Coast Guard/Forest Service air tanker is back in the air

Michael Piper got these photos of Air Tanker 118 apparently off the television as one of the HC-130H air tankers was working the County Fire west of Sacramento. Click on the photos a couple of times to see larger versions.

After Congress authorized $130 million to transfer seven U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted to air tankers, much work was done to bring maintenance up to date, replace wing boxes, and issue contracts to private companies for regular maintenance and operation. But a few months ago the current administration announced they plan to abandon the project.

This may be the last year we see any of them fighting fire. Then I guess they’ll go to the boneyard in good shape, some with new wing boxes. There’s a rumor that CAL FIRE is considering  upgrading from their 1,200-gallon S-2T air tankers to a version of the C-130 which carries at least 3,000 gallons. Maybe they will get their hands on them.

Over the last three years one has been seen occasionally over fires, using a borrowed MAFFS slip-in tank system. As far as I know, no permanent retardant systems have been installed in any of the seven HC-130H aircraft.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, spraying retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

Forest Service contracts for aircraft onboarding analysis

When we saw the solicitation above and read the detailed description, we thought the U.S. Forest Service was planning to add more air tankers to their fleet or resurrect the Coast Guard HC-130H program, but that turned out to not be the case.

The solicitation seeks to hire seven contract personnel, with most of them being required to work out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It closed April 10 after being open for only about two weeks.

Their tasks will include:

  • Program and project management support;
  • Development of operations and management strategy;
  • Acquisition program support for aviation support contracts;
  • Technology insertion for aviation assets and facilities;
  • Analysis and implementation of supportability services for airframe, engine, and avionics.
  • Economic analysis for technology insertion and transformation efforts;
  • Safety program support for aviation and ground operations.

In February the Administration announced their desire to abandon the acquisition and conversion of seven Coast Guard HC-130H’s into firefighting air tankers after spending tens of millions on the project. They intend to operate one this year that is partially complete, borrowing a slip-in MAFFS retardant system.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, using a MAFFS unit to spray retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

We asked Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones for a plain text translation of the language in the solicitation:

This solicitation is for engineering services needed for the USDA Forest Service to have one HC-130H equipped with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) available to fly wildfire suppressions this year (2018) as in 2015 and 2017. The current contract for these services expires May 31st.

Ms. Jones supplied an update on the future of the HC-130H air tanker program:

Section 1098(a) of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the USDA Forest Service for use as Airtankers in wildfire suppression. Based on recent increased private sector investment in Next Generation Airtankers, the agency has determined that government-owned Airtankers are no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required Airtanker needs. As such, the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget notes that the USDA Forest Service will seek Congressional support to terminate the NDAA provisions pertaining to agency-owned HC-130H aircraft. Any changes or modifications to these provisions will require Congressional action.

So apparently this contract for seven people mostly working out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, will be to support one aircraft. If, however, unlike Ms. Jones’ description, they could perform these services for the entire USFS Fire and Aviation Management aircraft fleet, including contracting, it could be a worthwhile investment.

We are reminded that in June, 2015, 522 days after the USFS HC-130H acquisition began, they came to a conclusion, according to a Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

 

Forest Service to abandon Coast Guard HC-130H program

Transfer and conversion of seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers for the Forest Service is to be cancelled

Above: Tanker 118, formerly a Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, was photographed at Sacramento McClellan Airport, May 3, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

(Originally published at 8:45 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)

The U.S. Forest Service intends to abandon the program that it has been working on since 2013 to convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers for fighting wildfires.

One of them will be available for firefighting in 2018.

“FY 2018 is … the last year the agency will support the HC-130H program that was authorized within the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act”, Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson explained Friday. “The agency will seek the support of the appropriate Congressional committees to terminate the agency-owned HC-130H program in 2019. The agency has determined that the HC-130H program is no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required large air tanker needs.”

This will no doubt make the private companies that operate air tankers ecstatic. They would prefer not to have to compete with the government.

On December 27, 2013 President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.

Now, over four years later, as far as we can tell none of the seven HC-130H aircraft have made it all of the way through the maintenance, conversion, and retardant tank installation process. Between 2015 and 2017 one of the aircraft was used in a firefighting role based at Sacramento McClellan Airport. It was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods.

