The first Coast Guard HC-130H converted to an air tanker for USFS to be available in August

C-130H paint design
HC-130H paint design, by Scheme Designers

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.

Coast Guard HC-130H 1721
Coast Guard HC-130H #1721, will be one of the first two Coast Guard HC-130Hs to be used by the USFS. Photo by Alan Stern 10-24-2014.

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.

500 nm radius from Sacramento
Map showing 500 nm radius from Sacramento.

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.

Coast Guard HC-130H 1708
Coast Guard HC-130H #1708, will be one of the first two Coast Guard HC-130Hs to be used by the USFS. Photo by Andrew Sieber 7-20-2009.

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
  • Hours: 5,194
  • 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
  • Hours: 22,807
  • The center wing box will be replaced at the Programmed Depot Maintenance

Contract for air crew

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 following jobs will be initially filled for a nine month period with options to extend the term of the contract for an additional two years.

  • 1 C-130H Qualified Contractor Aircrew Project Manager
  • 2 MAFFS II Qualified Instructor Pilots,
  • 1 US Coast Guard Qualified Flight Engineer Instructor, or US Air Force Qualified FE Instructor
  • 2 MAFFS II Qualified Load Master Instructors

Retardant tank

The Air Force has issued a solicitation for gravity-based fire retardant tanks:

…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.

If you want to know more about what is involved in replacing wing boxes, check out the article we wrote last year, Wing box replacements in the USFS C-130s.

Only one USFS C-130H to be operational this year

Coast Guard C-130H Number 1709
Coast Guard C-130H Number 1709, one of the aircraft to be transferred to the USFS. Photo October, 2008 by Bob Garrard.

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.