Update on Forest Service C-130 air tankers

USFS https://fireaviation.com/2014/03/20/tom-harbour-talks-about-air-tankers/
The paint design that has been approved by the Forest Service for the seven C-130s that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service.

It will probably be a year before any of the seven C-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard, to the Air Force, and finally to the Forest Service will be seen dropping retardant on a fire. Tom Harbour told us last month that he expects at least one to be flying by 2015.

The aircraft all need various levels of maintenance and it is thought that at least five will have to have the wing boxes replaced, a 10-month project that costs around $7 million each. Then the retardant systems will be installed. The Air Force, the agency overseeing the work on the aircraft, is expected to issue a solicitation for bids on the retardant system within the next two to three months. The Forest Service is working with the Air Force to write the specifications, which will reflect some of the language in the existing air tanker contracts, and information that the agencies have learned about retardant systems over the last 50 years.

The Forest Service is partnering with the Coast Guard for training and higher level, or Depot level, maintenance for the C-130s. The discussions within the Forest Service have been that the logistics, support, routine maintenance, and pilots for the C-130s would be provided by contractors, making it a government-owned/contractor-operated (GO/CO) program.

But no solicitations have been issued for these services. The Forest Service’s recent track record for awarding aerial firefighting contracts can lead one to an assumption that contracts for a GO/CO operation will not be awarded any time soon. Three USFS air tanker contracts have been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO — the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.

It could take longer to award the contracts than to refurbish and retrofit the C-130s. We would be very surprised if it happens by the end of this year.

After the contracts are signed, it could take quite some time for the contractors to ramp up to procure equipment, and to hire pilots, mechanics, and other employees to provide the services. If the pilots have no air tanker experience or qualifications, that will be another issue that has to be overcome. However, there is probably a large pool of ex-Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve C-130 pilots. Some of them may even have prior Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) experience. In fact, Coulson has hired several pilots with MAFFS experience to fly their recently converted C-130Q air tanker.

The good news is that it is much easier to find and hire a C-130 pilot with recent experience than it is to find a P2V pilot that has flown the aircraft recently.

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27 thoughts on “Update on Forest Service C-130 air tankers”

  1. 10 Tnker with a C-130Q? Did you mean Coulson?

    Aside from the nitpicking, thanks for the update.

  2. It sounds like another government decision to recycle old aircraft. I mean to spend such a large amount to rebuild the main wing component, why not buy a build to suite aircraft? Or am i just too ignorant to be speaking. It just seems that the government spends more money trying to “cut costs” than it would starting from scratch.

    1. If the requirement is to carry 3000 gal of retardant or water, you need an aircraft something like a C-130 that is designed for the stresses involved in the tanker mission. Starting from scratch in the design process and then tooling up to manufacture a small number of aircraft [there isn’t a large demand for tankers] would cost 100’s of millions. Then you have to sell the aircraft at a profit … amortization of design and startup costs across a small fleet makes for a very expensive aircraft.

      New C-130J’s cost in the neighborhood of $66M and their design and tooling is already paid for.

      The purpose built Russian Be-200 tanker/scooper costs approx $43M. http://en.take-off.ru/news/107-june2012/754-russian-defence-ministry-as-another-be-200-buyer

      As far as costs and rework decisions go, if it wasn’t economical with respect to life cycle cost management, the government wouldn’t be sending C-130H models to the depot for overhaul, they would be buying new aircraft and sending the H models to storage or salvage at AMARC.

      Designing and building a new purpose built 3000 gal turboprop or jet air tanker is extremely expensive if not prohibitively expensive.

      1. I understand that start-up costs on tooling would be much more expensive, but why not use their advantage as the government to cash in on all the “bail outs” to these major companies that have been given over the last few decades and get new aircraft. Kinda like big business bullying, but it is for the better good.

