Air tankers in action

The video below shows the pilot’s view as MAFFS 4 from the Air National Guard’s 146 Air Wing makes a retardant drop on the Rock Fire near Santa Maria, California with Lead-68, probably on May 4, 2013. The video has the in-cockpit radio traffic and audio warnings — “Landing Gear, Landing Gear, Landing Gear……”

The excellent video below was shot on the Station fire near Los Angeles in 2009 and has some good drops by P2Vs — and interesting flamage.

The third video below shows several retardant drops on the High Park Fire in northern Colorado in 2012.

Changes integrated into MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS Cheyenne
MAFFS 8, a  C-130 at Cheyenne, May 7, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I spent part of the day Tuesday at the refresher training and recertification  for the crews of four military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) aircraft at Cheyenne, Wyoming. Let’s see… what time was I there?

MAFFS Cheyenne clocks
The clock at the 153 Airlift Wing in Cheyenne. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

MAFFS can be activated to provide surge capacity when the small feet of contracted federal air tankers is tied up on going fires or initial attack.

Earlier we posted some additional photos of the aircraft.

The training incorporated some of the changes to the system that were influenced by the crash of one of the MAFFS air tankers, MAFFS 7, last year in South Dakota. It appeared to be very thorough. Here is the training — by the numbers:

  • 4 — MAFFS C-130 aircraft plus one for backup
  • 6 — Lead Planes
  • 160 — people from the two Air National Guard units, plus one or two dozen ground support personnel mostly from the U.S. Forest Service
  • 49 — missions
  • 373 — drops
  • 80 — flight hours
MAFFS test, Cheyenne, WY
MAFFS test, Cheyenne, WY, May 6, 2012. US Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Patricia Findley

At Cheyenne we talked with the Air National Guard MAFFS managers from the two units participating in the joint training, Major Jeremy Schaad from Wyoming’s 153 Airlift Wing, and Lt. Col. Brian Rachford from North Carolina’s 145 Airlift Wing.

One of the changes that has been implemented is the development and use of standardized written pilot qualifications for all four military bases that can each activate two aircraft and crews. When four people on the MAFFS #7 crew were killed last year no such uniform guidelines existed. Until 2013, each Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve MAFFS base used their own criteria for determining the requirements to serve on a MAFFS aircraft. The new standards specify how many base flight hours and hours spent on previous MAFFS missions are required to be the pilot in command and the copilot. They also formalize across the four MAFFS bases procedures, training, and written manuals.

There is now an increased focus on taking the time to analyze the specific scenario for each mission, including the weather conditions and the influences of the fire.

The Air Force report about last year’s MAFFS 7 crash on the White Draw Fire said a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm was one of the causes. During a previous retardant drop on the fire about five minutes earlier, the aircraft experienced a drop in airspeed despite operating under full power. Before the second drop the crew discussed the air speed problem but decided they could adjust to the conditions. The plane crashed on the second drop. Firefighters on the ground reported very strong wind speeds about the time of the fatal drop. One estimate was 50 mph.

The MAFFS 7 flight crew obtained a detailed weather forecast for the fire they expected to fly that day in 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire at Colorado Springs, but they did not have one for the fires in South Dakota, nor did they request one when they were diverted from the Arapaho Fire in Wyoming to fires in South Dakota.

The last time the four MAFFS bases sent their eight aircraft and crews to one location for joint training was in 2010. In 2012 all four bases conducted the training on their own. This year the California and Colorado bases each did their training independently, and the Wyoming and North Carolina bases joint-trained in Cheyenne.

The crash report did not specifically state that the lack of joint training the year of the accident was an issue, but it did say this:

Local training did not include different terrain conditions, density altitudes and congested pit operations, all of which are essential components in order to comprehend what live MAFFS operations entail. Additionally, all four MAFFS units were not integrated in order to provide a more realistic learning environment for new and seasoned MAFFS crewmembers.

More information:

Ten things to know about MAFFS, military air tankers

MAFFS 5 Peterson AFB Colorado, 9-9-2011
File photo of a MAFFS II unit being loaded into a C-130 at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, September 9, 2011. Air Force Reserve photo.

Military C-130s can be used as surge resources when the privately owned contracted air tankers are committed to going fires or initial attack. They are transformed into air tankers when outfitted with the 3,000-gallon slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS).

Here are ten things you may not have known about MAFFS air tankers.

