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.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave and Jon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The U.S. Forest Service says “We don’t know what we don’t know” about managing a new government-owned air tanker program.
The U.S. Forest Service is struggling to figure out how to manage a new, very complex, government-owned large air tanker program. 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.
On June 1, 2015 the FS distributed a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency is 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 has 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 now, 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, has been the responsibility of the privately owned companies. Even though some high-ranking officials in the agency have been asking for brand new GO/CO C-130J air tankers for years, they appear to be woefully unprepared now that they received a version of what they have been begging for.
The first two HC-130Hs to arrive at MCC this summer will be 27 and 31 years old. It is likely that they will require more safety oversight than a new C-130 right off the assembly line.
On January 20, 2015 we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Service asking for copies of plans related to the management of the HC-130H GO/CO air tanker program. The agency refused to comply with the request, telling us on March 19, 2015, that basically there were no completed plans:
The records related to the C-130H Aircraft Transfer, which you requested, exist only in draft and contain opinions, recommendations, and advice. It is important to protect these discussions, which may help formulate the Forest Service’s opinions and to release the draft would likely stifle honest and frank communication within and outside the Forest Service.
We checked with the FS again today, June 8, 2015, asking if any plans had been developed. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the agency, said, “An operational plan will be in place prior to the aircraft being available for wildfire response” in July.
The first of the seven HC-130Hs that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service will arrive at Forest Service Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC) in mid-June, not mid-May as originally planned. And yes, that is what the Forest Service is calling their facility at McClellan Airport in Sacramento, California.
The aircraft will still be a work in progress when it lands at MCC. It will not have the paint job as seen above, but will be gray and white with U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System MAFFS markings, according to Jennifer Jones, a USFS spokesperson for the USFS. The gravity-based retardant tank will not have been installed, so it will be temporarily operating with a MAFFS pressurized 3,000-gallon tank. It will also need to depart at some point for scheduled Programmed Depot Maintenance, painting, and retardant tank installation.
The USFS expects that it will be available to fly firefighting missions by August. It will usually be be restricted to fires within 500 nautical miles (575 miles) of MCC so that it can return there each day where both the USFS contract maintenance and U.S. Coast Guard support crews will be located. Missions at a greater distance and staying away from the base will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
A second HC-130H is expected to arrive at MCC in August and will only be used for flight crew training. It will also be a work in progress but should be sporting the new USFS paint scheme. Its Programmed Depot Maintenance will have been completed but it will still need to have a gravity-based retardant tank installed.
We are now using the model name “HC-130H” for these aircraft originally purchased by the U.S. Coast Guard. The first “H” indicates that it is an extended-range, search and rescue variant of the C-130 Hercules. It cruises slightly faster than the C-130H and has twice the range, capable of flying from Missoula, Montana to London non-stop. According to Wikipedia, the HC-130H has the following performance characteristics:
Maximum speed: 330 knots (380 mph, 611 km/h)
Cruise speed: 290 knots (333 mph, 537 km/h)
Range: 4,500 nm (5,178 mi, 8,334 km)
Service ceiling: 33,000 ft (10,000 m)
The first two aircraft to arrive at MCC this summer are 27 and 31 years old. If, after various federal government agencies invest up to $130 million in the conversion of the aircraft, and if the USFS keeps them for 20 years, at that point they will be about the same age as the P2Vs that have been falling out of the sky at an alarming rate over the last 15 years.
We are not sure which HC-130H will arrive first (we are guessing T-118) but here are more details:
Air Tanker 118
Coast Guard #1721
Lockheed Martin SN 5121
Transferred from Lockheed to the USCG 6/16/1988
The center wing box will not be replaced at the Programmed Depot Maintenance due to the low number of hours
Air Tanker 116
Coast Guard #1708
Lockheed Martin SN 5002
Transferred from Lockheed to the USCG 9/17/1984
The center wing box will be replaced at the Programmed Depot Maintenance
…design, manufacture, and installation of a 3,500 gallon Retardant Delivery System (RDS) for seven (7) HC-130H aircraft. There will be a basic contract with one (1) trial kit/install, one (1) verification kit/install, and three (3) production kits/install. There will be an option for two (2) additional production kits/installs. Effort includes but is not limited to: RDS development, manufacture and installation, structural modifications, and maintenance and inspection plans.
The upper portion of the tank above the floor will be removable and have the ability to disperse 3,500 gallons.
Contract for maintenance
A contract for maintenance of the aircraft is being advertised now with a response date of May 29, 2015. The contractor 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 (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.
The other five HC-130H aircraft
Most of the work on the one or two aircraft that will initially be operated as MAFFS is being done at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and at the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in North Carolina.
