C-130 air tanker spotted at Ramona, California

The runway is too short for some large air tankers

It is unusual to see an air tanker larger than an S-2 at the Ramona Air Attack Base in Southern California, but a C-130Q under contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) was seen at the base yesterday, August 3. Kevin Pack, who took the photo below, said it had been dropping on a fire, possibly the Sage Fire, in San Diego County.

The relatively short runway restricts which types of aircraft can use the facilities at Ramona. When the U.S. Navy built the airport in 1945 to be used as an emergency landing field it was only 4,000 feet long and remained that length well after it was conveyed to the County of San Diego in 1956.

Air Tanker 134 C-130 Ramona
Air Tanker 134, a C-130Q, parked at Ramona Air Attack Base August 3 2019. Photo by K. E. Pack Photography.

CAL FIRE established an Air Attack Base there in 1957 and the U.S. Forest Service followed three years later.

The runway was lengthened in 2002 to 5,001 feet but it is difficult for some large air tankers and impossible for very large air tankers to work at the base. CAL FIRE has allowed BAe-146 air tankers under CAL FIRE contracts to use the runway, but currently the Forest Service prohibits their large air tankers from using the airport.

Air Tanker 134 C-130 Ramona
Air Tanker 134, a C-130Q, was still parked at Ramona Air Attack Base at 7:53 a.m. PDT August 4, 2019. HPWREN photo.

CAL FIRE bases two S-2 air tankers and an Air Tactical Group Supervisor at the airport, and the Forest Service bases a helicopter there.

The S-2s can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. In 2016 another Coulson C-130, T-131, completed 520 sorties averaging 3,404 gallons per drop. A BAe-146 has a capacity of 3,000 gallons.

The C-130Q at Ramona on Saturday was Coulson’s Tanker 134, the fourth C-130 the company has converted. Its first drop on a fire was around November 1, 2018 while on a contract in Australia. It had just finished being reconfigured as an air tanker after being rescued from storage in Tucson and had not yet been painted.

t-134 c-130Q
Air tanker 134 on the sortie when it was making its first live drop on a fire in Australia, around November 1 , 2018.

CAL FIRE is using Tanker 134 to train their pilots who are transitioning from the S-2 air tankers to the seven HC-130Hs the agency has acquired after the U.S. Forest Service lost interest in the aircraft which were previously operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

L.A. County to purchase two new Firehawk helicopters

Tom Short
Tom Short, a Senior Pilot with Los Angeles County Fire Department, at Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department announced that they are going to purchase two additional Firehawk Helicopters. Adding two to their fleet will bring the total number of Firehawks up to seven. The Department also has five Bell 412 ships — three are the EP model and two are HP.

The last two Firehawks LA County ordered are still being outfitted for firefighting and should be operational in the next two to eight months.

Two scooping air tankers on lease from Canada are due to arrive in the County September 1.

An additional firefighting helicopter to be available in San Diego County

Blackhawk helicopter
File photo of a Blackhawk helicopter that was working the Rankin Fire in Wind Cave National Park September 13, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The helicopters that are fully certificated and available in San Diego County for firefighting has grown in the last 15 or 20 years from practically nothing to eight now that an additional helicopter will be added to the mix.

Last week the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to split the cost of a Blackhawk helicopter with San Diego Gas and Electric. After the agreement is finalized, the helicopter will be positioned in the north part of the county during Red Flag Warning conditions.

Under the agreement SDG&E will cover the costs to operate the helicopter for the first two hours of any new flight, and the County will cover the second two flight hours. If used during a fire, the County could pay a maximum of $150,000 depending on flight time and reimbursements from the State of California or the federal government.

The County also shares a year-round lease with SDG&E for an Erickson Skycrane helicopter, which was put into action for several 2018 fires including the West Fire in Alpine, the Rangeland Fire in Ramona, the Pasqual Fire and the Recycle Fire in Campo.