HC-130H 1709 Jeanie Menze
One of the Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, #1719, being transferred to the USFS; shown with Jeanine Menze–1st USCG African American female aviator. She earned her wings June 24, 2005.

To our knowledge no permanent retardant delivery systems have been installed in any of the HC-130H’s. The Air Force, responsible to coordinate the maintenance and conversions, dithered for a very long time before issuing a contract to have them installed. Then after awarding it, they cancelled it. We believe the contract has not been re-awarded. (UPDATE February 21, 2018: we confirmed that the contract was never re-awarded by the Air Force. No permanent retardant systems have been installed in the HC-130H’s.)

This was a completely new program for the U.S. Forest Service. The agency had never owned or operated a fleet of large aircraft, let along four-engine air tankers that had serious maintenance issues.

On June 1, 2015 the FS distributed a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency was not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor (GO/CO) operated venture. On that date, 522 days after Congress began the process of transferring the aircraft, the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel.

“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”

The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned”. With the first HC-130H scheduled to arrive at McClellan Airport (MCC) in Sacramento in mid-June (not mid-May as originally planned) the FS had not used the 522 days to become prepared for the beginning of a new paradigm of large air tanker use.

At the end of those 522 days, they came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

Until then, all federal air tankers, from single engine to jumbo jet sized, have been contractor owned and contractor operated (CO/CO). The actual operation and maintenance of the tankers, including the on-site, day to day safety, had been the responsibility of the privately owned companies.

In 2015 the USFS awarded contracts worth over $7 million for maintenance and operation of the HC-130’s.

In 2013 the Coast Guard wanted to get rid of these aircraft that are now around 30 years old. At least five of them needed to have the center wing boxes (CWB) replaced to make them safe to fly.
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 would be catastrophic. The total cost of a center wing box kit in 2011 was $6.7 million, including installation which takes about 10 months.

Most if not all of the seven aircraft also needed standard primary structure inspection — known as programmed depot maintenance — that takes between 180 and 200 days.

In 2014 we did some back of the envelope ciphering, estimating the costs of converting these Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers. The legislation directed that no more than $130 million be spent by the Department of Defense to modify and maintain the seven aircraft 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 is no doubt that other work would 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 would 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. Nothing you do to an aircraft is inexpensive.

Air tankers to be cut by one-third in 2018

The large air tankers on Forest Service exclusive use contracts are being cut from 20 to 13.

(Originally published at 4:29 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)

The U.S. Forest Service is cutting the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year from 20 to 13.

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues are affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner. Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased. This means less funds available for our crucial restorative work on your National Forest System lands to prevent large fires.

exclusive use air tankers contract 2018

Ms. Anderson is correct about the severity of wildfires. The number of acres burned and the average size of fires have grown exponentially over the last two decades.

average acres burned wildfires united states

The air tanker vendor that is most affected by this change is Neptune Aviation. Last year the company had 11 air tankers on EU contracts, seven BAe-146’s and four P2V’s. This year they have only four aircraft — all BAe-146’s. But compared to the competition, Neptune has done very well over the last five to six years. (A phone call to Neptune was not immediately returned.)

Ms. Anderson said the Administration’s plans for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins October 1, 2018, call for 18 EU large air tankers. However, Congress has not passed a budget for FY 2019 and based on their recent history, it may or may not happen. Continuing Resolutions which freeze spending at previous levels, have been enacted more frequently than conventional full-year budgets. And if it is passed, there is no guarantee that the Administration’s recommendations will be honored.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on EU contracts, but after the wings fell off two aged military surplus air tankers in mid-air that year killing five aviators, many of the older aircraft were eliminated for safety reasons. Little was done to restore the fleet during the following 11 years and by 2013 there were only 9 on EU contract. In 2013 a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” aircraft began. Eventually over the next few years we saw the introduction of retired jet-powered airliners that were not as old as the 50+ year-old aircraft they began to replace.

By 2016 there were 20 large air tankers on EU contracts, plus one Coast Guard HC-130H that worked from 2016 through 2017. It was one of seven being transferred to the Forest Service that since 2013 have been going through a very, very lengthy convoluted process of being converted into air tankers. The one flying then was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods. Later we will have an article on this website about the fact that the Forest Service wants to abandon the HC-130H program.

