The air tanker industry’s opinion on the C27J as an air tanker

C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

A trade association that represents aerial firefighting companies, including Neptune Aviation, has issued a news release about the push by some politicians for the U.S. Forest Service to accept some C27J aircraft no longer wanted by the U.S. Air Force so that they could be converted into air tankers. If this occurred, it could upset the current paradigm of contractor-owned, contractor-operated air tankers, depending on how the owner/operator arrangement was configured.

Neptune’s direction has been to convert BAe-146 airliners into air tankers, at a considerable investment of time and money. Two are complete and were used last year on fires. They have at least one more at their Missoula facility that they intend to convert, with plans to eventually replace all of their P2Vs with the newer BAe-146s.

Below is the complete text of the news release issued today by the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association. It is a revised version of what the Association sent out earlier, which had a misquote from, uh, Bill Gabbert. They fixed it, thankfully, before it was widely distributed.

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“Industry Group Cites Problems With Military Aircraft Acquisition By Forest Service

Washington, DC, May 9, 2013

Association (AHSAFA) has cited significant airframe modification and operational issues, should the US Forest Service (USFS) pursue a proposal to acquire surplus C27J cargo aircraft for deployment as air tankers in wildland firefighting.

Under the National Defense Authorization Act of FY 2013, up to 14 of the twin-engine, turboprop airplanes—built in Italy by Alenia–would be transferred to the USFS, at no cost, from the Air Force, which no longer wants them. In a recent development, South Dakota Senators John Thune and Tim Johnson, as well as South Dakota Representative Kristi Noem, sent a letter to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell urging the agency to consider the C27J option. AHSAFA, however, alerted Congress and the USFS that it would be years before those aircraft would be mission-ready and that private industry offers a more immediate solution to increasing the number of large air tankers, and replacing the aging aircraft slated for retirement.

“What Congress fails to understand is that there is no existing, off-shelf, permanently mounted, or roll on/roll off tanking system available for those aircraft,” said Tom Eversole, AHSAFA’s Executive Director in Washington. “The engineering, design, installation, and certification would have to be totally customized, and would take at least two-and-a-half to three years to accomplish. It could be at least 2016, or possibly 2017, before these aircraft are ready for aerial firefighting—if they were acquired today.” For example, Eversole explained that Neptune Aviation Services, one of the two companies, currently operating large air tankers, is already deploying a modern system using a modified regional jet equipped with an approved fire-retardant slurry tank. “For the USFS to get into this business would be a terrible waste of money in today’s fiscal environment—when the industry is already there,” he noted.

In fact, said Ronald Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, it is not practical for the USFS to consider the C27J. “At least four private operators are well into development of retardant tanks for aircraft that are excellent candidates for large tankers. The industry could have as many as 26 large, next generation airtankers available within the next four years. But, if the USFS opts for the C27J, I estimate it would be at least six to seven years before an equal number of C27J aircraft would be operational for firefighting.”

Hooper cited the tanking system as a major concern. He reported that based on the C27Js maximum take-off weight, internal dimensions and cargo carrying capacity, it would be unable to meet the minimum 3,000 gallon capacity tank specified by the USFS for modern airtanker aircraft. “At best, you are looking at 1,800 to 2,000 gallons for a fixed tank, and 1,200 to 1,400 gallons for a portable, roll-on/roll-off system. That means that the C27J does not have the potential to be a large air tanker, as defined by the USFS. It is not appropriate as a large tanker, but industry can provide aircraft that are, and has already made investments in their infrastructure to support these newer aircraft.”

Bill Gabbert, owner of web-based publications Fire Aviation, and Wildfire Today, also has serious questions about the C27J’s viability as an air tanker. “The C27J is very appealing because, at an average age of five years, it’s practically a new aircraft,” he said. “However, it has been reported to be more costly to operate than the much larger C130, and maintenance and reliability have been issues.”

Al Ross of Reston, Virginia-based A.L. Ross Associates, claimed that manufacturer support for the C27J has been poor, given what he said is the Air Force’s experience to date. “Alenia has already demonstrated its inability to support this airplane in the field with parts and maintenance. It would be a huge cost to the Forest Service to keep them in the air.” Another complication, said Ross, is that nobody really knows what it would cost to develop the tank system, or the time involved. “I think a reasonable estimate would be about five years, and maybe $10-15 million for a MAFFS II (roll-on/roll off) type of system. Then, add about $2 million per tank. That’s a lot of time and money for about half of the capacity of the tanks being designed for the next-generation air tankers by private industry. It’s not enough airplane for the tanker role, along with high operational costs.”