The region currently has 10 aircraft available for initial attack:

  • A U.S. Forest Service firefighting helicopter during fire season
  • Three CAL FIRE fixed-wing aircraft, which consists of two retardant dropping airtankers and an air tactical supervisor plane,
  • Three County Sheriff/CAL FIRE helicopters
  • Two City of San Diego helicopters
  • The SDG&E-leased Erickson Skycrane helicopter.

For an extended attack the County can also call on 26 military helicopters if available.

Skycrane helicopter
The Skycrane helicopter leased by the County and SDG&E from Erickson. SDG&E photo.

C-130 works the Canyon Fire in Northern California

Napa County

C-130 air tanker retardant drop Canyon Fire California
A C-130 makes a retardant drop on the Canyon Fire in Napa County, California July 22, 2019. Photo by Kent Porter.

The Canyon Fire burned 64 acres July 22 in Napa County, California near Highway 128 and Wragg Canyon Road east of St. Helena.

I asked Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Kent Porter who took the picture if he got hit by the retardant and he said it missed him. The vehicle seen with the open door belonged to a California Highway Patrol officer, he said. Anyone who has had their vehicle slimed with retardant while the door was open will never let it happen a second time.

CAL FIRE paints one of their HC-130H air tankers

The aircraft still needs a retardant delivery system

CAL FIRE T-118 HC-130H
CAL FIRE’s Tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport July 12, 2019.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has taken one visible step toward incorporating the seven HC-130H aircraft into their air tanker fleet. One of them, Tanker 118, showed up at Sacramento McClellan Airport today sporting new livery. And it’s clearly identifiable as a CAL FIRE aircraft, with CAL  FIRE in bold letters behind the cockpit, and below the wing is the state flag. The paint design is similar to that on their S-2T air tankers.

S2 air tankers CAL FIRE facilities McClellan
File photo of S2 air tankers at CAL FIRE facilities at McClellan, March 24, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2013 the U.S. Forest Service was given seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft and Congress appropriated up to $130 million for maintenance and to convert them into air tankers. But after millions were spent the FS lost interest and in August of 2018 they were transferred to the State of California to be used eventually as air tankers.

tanker 118
Tanker 118 at McClellan Air Field, May 3, 2017 when it was operated off and on by the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by John Vogel.

The aircraft was operated off an on for a couple of years by the FS using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) retardant system. It was borrowed from the program of using military C-130s during busy portions of fire seasons when a surge capacity was needed. All seven HC-130H aircraft were supposed to receive retardant tanks, but the U.S. Air Force, responsible to see that it was done, dithered on that program for years and it never happened.

T-118 will be getting the rudder painted soon, and one day may receive a conventional internal gravity-powered retardant delivery system.

Chief of CAL FIRE Thom Porter said he expects it to be ready to fight fire in 2021.

If you ever need to kill some time, you can read through the 40 or so articles on Fire Aviation about the troubled U.S. Forest Service HC-130H program. The are all tagged HC-130H.

Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

Interview with Shem Hawkins, BC at Chico Air Attack Base

One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport

BC Shem Hawkins
Battalion Chief Shem Hawkins. Screengrab from video below.

Action News Now interviewed Shem Hawkins, the CAL FIRE Battalion Chief at the Chico Air Attack Base. One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport.

CAL FIRE is in the process of replacing their aging fleet of 12 Super Huey helicopters with new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks from United Rotorcraft.

The interviewer misquoted Chief Hawkins in one respect. CAL FIRE is getting seven HC-130H aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, but they are 31 to 35 years old — not “brand new”. The U.S. Coast Guard gave them to the U.S. Forest Service, but the FS quickly changed their mind before the conversions to air tankers were complete, and regifted them to CAL FIRE. Much work still needs to be done to perform heavy maintenance on the ships and install retardant delivery systems.

Chief Hawkins’ fire career began as a volunteer  firefighter at Magalia, CA in 1992. After being hired at CAL FIRE, he served as a Firefighter, Paramedic, Engineer, Fire Captain, and Field Battalion Chief. His father is John Hawkins who retired in December as the CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Chief.

Crews train at Sonoma Air Attack Base

Kent Porter shot some photos as crews were training with air tankers at Sonoma Air Attack Base in California.