Forest Service to enlist help of Coast Guard to manage C-130 airtankers

A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709, October, 2008. This is one of the seven C-130Hs being transferred to the USFS. Photo by Bob Garrard.

Until now the U.S. Forest Service has never had to manage a fleet of 22 medium and large transport aircraft. But in the coming months the agency that was created to grow trees will be reminded of the phrase, “be careful what you wish for”, as they become the owners of seven large four-engine C-130H transport planes and 15 smaller C-23B Sherpa transport planes “given” to them by the Coast Guard and the Army. The Forest Service is still going to grow trees and clean toilets in campgrounds, while taking on this air force of 22 very expensive aircraft.

Transfers to take place no later than February 11

The legislation requiring the transfer of the aircraft required that both the C-130Hs and C-23B Sherpas be transferred within 45 days after the bill was signed, which makes February 11, 2014 the last day for the transfer to take place. The C-130Hs will go first to the Air Force which will arrange for maintenance, upgrades of the air frame, and the installation of the retardant system. Then the Air Force will transfer them to the U.S. Forest Service. The Sherpas will be transferred directly from the Army to the USFS by February 11.

Last week a USFS employee with knowledge of how their aviation section is organized told Wildfire Today that up to that point the agency had not made any decisions about an organizational structure that would manage this air force within the agency. Individual short-term tasks were being handed out one at a time, while multiple functional areas were trying to get involved, lobbying for their piece of the pie.

Initially bringing the 22 aircraft into the agency will be extremely complex and time-consuming, with FAA approvals, inspections, evaluating, painting, writing then awarding contracts for maintenance and pilots, deciding on a tanking system, contracts for installing tanking systems, avionics, etc. And, something the USFS has not done well, developing a comprehensive PLAN of how to manage the aviation assets now and in the future. The Air Force will do some of this, other than the planning, before the actual final transfer of the C-130s to the USFS (the Sherpas will not receive retardant tanks), but the Forest Service has to be involved in the decision making. Then, after the 22 aircraft are completely up and running, managing the programs on a continuing basis is not simply a part time job for one person.

Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center, told us today that the agency, at this point anyway, plans to use a Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO) model for the seven C-130H aircraft. The government will own them and the maintenance and operation will be handled by private contractors. The 15 Sherpas will be owned by the Forest Service — some will be flown by USFS pilots and others by contractors. All of the Sherpas will be maintained by private industry under contract, similar to how the existing four C-23A Sherpas are maintained. You could call this GO/CO-GO I suppose.

Coast Guard to assist with managing C-130Hs

We were surprised to hear from Mrs. Jones today that 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. 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. They have 24 older C-130Hs which are being upgraded with new center wing boxes and cockpit equipment with new multi-function displays. In 2008 they began replacing some of the C-130Hs with new C-130Js; they have six now with three more on order. All these numbers were valid before the Coast Guard agreed to send seven C-130Hs to the USFS if the Coast Guard could get the 14 almost new C-27J aircraft from the military that had been earmarked for the Forest Service.

Before we heard that there was going to be a USFS/Coast Guard collaboration, we asked a former fighter pilot for his opinion about how the C-130Hs should be managed. Gary “Bean” Barrett was a Navy Captain, the Commanding Officer of an adversary squadron and of a GO/CO squadron of heavy aircraft:

I would recommend standing up an organization like a composite group. One single individual in charge of the entire group [no rule by committee … it won’t work]. Since there are mission differences between C-23’s and C-130’s the group commander should probably have two “squadrons” under him. One for C-23’s, one for C-130’s and perhaps one or two maintenance squadrons depending on how the USFS choses to organize themselves. I am familiar with both the USAF concept of independent maintenance squadrons and the Navy concept of an integrated operational squadron with its own maintenance department. Either can work with contract maintenance but either way, the group commander has to “own” the program budget and the maintenance and the operations programs and the COTAR has to work for the group commander. When maintenance is directly involved in producing sorties instead of off in another state independently “fixing airplanes” the entire process seems to work better. Heavy or Depot level maintenance should be a separate contract.

Modification of the C-130 is a big hurdle since there is no military equivalent modification but I would think that it would be far easier to incorporate the tanker mod into a mil based maintenance program than to be forced to operate C-130’s under the FAA FAR’s. and the FAA C-130Q type rating.

C-23B Sherpas

The Sherpas have been stored at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma for an extended period of time but have been under a maintenance contract and could be put into service fairly quickly. While at Fort Sill, on a regular basis they have been started, run up to 80 percent power for five minutes, systems have been cycled, and the aircraft have been taxied. No scheduled maintenance has been performed so they may be due for some routine work. The USFS will need to run the Sherpas through the Smokejumper Aircraft Screening and Evaluation Board (SASEB), which is the focal point for all interagency smokejumper/paracargo aircraft, much like the Interagency AirTanker Board evaluates air tankers. Other items on the to-do list include painting, avionics, removal of any unneeded military equipment, and ensure conformance with the FAA Certificate, but since they will not be used as air tankers, retardant tank systems will not have to be installed.