  1. Operating one of the eight MAFFS aircraft costs $5,000 to $6,000 per hour. This is paid by the U.S. Forest Service or is charged to the fire.
  2. After the crash of MAFFS 7 on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota in 2012, the  “MAFFS 7” number was retired.
  3. Since one of the MAFFS slip-in units was destroyed in the crash, MAFFS 9, a new number, is using what was the spare ninth unit. Now there is no spare unit.
  4. The U.S. Forest Service supplies the ground-based marshaling and retardant loading personnel when MAFFS are activated.
  5. Maintenance and repairs of the MAFFS slip-in units are performed by a crew of six technicians supplied by the USFS. Some of them are former Aero Union employees. The MAFFS units were made for the USFS under contracts awarded to Aero Union.
  6. The Aero Union company, after going through bankruptcy, now consists of one person who is dealing with the remaining financial issues until the doors are closed for the last time. If any new MAFFS units are manufactured, it would likely be done by another company.
  7. The USFS has copies of the technical and engineering documents and they believe they have the rights to have additional MAFFS 2 units manufactured if they desired, according to what we were told by a person who is very knowledgeable about the system. The bank that now owns Aero Union may or may not agree.
  8. The retardant is pumped out of the 3,000-gallon tank by compressed air stored in two tanks at 1,200 psi. The compressed air tanks on the new MAFFS 2 units are refilled by two onboard air compressors which can fill the tanks in 15 to 20 minutes. Or, they can be refilled by one of six portable USFS air compressors on the ground (in about 14 minutes) that are moved around to air tanker bases as needed when the MAFFS aircraft are activated. The first generation MAFFS 1 units, no longer used, did not have onboard air compressors and had to be refilled on the ground. The contracts for the MAFFS 2 units specified that the air tanks had to be refilled by the onboard air compressors in no more than 30 minutes.
  9. The military personnel working on a MAFFS aircraft typically fly for seven days, and then are relieved by a replacement crew.
  10. The USFS has no plans to ever again use the first generation MAFFS 1 units.
MAFFS compressor
A MAFFS air tanker is being refilled with compressed air and water during training at Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 7, 2013. The compressor (on the left) is one of six owned and operated by the USFS, and is moved around to air tanker bases as needed when MAFFS are activated. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Photos of the MAFFS aircraft taken during annual refresher training at Cheyenne, Wyoming May 7, 2013.

Conversion of Coulson’s C-130 nearing completion

Coulson's C-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q undergoing maintenance and tank installation in San Bernardino, CA. Coulson photo.

While it certainly is not ready to drop retardant over a fire today, the conversion of Coulson’s C-130Q into an air tanker is progressing very well.

The company was selected this week by the U.S. Forest Service to receive an exclusive use contract for the 32-year old aircraft that had been sitting in a Wisconsin museum for the last 10 years. Before that it was used by NASA for research, but it began it’s life as a strategic communications link aircraft for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces.

A C-130Q is similar to a C-130H, but the “Q” model was outfitted with a complex antenna system for communications with submarines and bombers.

In addition to building and installing the retardant tank, the work going on at the San Bernardino airport includes inspections which required that some of the skin be removed from the wings and other surfaces. The inspection is almost done and the aircraft is being put back together.

bottom of Coulson tank
The lower portion of the retardant tank being installed in the C-130Q. Coulson photo.

Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that the top portion of the retardant tank is finished and the bottom is nearing completion. They expect to conduct flights in June leading toward FAA approval for a restricted category type certificate. They will also need to go through a test for the Interagency AirTanker Board which involves dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground to determine consistency and quantity.

Coulson's C-130Q tank
The top portion of the tank for Coulson’s C-130Q. Coulson photo.

ABC7 in Los Angeles produced the video report below about the aircraft:

Coulson C-130Q
The engineering drawing of the RADS tank for Coulson C-130Q. Courtesy of Coulson.

In a Coulson company newsletter published on the internet in February, 2012, Jim Messer, Chief Operating Officer, described the process they went through in selecting the aircraft to be used as an air tanker:

…To get to this point we conducted an extensive review of various aircraft capabilities and performance, looking at over 30 aircraft before concluding that the C-130 is the best available.

In the process to acquire an aircraft specific for the airtanker role, Coulson focused on those airframes that were designed specifically for the mission profile of aerial fire fighting. Although many retired high time airlines designed for high altitude point to point flights were available at lower cost they were discounted for the mission required in the fire fighting role.

The C-130Q aircraft was designed to undertake aerial wildland fire operations. Its manoeuvrability, and performance, operating at low levels at low speed with, heavy loads in rugged terrain, immediate power response, and STOL capabilities makes the C-130 a natural fit as an Airtanker.

 


Thanks go out to Britt and Ryan

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.

