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.

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.

HC-130H news: Tanker 118 to be replaced by Tanker 116 at McClellan this year

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

The induction, modification, and maintenance program for the seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into the U.S. Forest Service’s government-owned air tanker fleet is requiring some shuffling of the planes. In 2015 Tanker 118 (Coast Guard #1721) operated as an air tanker out of McClellan Airfield. It did not have a conventional gravity-based retardant tank installed yet so it was temporarily outfitted with one of the eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that are normally only used by military C-130s conscripted into an air tanker role during periods of high wildfire activity.

T-118 will be going through programmed depot maintenance (PDM) at the Coast Guard facility at Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Replacing it during the 2016 fire season will be Tanker 116 (Coast Guard #1708) after its PDM is complete at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. Like its predecessor, it will use a MAFFS unit, rather than a gravity tank, and will be based at McClellan Airfield at the facility the USFS likes to call “Forest Service Air Station McClellan”.

One of the obvious differences between T-118 last year and T-116 this year will be the freshly applied USFS approved livery. The HC-130Hs are being painted as they go through PDM.

C-130 paint design Forest Service
The paint design that has been approved by the Forest Service for the seven C-130s that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service.

The plan is for all seven of the HC-130Hs to have a gravity-based retardant delivery system. Most of the maintenance and retrofitting of the aircraft, including arranging for the installation of the retardant system, is being done by the Air Force on their own schedule. There is no indication, however, that their September 17, 2014 solicitation for the retardant tanks has been awarded, after 18 months.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told us the schedule calls for the programmed depot maintenance and the installation of the retardant systems to occur on the seven aircraft between 2016 and 2020. The delivery of the first HC-130H with a new retardant delivery system is expected in late 2017 or early 2018 with incremental delivery of the remaining aircraft through 2019.

Not all Forest Service aircraft are FAA type certified

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. The aircraft will be maintained and operated according to Coast Guard guidelines, rather than Federal Aviation Administration procedures.

After the Governor of Montana wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Agriculture complaining about what he called “nonsensical restrictions” that prohibit the use of the state’s five UH-1H helicopters on U.S. Forest Service protected lands, we started looking into the root of the problem. The former military helicopters are actually owned by the USFS, and are leased to the state under the provisions of the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program which require that the helicopters be maintained in full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. But the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) apparently does not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates for the helicopters.

However, the USFS does not maintain all of their government owned aircraft in strict compliance with FAA regulations.

When we asked the USFS why the agency does not allow the non-certificated Montana aircraft to be used on USFS lands, Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones, told us:

The Forest Service and the State of Montana Department have different standards and regulations to which each must adhere. Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety.

The USFS and the rules governing the loan of FEEP aircraft require the Montana helicopters to be maintained and modified according to FAA standards. Since these requirements are not met, the helicopters can’t be used on USFS fires.

Even though the USFS requires compliance with FAA procedures for their contracted air tankers and helicopters — and the state of Montana’s aircraft — the following USFS aircraft are not FAA certified, nor will they be:

  • Tanker 118, the HC-130H acquired from the Coast Guard that has been dropping retardant on fires this summer using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Neither the aircraft or the MAFFS have ever been certificated by the FAA.
  • The other six HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.
  • Four C-23A Sherpas used for smokejumping and hauling cargo.
  • Two AH-1 Cobra helicopters.
  • The eight MAFFS units used in military C-130s for fighting wildfires, and the modifications made to the C-130s so that they can use the MAFFS.

After the seven HC-130H aircraft are finished with their heavy maintenance and air tanker retrofitting, they will be owned by the USFS and maintained and operated by contractors. But they will not be brought under the FAA umbrella, according to Mrs. Jones:

The U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting mission is a Public Use mission in government owned aircraft. The Forest Service maintains airworthiness on Tanker 118 in accordance with Coast Guard maintenance standards, and the Coast Guard maintains engineering authority.

The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130s used to drop retardant with the MAFFS are maintained, modified, and operated according to military procedures.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS solicitation for the Next-generation V. 2.0 air tankers, issued November 26, 2014. From Section C:

Aircraft shall conform to an approved type design, be maintained and operated in accordance with Type Certificate (TC) requirements and applicable Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs). The aircraft shall be maintained in accordance with an FAA approved inspection program and must include an FAA approved Supplemental Structural Inspection Document (SSID), Structural Inspection Document (SID), or Instruction for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) for the airframe structure, as applicable with an ICA and Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS) approved by the manufacturer (or equivalent) and the FAA for the airtanker role.

