 fire season.

Since the retardant systems have not been a installed, last year Tanker 118 used one of the eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems assigned to military C-130s that can install the slip-in system in a matter of hours if an air tanker surge capacity is needed. That is the plan this year too. It is unknown if another MAFFS will be installed in the second HC-130H this summer, or if that aircraft will only be used for training.

The two HC-130Hs at McClellan this year will be Tanker 116 (aircraft number 1708), and Tanker 118 (aircraft number 1721).

T 116 is currently undergoing programmed depot maintenance, demilitarization, and painting with the U.S. Air Force. Estimated completion date and delivery to McClellan is August, 2016.

T 118 is undergoing programmed depot maintenance and painting with the U.S. Coast Guard. It is expected at McClellan in September, 2016.