****

“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.
Continue reading “The air tanker industry’s opinion on the C27J as an air tanker”

Neptune CEO interviewed about failure to win Next-Gen contract

An ABC affiliate TV station in Montana conducted an interview with Ron Hooper, the CEO of Neptune Aviation, after the company failed to win one of the contracts for next-generation air tankers announced by the U.S. Forest Service May 6. The reporter made it sound like the company was definitely going to file a protest about the contract, but Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, told us yesterday that they would make a decision about a possible protest after receiving a debriefing from the USFS contracting officer.

The Missoulian also has an interesting article about the award of the next-gen contracts.

A fun fact: Mr. Hooper as recently as November, 2010 worked for the U.S. Forest Service as the Director of Acquisition Management for the agency. His name is also mentioned in a summary of the 1987 U.S. Forest Service “airtanker scandal”. When qualified as a contracting officer, he reportedly made a determination after the transfer of the 28 aircraft to private companies that the transfer was void and they should be returned to the government. At the time Mr. Hooper was the staff assistant to the Forest Service Deputy Chief for Business Operations.

Photos of MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS training at Cheyenne

Tuesday I found myself in Cheyenne, Wyoming where two Air National Guard units were conducting their annual training and recertification for using their Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS).

The 153 Airlift Wing from Wyoming and North Carolina’s 145 Airlift Wing got together along with six lead planes for ground-based meetings and airborne exercises.

I’ll write more about the MAFFS training later, but until then, here are some photos.

MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Filling the MAFFS with water (for training drops) and compressed air. The MAFFS also have an on-board air compressor which can be used if there isn’t one provided at an air tanker base.
MAFFS training at Cheyenne
The larger tank with the blue dot holds 3,000 gallons of retardant or water. The smaller white tank is for compressed air (at 1,200 psi) which pushes the retardant out of the larger tank.
MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Two Loadmasters operate the MAFFS unit in the cargo hold of the C-130.

More information:

All of the photos were taken by Bill Gabbert and are protected by copyright.

Neptune air tankers shut down Monday

After the U.S. Forest Service announced on Monday morning their intention to award contracts for next-generation air tankers to five companies, the pilots of all five Neptune Aviation air tankers that were currently working and available for fire assignments walked away from their aircraft in California and New Mexico at about 12:30 p.m MT. The aircraft were unstaffed until Tuesday morning. Neptune did not receive one of the next-gen contracts even though they supplied all but one of the large air tankers on exclusive use contracts for the last one and a half years. The company did, however, receive contracts a few weeks ago for one BAe-146 and six  P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract.

One person who contacted Fire Aviation assumed that the pilots walking off the job was a protest about the fact that the company did not receive a next-gen contract.

We contacted Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, who told us the following:

Neptune decided, for safety reasons, to stand-down our contract fleet (plus flight training in MSO) due to the number of questions and concerns that were flooding into Missoula from the crews in the field. The decision was made with the USFS’s full knowledge and done in accordance with the current “Legacy Contract”. We were notified of the contract awards at the same time of the USFS press release. The timing of the two messages did not give us enough time to send out a notice to our employees of the USFS decision and what it meant to the company and employees. We did not want our crews worried about the company’s future, their jobs, BAe program, etc, instead of being 100% mission focused. We took the opportunity to get clear and concise information to them and allow for questions and concerns to be addressed.

Bottom line, no one was told to walk off the job in protest and to my knowledge no one did it independently.

The first attempt to award the next-gen contracts on June 13, 2012 was overturned after protests by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson Aviation, who did not receive awards, were upheld by the Government Accountability Office. We asked Mr. Snyder if they planned to protest this latest contracting process, and he told Fire Aviation that their company would make a decision about that after a debriefing from the U.S. Forest Service contracting officer.

In their news release, the USFS said the five successful bidders were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing. A person who is familiar with the air tanker contracting process told Fire Aviation that the reasons for not selecting Neptune for this latest next-gen award were most likely based on price and their accident history.

If Neptune submitted the same bid structure on this latest next-gen solicitation as they did the first time, their price, based on the total cost estimate for the 5-year base period, would have been higher than all of the successful bidders in round two, except for the proposal for the DC-10 from 10 Tanker, who based their bid on delivering 5,000 gallons, compared to Neptune’s BAe-146 with a maximum capacity of around 3,000 gallons. The DC-10’s bid allowed for options for the additional 6,600 gallons in their 11,600-gallon tank. The solicitation’s specification was for tankers delivering between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. 10 Tanker shrewdly configured their bid to work within the constraints of the solicitation.