  3. Not only are they recycling old aircraft but also old ideas. The idea of getting “free” aircraft that need refurbishing is the same model as Cal Fire with the “free” S2s and OV-10s. By the time the maintenance, rebuilding, retrofitting, updating, unionized crew with full benefits, top heavy management, tanker base support, fuel, etc. is all factored in, you end up with a retardant delivery system that far exceeds the cost per delivered gallon of just contracting Type III Single Engine Air Tankers as needed. After all, the mission is to take retardant to a fire. The question is: How to do it? Two SEATs (current production AT802s made in Texas) can take more retardant to a fire than one S2T Type III tanker. Four SEATs take as much retardant to a fire as one C130 and SEATs do not need a heavy tanker base because they come with a mixing trailer and loading crew for each air craft as part of the price. Also SEATs can work off of more airports closer to the fires; thus reducing flight time and cost per delivered gallon. Extra support needed is limited to a SEAT manager for up to three aircraft and a steady supply of retardant which is mixed and loaded by vendor support crews. Aircraft cost, fuel, maintenance, pilots, ground support crews, insurance, etc. is factored into the Flight Time and Availability price. Before everyone gets all fired up with counterpoints on why this won’t work, has anyone actually done a comprehensive cost per delivered gallon analysis of Cal Fire’s fixed wing aviation fire budget and compared the numbers to other delivery options? Cal Fire’s program actually makes more sense than the donation of the C130’s to the USFS. At least California has a year round fire danger; whereas, the USFS will be paying overhead all winter long without delivering a single gallon of retardant anywhere. What is the end goal? To deliver retardant to a fire or see just how big and inefficient government can get? Jim Watson

    1. Whoa, Jim, don’t ask too many questions and please, for goodness sake, stop making sense! Independent thought will not be tolerated.

    2. It’s rare today for one large airtanker to be utilized on an incident- most (but not all) incidents use two or more. Your point that SEATs might outperform heavy airtankers is really relative to the distance they have to travel to and from an incident. A large response area would require more SEAT bases (and increased personnel costs) than large airtanker bases due to the speed and range differences between SEATs and large airtankers…other factors such as a fire’s elevation and fuels would have to be mitigated to make a true comparison of retardant delivery capability between the two types of aircraft.

      I have an tremendous interest in wildland aviation operations but believe that achieving the maximum amount of good per dollar (cost effectiveness) will occur only when there is a significant growth of ground fire fighting resources, fuels management, and fire prevention, rather than fire aviation resources. I think a lot of individuals lose sight of that when speaking about how our national aerial fire fighting capability should be funded, equipped, and configured.

  4. Does the USFS have the ability to operate/manage/fund this type of tanker fleet? Outside the military I can’t think of an governmental agency that manages this many aircraft.

    The simple support needs of SEATs is a big advantage. A small remote strip, a water source or portable retardant set-up and fuel truck near the fire can result in quick turnarounds and reduced cost along with greatly reduced logistical/maintenance needs. It’s not always the size of the tool but often the skill of the person using it that counts.

    Each aircraft has its time and place

  5. Two “papers” (published) were written in 1980 at then the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD. One paper addresses exactly what Mr. Watson is eluding to, quick, local response attack on a threatening fire. The other paper was using bumbo jets to protected the interface. Colorado has a chance to start-from-scratch, an interesting study. Colorado should take Mr. Watsons advice and forget the little helicopters and contract a butt-load of SEATS.

    1. Another thought, there will be no heavy tanker (LAT) in excess in the future. Colorado has two options, 500 gallons in fifteen minutes of a fire starting (SEAT) or 3000 gallons (LAT) in three days from the Feds, maybe. Sixty day VLAT exclusive use contract?

  6. Oh good lord, now “WE” are calling for another study? 😉

    Actually, I believe that was what the GAO took to USFS to task for, in that they don’t have info on the efficient use of tax dollars. I suspect that if you were to do studies an all of the questions you ask, Jim, I believe you would get the answer B. Morgan provided. I suspect on a large growing moving fire, where you need to build a lot of line, the larger aircraft are more efficient. For early, quick response IA, the 800 gallons provided by the SEAT is the better bang for the buck.

    As for S-2s, I would bet if you compared the S-2 to the SEAT that was available at the time California got into them, the S-2 looks better. Not really fair comparing todays AT802 to what was available, then, I suspect. Compare the cost of keeping the S-2 fleet to replaciing it with an Air Tractor fleet, maintaining the S-2 probably still looks OK. Obviously, they need to be looking at life cycle analysis, and someday that airframe will need to be phased out.