The USFS is not the only federal agency operating former military aircraft that bypasses the FAA. Others include the Coast Guard, NASA, and NOAA.

We asked a person in the commercial air tanker industry (who did not want their name disclosed) about the USFS not following FAA procedures:

The FAA governs the largest fleet of commercial aircraft in the world and are looked upon by foreign agencies as the golden standard. They can certify an A380 to pack 700 people but cannot certify a restricted category airtanker? The USFS is hiring a ton of ex-military people who all stick together with their other Air Force buddies and think the military is the be-all-end-all.

I think it would be fair to argue that the FAA knows much more about airtankers than the Air Force or the Coast Guard. The USCG maintenance program is not setup for an airtanker mission profile, nor is the USAF. I talked to the FAA guy who was on all the calls with the USFS about this program and he was in disbelief when they finally made the decision not to have any FAA involvement.

Wyoming politicians ask USFS to base HC-130H tankers in their state

MAFFS air tanker at Cheyenne, Wyoming
A Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 MAFFS air tanker during annual training at Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 7, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Representative and the two Senators from Wyoming have asked the U.S. Forest service to base their seven-aircraft fleet of HC-130H air tankers in the state. Cheyenne and Greybull were two airports suggested by the politicians as possible locations for the aircraft that are in the process of being converted into air tankers after being discarded by the Coast Guard.

Below is an excerpt from an AP article:

The Cheyenne airport and the airport in Greybull, in particular, are eager to have the HC-130H search-and-rescue/reconnaissance planes the Forest Service has begun acquiring from the U.S. Coast Guard, Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis wrote Tuesday to U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie.

At the airport in Greybull, B&G Industries LLC has a new runway and a hangar facility with room for two aircraft, the delegation wrote.

Cheyenne Regional Airport has a move-in-ready facility and can offer the government fuel incentives and cost-sharing in snow removal and de-icing, they added.

“We ask that you consider all viable Wyoming facilities in your search for a long-term facility for the Forest Service aircraft,” they wrote…

On September 2, 2015 the USFS formally requested information from facilities that could support the seven-aircraft 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.

Below is an excerpt from the RFI:

The USFS would like to analyze current and potential air tanker bases to determine infrastructure capabilities and deficiencies, specifically the adequacy of airtanker base design, airtanker base operations, geographic/range efficiency, and airtanker base personnel staffing, qualifications and training regarding the utilization of commercial grade jet aircraft as “Next Generation” Airtankers. Part of the assessment will include travel to the air tanker bases, interviews with key stakeholders, review of Agency handbooks and Operational guides, providing recommendations and cost estimates (for improvements).

It is unlikely that more than one or two of the seven HC-130s 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.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Tanker 118 in the air over McClellan

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

Air Tanker 118 saw activity Saturday on the Lowell Fire near Gold Run, California 46 miles northeast of Sacramento. This aircraft is one of seven that are in the process of being refurbished and converted into air tankers after being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. Yesterday’s mission may have been the first time the HC-130H has dropped on a fire.

The conversion process is not quite complete on T-118. It still needs a permanent internal gravity-based retardant tank and a paint job. Until the tank is installed, it will continue to use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) slip-in unit that used compressed air to force the retardant out of the 3,000-gallon tank, turning the thickened retardant into a mist.

The photos were taken Saturday at McClellan Airport by Jon Wright. Thanks Jon!

The Union has a photo of T-118 dropping retardant over the Reynolds Fire on Saturday, July 25.

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

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave and Jon.

USFS HC-130H air tanker to be available for duty this week

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, being prepped for air tanker duty at McClellan, June 8, 2015. DRS photo by Phil Welker. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service is making one of their HC-130H air tankers, Tanker 118, available for wildfire suppression missions this week. The aircraft is one of seven that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS, but the titles for all of them still remain with the Coast Guard.

The work on Tanker 118 to completely convert it into an air tanker is not complete. It needs a conventional internal gravity-based retardant tank, and obviously, a paint job that will hopefully include some professionally crafted tanker numbers on the tail.

Tanker 118 arrived at McClellan Airport on June 17, where maintenance, installation and testing of the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS), and contractor pilot and maintenance crew training have been taking place, including training with a lead plane.

The aircraft and personnel will be working out of Forest Service Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC) in Sacramento, California adjacent to the Coast Guard station at the airport. A search for a permanent base of operations for all seven HC-130H aircraft is underway.

