Forest Service intends to buy new air tanker

The specifications appear to match Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J.

The U.S. Forest Service is advertising for the purchase of at least one new aircraft that will be used as an air tanker. A solicitation issued November 18, 2016 indicates that the agency intends to buy between one and seven “new production commercial aircraft to operate primarily as airtankers”. This procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.

As far as we know this will be the first time, in recent decades anyway, that a U.S. land management agency has purchased a NEW air tanker.

The seven HC-130H’s that the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard will be operated and maintained by contractors after they are converted to air tankers.

Coulson operates two C-130 type aircraft as air tankers, a C-130Q and an L-100-30 (382G), with the latter being an earlier demilitarized stretched variant of the C-130. As this is written they are both working on firefighting contracts in Australia during their summer bushfire season.

LM-100J
LM-100J. The image shows it equipped with a pressurized MAFFS retardant system, but the USFS aircraft will have a more conventional gravity-powered system. Lockheed modified a photo of a MAFFS air tanker that was taken by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico April 22, 2013 during the annual MAFFS training near Fairplay, Colorado.

There is speculation that the $65 million appropriation was targeted to buy a new variant of Lockheed Martin’s C-130J, the LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J.

In Fiscal Year 2015 the Defense Department paid $88.9 million for each C-130J. The stripped down LM-130J is expected to sell for about $65 million. Lockheed is planning test flights of the new aircraft in the first half of 2017 with deliveries beginning the following year. Portions of the plane are being made in Marietta, Georgia; Meridian, Mississippi; Clarksburg, West Virginia; and India.

After the appropriations bill passed in 2014, Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert of California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky.

Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said,

…supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.

Some important specifications in the USFS solicitation match those of the LM-100J, including max normal takeoff weight, capable of operating from unimproved airfields, payload, cruise speed, multiple turbine engines, and a door that incorporates stairs.

Vendors can choose to equip the aircraft with two options:

  • A gravity powered retardant delivery system that would hold at least 3,000 gallons, and,
  • A pallet-based seating system for 40 passengers that can be installed or removed in less than 2 hours.

The Coulson company has the contract to install retardant delivery systems in the seven HC-130H aircraft the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard. It is likely those will be similar to the two systems already in use in Coulson’s two C-130 type aircraft.

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. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $522,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.

Tom Harbour
Tom Harbour

Tom Harbour, the former National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service who retired at the end of last year has mentioned several times his affinity for the C-130 platform as an air tanker. In what we called his “exit interview”, he talked about it at 9:27 in the video, saying:

I like the 130-J and I told folks before and I’ll tell folks after, I like that 130J.

But he said he had no plans to work for Lockheed Martin after his retirement.

Lockheed Martin develops small drone to work with remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter to fight wildfire

K-MAX and Stalker
The Stalker XE UAS directed the unmanned K-MAX cargo helicopter to conduct water drops at a precise location to extinguish a fire. The Stalker XE and K-MAX operated in collaboration with a prototype UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system, which provides essential capabilities to enable safe UAS operations.

In October Lockheed Martin demonstrated for wildland fire officials in the Boise area the use of a remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter for dropping water on a simulated fire and delivering externally-carried cargo. Now the company is developing a system that uses a small drone to work with the K-MAX to communicate with Air Traffic Control in real time.

Below is the text of a news release.

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“Lockheed Martin demonstrated its ability to integrate unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations into the National Airspace System (NAS) using its prototype UAS Traffic Management (UTM) capabilities, the company said in a Dec. 2 release.

During the demonstration on Nov. 18, the Stalker XE UAS provided data and a precise geolocation to the unmanned K-MAX cargo helicopter, which conducted water drops to extinguish a fire, while the UTM tracked the UAS operations and communicated with Air Traffic Control in real time.

“This demonstration represents the path forward for flying UAS in the NAS using Flight Service-based UTM capabilities to extend the technology and systems that air traffic controllers know and understand,” Paul Engola, vice president, Transportation & Financial Solutions, said in the release. “We were able to successfully modify the existing K-MAX and Stalker XE ground control software to connect to the UTM services and conduct the firefighting mission.”

For more than 80 years, manned aircraft have supported firefighting missions during daylight hours. Because unmanned K-MAX can fly day and night, in all weather, its insertion into firefighting operations offers the potential to triple the amount of time ground firefighters can receive aerial support.

The Stalker XE UAS worked in tandem with K-MAX to identify hot spots and fire intensity with its electro-optical, infrared camera. Its stable, high definition imaging capabilities enable day and night operations. Powered by a ruggedized solid oxide fuel cell, Stalker XE achieves more than eight hours of flight endurance.”

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K-MAX helicopter fire
Image produced by Lockheed Martin of a wildland firefighter and a K-MAX helicopter. Click to enlarge. (It is obviously a created rather than an actual image, since the shadows of the firefighter and the helicopter go in opposite directions.)

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

Remotely-piloted helicopter demonstrates dropping water on a simulated fire

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water
A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during testing before an October 14, 2015 demonstration east of Boise, ID. Screen grab from Lockheed Martin video.

Wildland fire officials from federal agencies on Wednesday watched a remotely-piloted helicopter dropping water on a simulated fire and hauling cargo in an external load. The K-MAX helicopter shown today, which almost qualifies as a Type 1 helicopter, has been configured by the Lockheed Martin and K-Max Corporations to be either flown by a pilot on board, or a pilot in a remote location.