C-23B. Department of Defense file photo.

Ms. Jones said the C-23B Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. They are capable of carrying up to 10 smokejumpers or 30 passengers and up to 7,000 pounds of cargo. The C-23B Sherpas will replace all four U.S. Forest Service owned C-23A Sherpas and the DC-3T currently used for smokejumper missions. The additional aircraft will eventually replace contracted smokejumper aircraft and support other fire missions. They expect to begin using two of the newer Sherpas in 2014 to drop cargo and will begin using it in 2015 to deliver smokejumpers.

The C-23B Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp which can be opened during flight which could be used for paracargo or by smokejumpers, both of which would be new to the USFS. The C-23A Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp, but it does not open in flight.

22 thoughts on “Forest Service to enlist help of Coast Guard to manage C-130 airtankers”

  1. The C-130Hs will go first to the Air Force which will arrange for maintenance, upgrades of the air frame, and the installation of the retardant system. Then the Air Force will transfer them to the U.S. Forest Service.

    which type of Tank system??
    Not the Maffs I hope…

  2. The C130’s, another contracting nightmare on the horizon. Why have the Forest Service involved at all? The United States Forest and Coast Guard.

  3. Mike,Charlie etc…
    “I have a bad feeling about this.” and we don’t even get a
    Deathstar out the deal..

  4. Far be from me saying anything…….

    But it reminds of the days of yore in the US Army and wildland fire twenty years ago and I was never offended……….

    This is the learning point where the USFS keeps its mouth shut unless spoken to and ears OPEN to EVERYTHING the USCG and USAF tells you and suggests that ought to be done with these aircraft. These are not your PR machines that the LMA’s think they are. CALFire has done a great job of low key PR work that that works and doesn’t come off as “lookeee at me”. These are the up n coming learn on years that only come with the true ownership of operating aircraft.

    They both have 60 plus years of day in and day out 24/7/365 C130 operational experience , crew experience, and maintenance experience….these folks know the 130 in and out …operationally. USFS MAFFS only experience is not ownership experience….it is merely management experience

    As a famous radio announcer says in the Twin Cities area….”Good Luck!”

    1. Good to see another GLer on the boards here. I’d love to know how the Flashlight King would handle this whole situation.

      Has anyone in the USFS asked the question of “Why are we having to do this and a Private Contractor won’t?” I know Coulson is doing their best to get a start but it seems pretty strange that the only way to make this work is for the Government to “give” itself a bunch of free airplanes, pay itself to fix them up, and then award itself a contract to operate them. Can this be another sign the system is horribly broken? We want Next-Gen tankers like the C130 but the only way to make it work in their eyes is to do it with the guaranteed “unending” budgets the Government can give. Whatever happened to capitalism?

      Also, a USFS Representative fielded questions at the NAFA Course held in Sacramento last week. One of the question he was asked was whether it would be a MAFFS tank and he said it must be a fixed, gravity-fed tank system. RADS on the way or are they going to try to design their own tank as well?!?

    1. I guess it depends on who is the official owner of the aircraft, USFS, Army, or Air Force.

      UPDATE: someone contacted us and said:

      USDA/ USFS owns the C-23A’s under the Federal Excess Property program. They may be kept for parts if there are useable parts. If they decide to dispose of them, disposal must be done by transfer to the GSA. The GSA then decides whether to auction whole or break up and part out.

      We were also told about an issue of Fire Management Notes from 1991 that has an article about the introduction of the C-23As into the USFS fleet. That publication also has several other interesting articles about the state of wildfire aviation in 1991.

      1. The TDC-3 and C-23As can be sold, just like the last ones were. The GSA is normally the auctioneer for this, but the funds come back to forestry and can be used to purchase additional aircraft – if the money is spent in about 2 years. When is the last time forestry has purchased an airplane?

        Here is where the C-23s are located:,-116.400369&sspn=0.136707,0.20771&vpsrc=6&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=&ll=34.648194,-98.399364&spn=0.001214,0.001623&t=h&z=19&iwloc=A

    2. Good info, thanks Bill.

      I can’t help but think that these C-23As still have some use for the Forest Service. I’ve heard rumblings that the Sherpa is a parts nightmare – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they cannibalize the As to keep the Bs going.

    1. Sneezing during comments is not a good thing.
      The Sherpas I am not sure about, but if the Basler
      Dougs go to the bone yard it would be a waste of
      taxpayer dollars-they are a better aircraft..
      Basler ,as I understand,0 times every airframe or
      as close as it gets..

      1. Forestry could have sent the TDC-3 back to Basler for full refurbishment and another 20 year life, but the geniuses thought they would rather have a C-27J, or was it a C-130, or was it a B+?