  7. Why the emoticon, Gordie?

    You know well, like the rest of us, there will be another study on GOCO coming, if that is indeed the USFS route.

    Like little children, the USFS is going to go ahead and do another study and probably another paralysis of the analysis of life cycle studies already done by other folks.

    Reinventing the wheel WILL be in this wheelhouse for awhile, we all know it. An agency ignoring the GAO, except for “maybe” putting one CL415 on contract, is par for the course.

    We will all see how these folks “manage” the C130 “Dream Ship” program as well the “Next Gen” turbofan / turbojet program.

    Standing by to standby……again not holding my breath on any of it…nor should anyone else be….

    1. Leo, I am only poking fun.

      I agree with the GAO. The USFS has done poor job. OTOH, it is important to get something going to meet our needs over the next few years.

      What I would lime to see is a stop to the flailing.

      Get all the possible “NextGen” tankers flying, including the add-on tankers. I think Coulson and 10 Tanker have earned the right to add a tanker.

      Allow the Neptune sole source, on a short term basis.

      Get the scooper flying.

      Get the USFS C-130 fleet in the air.

      THEN, perform a multi year study on the most efficient way to fight fires.

      Probably too much to hope for.

  8. Has the question come up about acquiring lower time H models from the storage facility that wouldn’t need as much work before going into service with the Forest Service, rather then the Coast Guard aircraft that they seem to be suck with. The Coast Guard C130H’s would have ended up in the storage facility anyway and since the Newer C130H’s at are sitting there could be used by the new US Government agency, that being the US Forest Service Air Force. One would think ( my mistake ) they would want to save money in the transfer or acquisition of the C130H’s and allow the better equipment go to the new user. What a concept, HUH?

    1. Joe,

      If you look at the AMARC inventory:


      You won’t find any newer C-130 H’s in storage. There are only a handful of H models in storage. When an older C-130 goes to storage/ salvage at AMARC, the parent command has almost always made the decision based on a life cycle cost analysis that it is cheaper to replace it with a new C-130 than it is to pay for depot level rework and continued maintenance.

      Occasionally when a type/ model is superseded or a large number of flyable aircraft are declared excess to service requirements, the decision is made to retire the entire fleet or store large a large part of the inventory. Then, bargains are available at AMARC. But if the type / model is in production, rarely are there any good deals to be found in storage.

      1. Bean,
        Great insight I didn’t have. Then, I would have to ask, why haven’t they asked for (sounds stupid) P3C’s, I know there are quite a few of them. It’s a proven platform. Or is this just a political nightmare?

        Other knowledge I don’t have is the wing box on the 130. Not sure why you need a new wing box on an H model?

        1. Joe,

          The P-3C’s have significant structural fatigue problems and the USN is replacing them as fast as their budget allows with P-8’A’s. Some P-3C’s may have to be reworked to keep sufficient patrol /ASW aircraft flying until the P-8A program catches up. No good deals at AMARC with the P-3’s either.

  9. I would be letting newer equipment go to an agency that has no plan established for a program this technical and expensive.

    The USFS simply does not have the program staff, knowledge, nor the acquisition smarts to sustain a LAT program such as the C130.

    The USCG and USAF have had to prove their mettle in this regard whereas the USFS has studied this thing to death….

    Better equipment to a new user? Only if they have a proven record…..the USFS simply does not the this category…..

  10. If Forest Service history repeats itself one (F.S.) C 130 will go into service (we did it). Funding will be withdrawn for other National projects and the remaining C 130s will go to a foreign country (s) air force. Hope I’m wrong on this.

    1. Johnny you hit it right on the head. By the time one is approved by USFS and IAB they will be obsolete!—- Unless they (USFS) do not have to go through the entire process as the are the owner/requester of the airtanker contract

  11. Has anyone done a book on the history of the C-130 series? I believe they have been in continuous production since 1955 or 56.

    1. The book “Lockheed C130 Hercules” by Peter C Smith is a good history of the Herc. The first flight of the C-130 prototype was made on 23 August 1954. About 2,300 C-130s have been built through 2009 by Lockheed.

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