Ironically the demonstration occurred on a day when smoke was visible in the air from the 4,200-acre Walker Fire, 13 miles north of the Lucky Peak Helibase where the demo took place east of Boise, Idaho. A safety pilot was on board in case a problem developed.

The hour and a half demonstration included the following missions:

  • Spot drop – 100 feet
  • Spot drop – 55 feet
  • Trailing drop – 55 feet both at the demo area and at the ridge
  • Carousel delivery – 55 feet, two each to the demo area and on the ridge
  • Backhaul Cargo from the ridge – 150 feet

(The video above was shot by Lockheed Martin during testing prior to an October 14, 2015 demonstration of a remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter dropping water on on a simulated wildfire.)

Below is an excerpt from an AP article:

The K-MAX demonstrated Wednesday has three communication methods, using line of sight and two different satellite links. The craft can be remotely controlled, but it also flies autonomously after being told what to do.

Even if it loses contact with ground controllers, it can complete a task, officials said. It can also be programmed to fly to a specific landing zone on its own if it loses communication for a pre-set amount of time, such as 10 minutes.

“The technology of the auto-control for the aircraft is not really the hard part. It’s all this sensor technology that integrates with the autopilot to tell the helicopter where it’s at”, said Mark Bathrick, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services.

Lockheed Martin-configured unmanned K-MAXs delivered thousands of loads of supplies and equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, carrying more than 4.5 million pounds of cargo, sometimes through areas that would be considered unacceptably risky for human pilots.

Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, the K-MAX helicopters in Afghanistan followed a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and required human intervention only to get started.

If this technology matures to the point where fire officials would feel comfortable using it on actual fires, a helicopter like the K-MAX could be flown during the day (the old fashioned way) with a pilot on board, and then during smoky conditions or at night when most other firefighting aircraft are grounded it could still be effective — dropping water to slow down a fire when the blaze is most vulnerable to suppression activity. Fires usually more more slowly at night and a water drop when the temperature is lower and the relative humidity is higher would be more effective as long as firefighters were on the ground and able to take advantage of the temporary slowing of the fire’s spread.

Congress appropriated $65M for the air tanker fleet — now what?

LM-100J
Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J

The omnibus federal appropriations bill that was just passed by Congress included a provision to allocate $65 million for the U. S. Forest Service air tanker fleet.

Specifically:

…for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such aircraft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National Forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the Forest Service…

Over a couple of days we attempted to find out what, exactly, the Forest Service is going to do with this $65 million that is now burning a hole in their pockets. We checked with the agency last week after the House approved the bill and were at first told they would not discuss it until the bill passed. Then the Senate approved it on Saturday, December 13 and the President said he would sign it this week. In response to our inquiry, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the Forest Service said on December 14:

We are continuing to work towards bringing 18 to 28 modern airtankers into service as outlined in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy we submitted to Congress in 2012. If this bill passes and is signed into law we will use the funding to further those efforts and we will be happy to provide specifics once we have them worked out.

To summarize, the official word is, the Forest Service says they don’t know how they will spend the 65 million in taxpayer dollars. This would tend to indicate, if true, that the request to place the provision in the appropriations bill came from somewhere other than the agency or the administration. That leaves congressmen and senators.

We began checking with the usual suspects, the Senators who have been vocal over the last two years about rebuilding the atrophied air tanker fleet. No one in the offices of John McCain, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, or Lisa Murkowski wanted to take credit for the proposal. Next we called the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, and struck pay dirt in the House.

Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert from California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers.

Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said, “supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.”

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, Jennifer Hing, had a similar response, saying, “The funding is for the acquisition/purchase of new aircraft.”

If it is actually true, that the Forest Service will buy one or more new aircraft to serve as air tankers, it will be the first time in 40 to 50 years, if ever. Historically since the 1960s anyway, they have contracted with private companies to supply and operate air tankers and have not owned outright any, to our knowledge. This was known as a Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated (CO/CO) system and was the paradigm until seven used C-130Hs were “given” to the Forest Service by the Coast Guard earlier this year. They are undergoing maintenance and retrofitting by the Air Force, and are expected to begin entering the USFS fleet in Fiscal Year 2018. The aircraft will be Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO).  A joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. This is probably a wise decision since the Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics.

What kind of new, next-generation air tanker will $65 million buy?

It would probably buy a couple of Russian designed Be-200s. They might even be made by a Colorado company, although who knows if the aircraft will ever be certified to operate in the United States.

In FY 2015 the Defense Department expects to pay $88.9 million for each C-130J. However, Lockheed Martin has started selling a less expensive civilian version, the LM-100J, which will be priced at around $65 million. Coincidence? Well, keep in mind that 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. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $380,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.

If the Forest Service and their Inspector General’s Office have the balls to buy an aircraft at the request of a lobbyist who was the former boss of the Chief of the Forest Service, then the agency might end up with a brand new LM-100J.

Maybe Mr. Rey will autograph it as it rolls off the factory floor in Marietta, Georgia.

What are your thoughts about how the Forest Service should spend their $65 million, which according to the legislation is supposed to go toward “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation air tanker fleet”.