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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.