Call When Needed air tankers

In addition to the 13 large air tankers on EU contracts, 11 are signed up on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis in 2018. The companies on the list are Aero Flite, 10 Tanker, Coulson Aviation, and Neptune. If the Forest Service thinks more than 13 are needed at any one time, they can start calling around to see if any of the four companies have any that are available — not working for a state, another country, or tied up in maintenance. Or, mothballed for financial reasons. The rates for CWN aircraft are much higher than EU resources. The business model for keeping an aircraft and crew in tip top shape but sitting idle for much of the fire season, is a difficult one for most private companies to pull off.

Walt Darran, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away in 2013, 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 and crew ready to go.

call when needed air tankers contract 2018

Scoopers cut to zero

The number of scooping 1,600-gallon CL-415 air tankers is being cut from two in the first part of 2017 to zero the rest of this fiscal year, FY 18, which ends September 30, 2018. The CL-215/415 scoopers are beloved in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and other countries, but the Forest Service has always appeared to have a bias against them.

The 2012 RAND air tanker study ran simulations with from 8 to 57 scoopers being on contract. They found that at least two-thirds of historical fires have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible body of water. The report had several different models, assumptions, and variables but generally recommended more than 40 scoopers be on contract, with a lower number of conventional air tankers. The Forest Service decided to keep the taxpayer-funded report secret and not release it, even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Ultimately the RAND Corporation released the document.

Acquisition of $65 million air tanker may be cancelled

In December, 2014 the President signed legislation that included  $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. At the time, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calve, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior & Environment, said the funds would be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”.

We asked Ms. Anderson about the $65 million:

The President’s FY 2019 Budget proposes the cancellation of the $65 million for the new aircraft. The USDA Forest Service issued a solicitation to purchase Next Generation Airtankers in November, 2016. The agency cancelled the solicitation in June, 2017 after it yielded proposals with costs higher than the appropriated funds.

We thought the funds were intended to buy one of Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J’s, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million. Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door.

Reduction in helicopters continues

In 2017 there was an 18 percent reduction in the number of large Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts. That will continue in 2018.  For several years the U.S. Forest Service contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.

The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters last year was close to average, but the orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) were almost double the number of filled orders. Sixty percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

A study completed in 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

After almost four years, much work still needs to be done on the Coast Guard/USFS HC-130’s

Above: Tanker 118 at McClellan Air Field, May 3, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

This is the first photo we have seen showing U.S. Forest Service Air Tanker 118 with its latest paint job. The USFS plan is to have two of the HC-130H’s at McClellan Air Field at Sacramento (the other is T-116) while the additional five are going through heavy maintenance and retardant tank installation.  One is to be actively used as an air tanker while the second is for training, or filling in while the other is down for routine maintenance. As far as I know they are sharing just one of the slip-in MAFFS II retardant delivery units that convert a C-130 into an air tanker. It only takes a few hours to install one of the systems.

The photo below shows T-118 in 2015. Both versions show the crude looking “118” on the tail that detracts from the otherwise very acceptable new paint design. That scheme, approved in 2014, also used the crude font for the number. In addition to flying with the Coast Guard, aircraft #1721 also served with the Air Force and the Navy.

T-110 HC-130H air tanker
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015.

The Air Force, responsible for converting the Coast Guard HC-130H’s into air tankers, has been dithering for years about installing the permanent internal gravity-powered retardant delivery systems in the seven aircraft that are being transferred to the USFS. Most of the ships also need program depot maintenance including new wing boxes. That process began in 2013 when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act directing that the Air Force arrange to take care of all of the maintenance and conversion work needed on the planes. Unfortunately, Congress did not give the Air Force a required completion date.

It is interesting that private companies like Aero-Flite, 10 Tanker, Neptune, and Coulson can turn an aircraft into an air tanker in less than a year, but the work on these HC-130H’s is not expected to be complete until the end of this decade, about seven years after it started. And not a single one is finished, four years after it began.

These aircraft that the Coast Guard was happy to unload, are not getting any younger while the Air Force vacillates.  Adding another seven years while they are going through the conversions means that Tankers 116 and 118 will be 36 and 32 years old, respectively, in 2020.

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.