Forest Service intends to buy new air tanker

The specifications appear to match Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J.

The U.S. Forest Service is advertising for the purchase of at least one new aircraft that will be used as an air tanker. A solicitation issued November 18, 2016 indicates that the agency intends to buy between one and seven “new production commercial aircraft to operate primarily as airtankers”. This procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.

As far as we know this will be the first time, in recent decades anyway, that a U.S. land management agency has purchased a NEW air tanker.

The seven HC-130H’s that the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard will be operated and maintained by contractors after they are converted to air tankers.

Coulson operates two C-130 type aircraft as air tankers, a C-130Q and an L-100-30 (382G), with the latter being an earlier demilitarized stretched variant of the C-130. As this is written they are both working on firefighting contracts in Australia during their summer bushfire season.

LM-100J. The image shows it equipped with a pressurized MAFFS retardant system, but the USFS aircraft will have a more conventional gravity-powered system. Lockheed modified a photo of a MAFFS air tanker that was taken by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico April 22, 2013 during the annual MAFFS training near Fairplay, Colorado.

There is speculation that the $65 million appropriation was targeted to buy a new variant of Lockheed Martin’s C-130J, the LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J.

In Fiscal Year 2015 the Defense Department paid $88.9 million for each C-130J. The stripped down LM-130J is expected to sell for about $65 million. Lockheed is planning test flights of the new aircraft in the first half of 2017 with deliveries beginning the following year. Portions of the plane are being made in Marietta, Georgia; Meridian, Mississippi; Clarksburg, West Virginia; and India.

After the appropriations bill passed in 2014, Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert of California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky.

Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said,

…supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.

Some important specifications in the USFS solicitation match those of the LM-100J, including max normal takeoff weight, capable of operating from unimproved airfields, payload, cruise speed, multiple turbine engines, and a door that incorporates stairs.

Vendors can choose to equip the aircraft with two options:

  • A gravity powered retardant delivery system that would hold at least 3,000 gallons, and,
  • A pallet-based seating system for 40 passengers that can be installed or removed in less than 2 hours.

The Coulson company has the contract to install retardant delivery systems in the seven HC-130H aircraft the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard. It is likely those will be similar to the two systems already in use in Coulson’s two C-130 type aircraft.

Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $522,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.

Tom Harbour
Tom Harbour

Tom Harbour, the former National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service who retired at the end of last year has mentioned several times his affinity for the C-130 platform as an air tanker. In what we called his “exit interview”, he talked about it at 9:27 in the video, saying:

I like the 130-J and I told folks before and I’ll tell folks after, I like that 130J.

But he said he had no plans to work for Lockheed Martin after his retirement.

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6 thoughts on “Forest Service intends to buy new air tanker”

  1. I knew I had seen this “image” before. Only it’s the original real image. Check out Fire Aviation: April 26, 2013 MAFFS annual training.

    1. Good catch! Here’s a link to the Fire Aviation article with the photo taken by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico April 22, 2013 during the annual MAFFS training near Fairplay, Colorado.

      And here is where Lockheed Martin posted their manipulated photo. A person with knowledge of Lockheed’s interest in bidding on the solicitation told us that the company will produce an image that shows the aircraft, that still has not flown yet, dropping retardant from an internal gravity tank instead of a MAFFS pressurized unit.

      I modified the caption below the above photo to reflect its origin.

  2. The Forest Service can not manage the 7 C-130s they have now. who in their right mind would allow them to buy a brand new aircraft? As a tax payer I want hard evidence and proof that their current 7 C-130s are flown on both IA and extended attack and that they are managed before that much tax payer money is spent on a single aircraft. Considering their single C-130 that was supposed to be active this summer was not ever active or dispatched to a fire they have no business buying a new aircraft. The contractors have always done it better, safer, and cheaper than the government doing it.

    1. That’s not true. CAL FIRE provides efficient aerial firefighters at an extremely reasonable cost. Was Hawkins and Powers a safer operation than CAL FIRE because they were a private contractor? Did Aero Union have questionable decisions by their senior leadership (to make a quick buck) that led to their demise?

      I’ll grant that private industry allowed freedoms to help grow the industry, but it was at a cost, and the most beneficial relationship I’ve seen has been a blend of the two: a symbiotic blend of private industry innovation with good oversight from Government officials.

  3. Government has a poor record of managing air tankers … absolutely yes and that is a key point but … Has USFS management process changed? Is it better today? How many of those tankers in the previously mismanaged program were commercially owned and operated and how many were government owned/ operated? How much of the problem was due to contract management issues and disputes and how much of the problem was due to operational management issues?

    “Contractors better” … There are no definitive comparative studies on air tanker effectiveness using real data, just simulations. Comparing govt owned/operated vs commercial owned/operated flying the same mission isn’t possible because there just isn’t any data. When something like this Australian study comes along that compares govt to commercial, “better” can be discussed.,%20et%20al..pdf

    “Contractors safer” … Debatable.

    If the above document is to be believed, it would seem that the accident rate per 100K flight hours for government owned/ operated fixed wing for the last 10 years is considerably lower than the commercially owned/ operated accident rate. Although this data may be fudged a bit as far as accounting for the USAF C-130 MAFFS accident, there is still a difference.

    “Contractors cheaper” … in dollars yes. But a case can be made that some of the past savings have come at the expense of maintenance shortcuts and that absent adequate government oversight in the form of FAR’s and maintenance requirements, the shortcuts would show up in the accident rates.

    Having flow many hours in government owned / contractor maintained aircraft, my personal opinion is that a government owned / contractor operated and maintained organization with a government defined flight program would provide the best return on investment.

  4. Are all government agencies the same? Feds apples, Cal Fire oranges. Cal fire has had its ups and downs (accidents) but they have made adjustments that encompass 40 plus years of experience in owner/operator aerial fire fighting, both rotary and fixed wing. I full agree with “M”. Is this the same Forest Service a few years ago that couldn’t get the contracting process under control without help coming from Canada and the military? I am sort of new to this stuff. Why is it important that the Feds own/operate their own air tankers? If a new C 130 is purchased off the show room floor and converted to an air tanker will it be the first time in fire aviation history that a zero time air frame (air tanker) is placed into service? Is flying this airplane 200 hours a year really justify to the taxpayer a 10’s of millions of dollars investment? Maybe it could be used as a “Spooky” in the off season. The exception to new, are the water bombers. If so that is a lot of airplane for 3000 gallon (maybe). In 1961 and today DC 7s still haul a true 3000 gallon.

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