  5. I believe the other USFS DC-3 from McCall was sold to Buffalo, a Part 135 carrier in Canada. It’s too bad that the USFS plans to do away with contract SMKJ aircraft; the Dornier and Otter are far superior to the Sherpa in many ways. And since when does the USFS need a cargo only aircraft??

    1. I can’t understand why they are cargo only for the first year either. When the C-23As were brought in to the SMJ system, it was used the first year after the DoD gave them to the USFS and BLM. Crew training, weight and balance configuration, and cutting bigger windows in the fuselage were the biggest issues. They got it done for the next fire season.

      The rear exit and cargo dropping configuration in the B+ models will be a plus for the SMJ program. We used the Caribou in the early to mid-1970s. I loved the rear exit, the spotters had more room to do their business and cargo kicking was easy. The only problem was the motor noise. The turbine engines should be much easier on the ears.

      One issue with the entire C23B+ is that it can only carry ten SMJs. The DC-3T can carry 16 and that is a plus when one can count on six extra diggers to go after a fire that wants to run or move a crew from point A to point B utilizing a smaller airstrip.

      As I said in a previous post, I still have questions about the Clear-Nez forests loosing the capability to work out of the likes of Shearer, Moose Creek, and Fish Lake airstrips. Also, how much will the Sherpa be downloaded in West Yellowstone on a warm day? It does happen……

      1. Side note saw an aircraft sales paper at the
        local Airport -a Canadian firm has a DC3T
        for sale it is apparently marked yet in USFS

  6. Certanly some functions of government are best performed by professionals for the public good. Aviation and particularly fire aviation should be considered a public safety function similar to the military, DEA, etc. The biggest problem for all of these models is that government fails to let the professionals do their job as professionals.
    For far too long, decisions on the best aproach to federal fire aviation has been left to the for profit private contractors who have profit as their first priority. Elected officials are influenced by them and many decisions are made without any real logical safety and operational consideration by those who have to use the resource.
    Whatever the USFS does, it needs to be managed by a single individual with complete control over the entire organization.
    Further, the USFS needs to get out of their traditional way of approaching every issue with the same bureaucratic processes that hand cuffs them from moving in logical and unbiased directions.

  7. We will see how the public good is served by the new “owners” of the “new” C130 program. We will see how it run by the USFS and how they “manage” a fleet of aircraft.

    Ask CALFire if the run their aircraft program for the good of the public. We all know the bottom line of their program with what they have. But the have DynCorp folks running the aircraft maintenance and pilot services program.

    You think they are running the the program out of the goodness of their hearts?

    Why would DynCorp not charge for their services? Ever see the maintenance bills? Plenty here as well as me, KNOW those costs and the USFS, because of their history of contracting SNAFU’s and what not have surely shown the general public that they have not really have the publics good in mind either, due to the fact of IA response times, coming back to Congress for more money, reworking money from one account to another to fight fire…….the list goes on…

    Tell us why the new contractors should not be looking at a 3-20 per cent profit margin……ya think these C130’s are going to be run at 2.39 per hour fly rate just to show the Nation, “We gots yor back” now that we have the C130’s in our ownership.

    Tell us what is wrong with the private contractors when it is in fact the the USFS has shown that is who they have relied upon allllllllll these years.

    Ya think the USFS has not any culpability in the keeping the “bizness” in the contractor run system????

    To continually blame contractors for “making money” in a rough economic climate, NO incentive dinero from the USFS to work with them, the nearly complete contractor spending of THEIR own money for each aircraft, knowing that any aircraft they buy is NOT designed to be an Airtanker by any stretch of the imagination and then to listen to folks about drop patterns and coverage rates with thousands of cups, and probably the contractors paying for their own JET A to prove to the IATB that their aircraft are ready for a contract that MIGHT be 3-5 yrs in length……..

    Well ….I would have to say that if the USFS was reaaaaaly interested in public safety…..they would have had a sooooooper doooooper Airtanker program COMPLETE with purpose built aircraft design department with alllllll that public safety they would like to espouse.

    Also, to say that the contractors have the elected officials in their pockets……not anymore than NDAA 2014 where the elected officials got the USAF to do all the CWB rework to the tune of $130 million USD to assist the USFS in the “ownership” endeavors. That NEVER happened to any of the current contractors nor did it happen to H&P and AUC!……..did it???

    I do not buy for one minute, that having one person who is not aviation qualified, a pilot and mechanic with a degree, should be at the helm of this program with COMPLETE control. That is a recipe for disaster, in itself. One individual??? A USFS aviation Hitler with no aviation or business acumen??

    We will see how the public is served….then. The USFS with their 104 year old ideas with no outside oversight of aviation FAA, NTSB, Congressional, USAF after CWB rework, or industry oversight with pilot and maintenance training by Lockheed, And others is just asking for USFS to grow too big for its britches and see if the public is that well served after this program grows legs

  8. That is what Cafe del Monde with Chickory will do to ya and a tailwind from Northern climates this past weekend

    Whew….you are right

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