Jennifer Jones told us that the location of the work that will be done on the other five HC-130Hs will be determined once the U.S. Air Force has awarded a contract for it. Work that needs to be done on these aircraft includes demilitarization; performing wing and airframe modifications; designing, contracting for, manufacturing and installing retardant tanks; and equipping them with radios, Aircraft Flight Following, and other equipment. The U.S. Air Force will perform center and outer wing-box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity fed aerial fire retardant delivery system (RDS) in each aircraft before they can be brought into U.S. Forest Service operation for firefighting missions.
The U.S. Forest Service has changed their plans about how many C-130H aircraft that are in the process of being retrofitted and transferred from the Coast Guard, will be operational this year as air tankers. On February 4 their intent was to have two of the C-130Hs this summer, both outfitted temporarily with the MAFFS pressurized internal retardant tanks, rather than a conventional gravity-based retardant tank. One would be used on fires within 500 nautical miles (575 statute miles) of McClellan, California, and the other aircraft would have been used as a training platform until it departed for programmed depot-level maintenance in the Fall of CY 2015.
Their revised plan is to have only one C-130H operational this summer and it would still be used only on fires within 500 nautical miles of McClellan. Aircraft 1721 is scheduled for delivery to Warner Robins Air Force Base for “MAFFS panel installation” around March 13, and should arrive at McClellan by mid-May. There appear to be no other changes to the schedule. The last of the seven C-130Hs are expected to be delivered, with internal gravity-based retardant tanks, in FY 2019. The details are in our February 9 article.
A related issue is the crews to fly and maintain the C-130H this summer. After issuing a Request for Information in January, asking if anyone was interested in supplying crews to fly the aircraft, the USFS still has not published a final solicitation for the aircrews or for a company to maintain the C-130Hs. A document that we obtained that was distributed in early March, said, “Contract Solicitations for Pilot Services and Maintenance Providers continue to be reviewed and edited.”
After having over a year of lead time to nail down the management and operation of this air tanker project that is new to the USFS, it would be a shame to see the aircraft sit, collecting dust, at McClellan after it arrives in mid-May.
Fire Aviation has obtained a document produced by the U.S. Forest Service which indicates they expect to receive the seven former Coast Guard C-130H aircraft between Fiscal Years 2017 and 2019 after they have been converted into airtankers — two in 2017, three in 2018, and the last two in 2019. (The federal fiscal year begins in October.) This is a year later than information the Chief of the USFS, Tom Tidwell, provided to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July of 2014.
Last month the agency’s announced plan, until the seven aircraft have been fully converted to air tankers with conventional gravity-based retardant tanks, was to operate one C-130H in 2015 and 2016 with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) installed “to provide an initial capability and to gain experience in operating the aircraft while wing and airframe modifications are being completed and gravity tanks are being developed and installed”, according to Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service in January, 2015.
The document we received, dated February 4, 2015, states the USFS will have two of the C-130Hs this summer, both outfitted with the MAFFS pressurized internal retardant tanks, rather than a conventional gravity-based retardant tank. One will be used on fires within 500 nautical miles (575 statute miles) of McClellan, California, and the other aircraft will be used as a training platform until it departs for programmed depot-level maintenance in the Fall of CY 2015.
Two weeks ago we asked the Forest Service when the converted C-130Hs would be delivered and were told by a spokesperson they would receive them “beginning in 2017, but we don’t have a specific schedule available yet”.
The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 passed in December of 2013 required that the seven aircraft be transferred from the Coast Guard to the Air Force where they will be updated with new wing boxes as needed, receive retardant tank systems, and any necessary programmed depot-level maintenance. After the conversions, they will be owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but operated and maintained under contract by private companies while being used to help suppress wildfires.
It is our understanding that two of the seven aircraft received new wing boxes before the transfer from the Coast Guard was initiated. Fire Aviation wrote a detailed article in January, 2014 about the wing box program and other work that must be done to the C-130Hs — at a cost not to exceed $130 million.
The total cost of a center wing box kit in 2011 was $6.7 million, including installation which takes about 10 months. The programmed depot-level maintenance takes 6 to 7 months. It would probably take several months to install a 3,500-gallon retardant tank in the C-130s. The Air Force has already issued a Request for Information for the tanks.
When the last of the C-130Hs are received in FY2019, we believe they will be from 42 to 46 years old. If they last 20 additional years, they will be 62 to 66 years old, about the same age as the dangerously old Korean War vintage P2Vs still being used today as air tankers that have an alarming crash history. One could debate about how high a priority it is to secure our homeland from wildfires.