According to Frank Gladics, of Gladics and Associates, a Boise, Idaho-based consulting firm focusing on natural resources and wildland fire policies, the C27J could cost five times as much as USFS estimates for the aircraft’s maintenance. This is based on an average of 400 flight hours in a typical fire season. “The point is, what will this aircraft really cost to operate,” Gladics asked. “Also, who is going to operate these aircraft? Nobody seems to know how good or bad these aircraft would be when used as an air tanker.” He added, “There are a lot of unanswered questions that need to be looked at before we leap off this cliff. Given the progress that has been made by the aerial firefighting industry for a large airtanker, the contractors will provide those aircraft, if they have a contract.”

AHSAFA is the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting. Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., is an AHSAFA member.”

12 thoughts on “The air tanker industry’s opinion on the C27J as an air tanker”

  1. In other words- a higher powered,expensive,S-2T ..
    oh yes an extra pilot too… Didn’t realize they were
    shy on payload. Betcha a PW 100 powered DC- whatever would
    be cheaper to develop…
    There is a reason they are parked shiny new-and not just politics either..

  2. Maybe if folks in the DC arena and even the LMA arena read Tom Eversoles’ website AHSAFA

    One will learn some of the higher and associated costs of an aircraft that can maybe just barely meet the 3000 gallon standard, no current tanking available, costs of allied tooling and equipment such as towbars, maintenance stands and walkways to conduct progressive and phase maintenance and the standards to keep THAT equipment up to date

    Will prove one thing to all…………………..NOTHING in the aviation is free except those folks are in a dream world. But to each their own…

  3. How very true: NOTHING is FREE in aviation – much less borate bombing! (sic – just dated myself, eh?)…
    Airframe age/condition is only one part of the pie to be considered. The operating costs (estimated) are another – but, trying to assign “costs” for some “design” into an airframe is smoke and mirrors! STC type cert and “one-off” mods’ are performed and developed daily in GA and Commercial aviation. The field offices of the FAA and their engineering staff deal with these issues daily!.. The time frame offered is unsupportable in todays’ CAD/CAM world – most “one-off’s” take like 6 to 10 months, depending on complex factors. The mention of the 2.5 to 3 years, and then slipping in the “6 to 7 years” for some “26 aircraft level” is self-serving at best — and, dishonest at least! In today’s marketplace, once the final STC/design was fixed, such “conversions” could be performed by ANY SHOP looking for work…that means the number 26 could be reached within 1 to 2 years, according to management/contracting/costing (might even be performed overseas at a great savings, eh?…how’s that sound? Lowest bidder, etc!)..
    As for this designation of “large” being 3,000 gal; vs some lower amount, get real. This is only a “paperwork” barrier – self enforced by USFS. The gross difference between a SEAT and such a LARGE tanker should be “filled” for fleet flexibility anyway. In the old days, a TBM with 600 gal and a B25 with 1,000 gal were the first steps…then came the B-17’s. We are all aware of the POLITICS that run the halls of this “business” – which should be viewed as a public service, rather than a “get rich quick” path. Bottom line: A “mid-range capacity tanker” like today’s P2V have a valid nitch to fill… NOT ALL FIRES OCCUR WHERE 910 can fly!…or, even be used effectively!..
    FINALLY….IF we are going to continue trying to fight fires with all these “rules” that prevent proper/early responses…then, we are going to need a LOT MORE AIRCRAFT to prep our battlefields for such prim and proper and documented hand crews to finally walk the hills. We are a nation, a very WIDE AND TALL area to protect and respond to/within — Once summer is here, we NEVER have enough aircraft/heli-attack!.. How about many, many, more “stand-by” and “call if needed” contracts are put in place for long time frames/periods at nominal rates? That then, once called up, could revert to the proper level of pay to allow continued availability. We, the American people, would be better served with many small operators – backstopping each other by numbers/status… Alaska could provide the “minimum usage” location for up to 200 airframes per year – due to it’s lack of roads, etc.
    (Disclosure: We, personally, saw the effect of an “early” use of a P2V on a fire near us 3 years ago – without which, homes or lives could have been lost. Last year we suffered a burn-over ourselves – when airframes were not available until a Type 2 team was detailed to our 19-mile fire incident. I have cut sacks and loaded in the old days of SoCal/TBM/B25 op’s. I am a pilot with over 3,600hr TT).

