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.
“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.”