We scoured the Forest Service document to sort out the details about the schedule for incorporating the C-130Hs into the Forest Service fleet, and put them in the table below. Click it to see a larger version.
The numbers the Coast Guard assigned to the seven aircraft that are being transferred to the USFS are 1706, 1708, 1709, 1713, 1714, 1719, and 1721.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Air Force are taking steps toward installing fire retardant tanks and hiring flight crews for the seven C-130Hs that the USFS acquired from the Coast Guard. The aircraft will be converted into air tankers and will be Government Owned but Contractor Operated (GO/CO).
The Air Force is responsible for performing the required maintenance, replacing the wing boxes as needed, and purchasing and installing retardant tanks in the aircraft. They have issued a Request For Proposals for up to seven “Retardant Delivery Systems” that would have a 3,500-gallon capacity. The presolicitation RFP was first issued in July, but has been changed or amended 12 times. The latest response due date is January 23, 2015. It is obvious that until now the Air Force has never solicited for an air tanker fire retardant tank.
Meanwhile, the USFS has issued a Request for Information (RFI) about potential contractors that would be interested in providing crew(s) for the C-130Hs. They do not intend to award contracts based on the request for information — presumably that would occur later.
The agency’s plan is to operate one C-130H in 2015 and 2015 with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) installed “to provide an initial capability and to gain experience in operating the aircraft while wing and airframe modifications are being completed and gravity tanks are being developed and installed”, according to Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service.
The USFS does not mention how many crews they would need, but they describe a crew as having 5 personnel:
2 US Air Force Trained C-130H/J MAFFS II Qualified Instructor Pilots,
1 US Coast Guard trained C-130H Instructor Flight Engineer, and
2 US Air Force Trained C-130H/J MAFFS II Qualified Instructor Loadmasters
The aircrew must be current and qualified in the aforementioned requirements within the last two years from the date the solicitation closes. It will be interesting to see how difficult or easy it will be to meet that specification.
The RFI indicates that the aircrew members would be based in Sacramento, California for one year with the option for an additional two years.
In addition, a Project Manager qualified as a U.S. Military C-130H Instructor Pilot will be required to oversee the contractual requirements from Boise, Idaho at the National Interagency Fire Center.
Mrs. Jones said the RFI applies only to the single C-130H that they expect to operate in 2015 and 2016 with a MAFFS tank.
The aircrew description indicates that it would be structured so that they could utilize the slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that have been used since the 1970s in Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard aircraft when there are not enough contracted air tankers available during a busy fire season. A MAFFS has two air compressors that pressurize the 3,000-gallon tank in order to force the retardant out a large pipe that exits the aircraft on the left side through a modified paratroop door.
In a MAFFS-outfitted C-130, two loadmasters operate the MAFFS retardant unit. If the “new” USFS C-130Hs are equipped with a conventional gravity-based retardant tank, it is unlikely that any loadmasters would be necessary.
Planning for seven GO/CO air tankers
Mrs. Jones said the additional six C-130Hs will be brought into service “beginning in 2017, but we don’t have a specific schedule available yet”. We asked for copies of plans the USFS may have about how to incorporate into the fleet and then manage the seven C-130Hs under the new Government Owned/Contractor Operated program. We were told that information would only be available through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The USFS will have similar issues with the 15 Shorts C-23B Sherpa aircraft that they received from the military at the same time they got the C-130Hs.
While we wait for the FOIA request to be honored, lets take a look at the scope of the new GO/CO program.
We asked Jack Kendall of OK Aviation what a typical used C-130H would sell for. He said the price varies a lot based on the number of hours on the airframe, the status of programmed maintenance, how much work would have to be done in the cockpit, and whether or not a new C-130J-style wing box has been installed. But he said generally they would sell for $12,000,000 to $20,000,000. Assuming the mid-range price of $15,000,000, the USFS has approximately$105,000,000 worth of C-130Hs if they had been bought on the open market.
In addition, before the aircraft are finally turned over to the USFS, the Air Force is authorized to spend up to $130,000,000 for all of the maintenance and modification work, including installing new wing boxes in at least five of them and putting retardant tanks in all seven. Any additional work would have be paid for by the USFS.
Using these very rough figures, it works out to a program worth about $795,000,000 over ten years. And that does not take into account the 15 Shorts C-23B Sherpas which will probably be used for smokejumpers, cargo, paracargo, and personnel transport.
More than three-quarters of a billion dollars of taxpayer money for the seven aircraft is a very, very large program, especially when it is something the USFS has never done — the beginning of a new GO/CO paradigm. No doubt, as in any major new program, mistakes will be made.
We hope the agency is prepared to take on this new responsibility.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”Antoine de Saint-Exupery