    1. I watched 910 drop about 1/2 mile upwind of a flank on the Powerhouse fire today… Lookin at the terrain from the above, my thought was exactly that: that VERY EXPENSIVE DC-10 didn’t have many other places it could effectively drop on this typically mountainous SoCal fire

  4. The USAF buying new airplanes, going straight to Davis Monthan… the USFS creatin a need for a marginal tanker with a crew of four… all when there are eight perfectly airworthy 4-engined, 3000 gallon P-3s sitting idle at McClelland in Sacramento

        1. Thanks Bean.

          Flying thousands of hours of maritime patrol at low level in a salt spray environment can result in very expensive wing and partial wing replacements as well as other parts.

          I may be in the minority on this, but taking old equipment, fire engines or aircraft, that another federal agency has thrown away, and using it in an emergency services environment, is a recipe for disaster… as we have seen. Money is tight, I know, but defending our homeland from fires, and possibly fires set by lone wolf or organized terrorists, can’t successfully be done on the cheap. We need purpose-built aircraft for the hazardous job of flying low and slow in turbulent air over wildland fires.

        2. Bill,

          I have some familiarity with aircraft that go to the “boneyard”. Some/ many are thrown away. Others are not. Sometimes the “others” are still good aircraft.

          1. Structural and fatigue life issues. Too expensive to repair. P-3’s for instance
          2. Maintainability issues. Too many maintenance man-hours per flight hour. Logistics issues. Replaced by newer type/ model/ series. Most aircraft in this category.
          3. Politics and programmatic issues. “No longer needed??” Fixes big picture service acquisition budget and political issues. S-3, C-27J

          I completely agree that a point design aircraft would be the best answer, but pretty expensive. The expense of design, tooling up, production, and marginal return on investment pretty much forces it to be a “federal program”. If it isn’t a point design because of cost concerns and it goes the “multi-mission” route then design compromises are made and you’re back to less than optimum capabilities. At that point, some military aircraft in the boneyard begin to look like reasonable modification candidates.

  5. Bean speaks the truth about AMARG.

    Hell… the military still gets parts for their aircraft for current an older aircraft and some of the others are cut up for scrap.

    This is why I wonder where the USFS get their attitude about surplus aircraft, when for yeeeeeeeeaaaaaaars they depended on both the Contract Operators and the military for their C130 and P3 projects

    And yet they still clamor for a C130J…guess what? C130 or L382…no matter ..two things for sure 1) C130J is STILL military lineage and 2) Can the USFS still afford their dreams of a “military lineage” C130J??

    After watching C SPAN the other night (the same on Bill’s Wildland Fire site) I don’t think, if I was an aircraft manufacturer, watching that little beauty for 2 hours, I would be wondering a few things…..one of them being….would the check bounce if I was building a series of airtankers for this crew ( both the USFS and the polticos)

    If I was Lockheed Martin in Marietta, GA……..I would be looking for PAYING customers with cash up front before I even tooled up for a project!!

    1. I would add the C-130’s [pre J models] to the list of the potentially good aircraft types put in AMARG for “political” reasons.
      Here’s some background:
      http://lobby.la.psu.edu/_107th/092_C_130_Procurement/frameset_c_130.html
      The fact that C-130’s employ MAFFS is driven by the military requirement to rapidly reconvert the aircraft to a cargo / passenger role. A non-military C-130 might be modified with a better tank for a permanent firefighting role provided it could compete effectively with other aircraft types.

  6. So Frank Gladics has moved on from his career as a Senate staffer, where he ran a pool, open to other Senate staffers, where folks wagered on the number of acres burned AND the number of contracted aircraft that would crash? I seem to recall that “winners” in this pool won silly hats? And I also recall that there were some very upset folks once this news was dug up. I was one of them! No doubt!

    From my recollection, Mr. Gladics received quite the treatment on the sister site, wildfiretoday.com.

    What gives folks? Free pass to Mr. Gladics now that he’s on your “side” of this discussion?

    I’m pretty bummed out by this, folks. I’ve always thought those who climb up in the cockpit deserve all the credit in the world. But to see that the contractor lobbyists are now in bed with Mr. Gladics? Well, I guess nothing’s shocking when politics, huge contracts, and fire collide.

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