While the Forest Service and Coast Guard will jointly own and manage Tanker 118 until all of the necessary modifications are complete, the Forest Service has contracted with Consolidated Air Support Systems (CASS) of Temecula, California for aircrew services and with DRS Technologies of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for maintenance.  Tanker 118 will only fly wildfire suppression missions within 500 nautical miles of FSAS MCC so that it can return each night for maintenance by contract crews and support from Coast Guard crews.

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

Until the aircraft receives the conventional, permanent retardant tank after the 2016 fire season, it will be using one of the eight MAFFS units that have been assigned to four Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve bases that operate C-130s. The MAFFS units, which can be inserted into a C-130 in a matter of hours, hold up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant that is forced out of the tank by compressed air, turning the thickened retardant into a mist.

MAFFS unit
A MAFFS before it is installed in a C-130. It is transported to the aircraft on the green trailer, which is not loaded onto the aircraft. US Air Force photo.

The MAFFS unit that will be used by T-118 is from the 145th Airlift Wing with the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte. That leaves seven MAFFS units that can be activated if there is a need for additional air tankers.

The other six HC-130Hs still need major work, including demilitarization, wing and airframe modifications, designing, contracting for, manufacturing and installing retardant tanks, and equipping them with radios, Aircraft Flight Following, and other equipment. The USFS expects to have all seven HC-130Hs fully functional and absorbed into the air tanker fleet by 2019.

When Tanker 118 comes into service, it will be operated with the 14 existing large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Recently the USFS temporarily activated an additional seven air tankers using the Call When Needed contracts that were awarded in June:

  • T-02 (N474NA) Neptune BAe-146 (presently on loan to Canada)
  • T-40 (N146FF) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-163 (N366AC) Aero Flite RJ-85
  • T-41 (N471NA) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-911 (N17085) 10 Tanker DC-10
  • T-162 (N355AC) Aero Flite RJ 85
  • T-01 (N473NA) Neptune BAe-146

That makes 22 large air tankers that are available now, counting the 14 on exclusive use contracts, the one USFS HC-130H, and the seven that are on temporary call-up assignments. But those seven CWN tankers can be sent home anytime.

Having 15 air tankers on exclusive use contracts is the most since 2010 when there were 19. There have not been 22 air tankers on EU contracts since 2004 when we had 27. In 2002, 44 large air tankers were on EU contracts.

Graph, request for large air tankers

The USFS is trying to award “up to seven” additional EU contracts for next-generation air tankers. They hoped to have them working by May 30, but protests about the contracting process by two companies brought that process to a halt. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit. The OMB is required to reach their decisions by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s.

On July 8 the GAO issued their decision on Coulson’s protest, and it was denied. They still have not decided on Erickson’s, due on July 17. We believe that if both protests are denied, the USFS can immediately, or as soon as they can, award additional EU contracts for air tankers.

Contract awarded for maintenance of USFS HC-130H air tankers

Tanker 118, 1721
Air Tanker 118. This is the first former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H to be delivered to McClellan Airport. It still needs painting, and to have a conventional retardant tank installed. The Air Force and Coast Guard text and logos have been removed. This is a USFS photo, the date and location are unknown, but it was not taken at McClellan. HERE is an article with a photo of the aircraft that was taken October 24, 2014.

On June 5, 2015 the U.S. Forest Service awarded a $1,193,429 contract for the maintenance of the HC-130H aircraft it will be using for air tankers. DRS Technical Services, Inc., out of Herndon, Virginia, must provide a total of 17 mechanics and avionics/electrical technicians in the Primary, Secondary, and Back Shop crews. The contract will initially be for a nine month period (originally planned to be June 1 through January), with options to extend for an additional two full years. Services will be provided five days a week during the non-fire season, and seven days a week during the fire season.

DRS Technical Services, Inc., appears to be a division of DRS Technologies, a Finmeccanica company. They have multiple contracts with the Department of  Defense, with most being far larger than the USFS contract.

A $6 million contract for air crews to fly the aircraft was awarded April 27, 2015 to CASS Professional Services Corp, headquartered in Temecula, California. The jobs will be initially filled for a nine month period with options to extend the term of the contract for an additional two years.

The Air Force still has not awarded the contract for the retardant delivery system, AKA the conventional internal gravity-based retardant tank. They have been fiddling with the contract solicitation since July 29, 2014 — it changed 14 times. The final due date for bids was May 15, 2015.