Two C-130Hs begin the path to transformation

The aircraft will be converted into air tankers by Coulson Aviation

C-130H Coulson convert air tanker Tucson
Two Coulson C-130H aircraft being towed from the AMARG in Tucson Feb. 29, 2020. Coulson photo.

Yesterday the physical process of converting two C-130H aircraft formerly owned by the Norwegian military began when they were towed from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) in Tucson, Arizona. Coulson  Aviation (USA) Inc. purchased five C-130Hs through a complicated procedure that started in March, 2018 and was finalized at the end of 2019.

Thursday the two aircraft were moved from AMARG to a nearby facility where they will be brought back to life, with the goal to fly them both out in March for heavy maintenance and conversion into air tankers capable of fighting wildfires.

A third 737 is being converted
In 2017 Coulson purchased six 737-300’s to convert them into 4,000-gallon “Fireliner” air tankers capable of transporting up to 70 passengers. So far two conversions are complete, and Tankers 137 and 138 and have been dropping on fires in Australia during their 2019-2020 bushfire season. New South Wales bought T-137 and Coulson still owns T-138.  Britt Coulson, Vice President of Coulson Aviation, told us a third is in the pipeline; all of the parts have been manufactured and their team members are working on it.

C-130H Coulson convert air tanker Tucson
Two C-130H aircraft being towed from the AMARG in Tucson Feb. 29, 2020. Coulson photo.

How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?

We calculated the cost per delivered gallon

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

Today I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Statistics for the use of air tankers, 2000 through 2019

And, more details about the new Call When Needed contracts

 
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised Feb. 24, 2020. Fire Aviation.

(Updated Feb. 24, 2020)

This chart shows data from 2000 through 2019 for the number of large air tankers (LAT) on U.S. Forest Service Exclusive Use (EU) Contracts, the number of times each year large air tankers were requested by firefighters on a wildfire, and the percentage of requests that were not filled (Unable to Fill, UTF). 

New Call When Needed contracts

More information is now available about the Large Air Tanker Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in December, 2019. Six companies have a total of 36 aircraft on the list, a number of aircraft that is one more than first announced.

The costs below are estimates provided by the Forest Service for one aircraft  based on the contracts awarded. Kaari Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service who sent us the information, told us that the estimates assume 36 days a year, for 4 years, and 100 flight hours a year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold approximately 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

Update February 13, 2020. With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above, it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and not including the costs of retardant, are: 
$7.00:  MD-87
$8.50:  BAe-146, C-130, & 737
$10.00: RJ85
$4.50:  DC-10
$3.00:  747

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. 

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2007 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

The CWN contract was awarded 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018 —  the exact amount of time it took to award the first Next-Generation EU air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013.

Exclusive Use Next Generation 3.0 contracts

And speaking of long time frames, it has been 450 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for the third round of EU Next Gen air tankers, Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required 12 months ago. Ms. Carpenter told us today that the FS expects it to be awarded in “early March, 2020.”

Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study

The Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study began approximately 2,812 days ago in 2012 and to date no substantive results have been released, other than a two-page “fact sheet”.  Senator Lisa Murkowski asked about the study during a Congressional hearing April 9, 2019 and FS Chief Vicki Christiansen told her a report would be released “soon”. Ms. Carpenter told us today it would be released in the Spring of this year, 2020.

In the hearing 10 months ago Colorado Senator Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

When asked if firefighting aircraft were worth the cost and if they were effective, the answers from land management agencies have often been, “Yes”.

How do you know?

“We just do”. (I’m paraphrasing here).

The study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires. Theoretically this would better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

Last year one person familiar with the issue told me that they thought the actual, accurate data from the AFUE would never be released — like the situation with the RAND air tanker study that the Forest Service never released even after our Freedom of Information Act request. Two years after it was completed RAND released the document.

13 large air tankers under contract for 2019

Currently six of them have been activated

Aero-Flite's Tanker 161
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 161, an RJ85, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. One of the 13 large air tankers under EU contract for 2019 as of April 12, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 13 large air tankers (LATs) under exclusive use contracts for this year according to the latest information from the U.S. Forest Service as of April 12, 2019. They will be working under the Next Generation Air Tanker contracts, versions 1.0 and 2.0. (Update: list of tankers)

Currently six of them have been activated according to the estimated starting dates of the Mandatory Availability Periods (MAP). On April 17 a seventh will begin. The rest will come on between May 1 and May 29.

The 13 air tankers confirmed so far on exclusive use contracts for 2019 are:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier: 910 and 912 (DC-10)
  • Coulson: 131 (C-130Q)
  • Aero Air: 101 and 107, (MD-87)
  • Aero Flite: 160, 161, 163, and 167 (RJ85)
  • Neptune: 01, 15, 16, and 40

All 13 are slated for 160 MAP days but could be extended if necessary.

The baker’s dozen aircraft are likely to be augmented in the not too distant future when the Next Gen 3.0 contract advertised December 2, 2018 is awarded for exclusive use LATs. Forest Service officials are currently going through the submissions which had to be submitted by Valentine’s Day. The solicitation only had five line items, so it appears that a maximum of five air tankers could be added to the contract list, bringing the total up to 18 for this summer.

Recently the FS has been awarding contracts that only guarantee one year, with another four being at the whim of the agency. This makes it very difficult for potential vendors to acquire financing and build multimillion dollar air tankers that may not receive a contract, and if they do, it could only be for one year. Last year the Canadian Province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven government-owned water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

The Forest Service Aviation Strategy Implementation 2018-2022 dated March, 2018 established that the plan for the number of exclusive use large air tankers and helicopters would be exactly the same during fiscal years 2019 through 2022:

  • 18 large air tankers (down from 44 in 2002)
  • 28 Type 1 helicopters (down from 34 a few years ago)
  • 34 Type 2 helicopters
  • 46 Type 3 helicopters

If there is a need for more than 18 LATs, approval of orders for Call When Needed (CWN) ships must be first approved by the Washington Office of the FS. This cost saving effort that began in 2018 is intended to create greater accountability and oversight for aircraft. There are probably more than a dozen large air tankers sitting on ramps over and above the 13 presently on contract for this year.

The FS has two pending contracts that have not yet been awarded for CWN air tankers: large and very large. The responses for LATs are due April 18, 2019 while the VLATs were due seven months ago.

UPDATE April 17, 2019: The VLAT CWN solicitation has been effectively cancelled, but changes made to the LAT CWN solicitation with responses due tomorrow made it possible for VLATs to meet the contract specifications, so they can be considered along with the LATs. The USFS made so many changes to the solicitation, 12 amendments, that they are calling it CWN 2.1 Request for Proposals. The response due date, originally in the summer of 2018, has been extended at least nine times.

Coulson signs agreement with Argentina for analysis of firefighting aircraft

Coulson C-130 air tankers
Coulson’s three C-130 air tankers.

(Updated at 3:05 p.m. MDT June 20, 2017)

Coulson Aviation has signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Argentina that will enable the country “to analyse and, eventually, develop as a whole, an air combat division” for suppressing wildfires.

The Secretary for Logistics and Military Coordination for Emergencies, Walter Ceballos, made the announcement on his Facebook page on June 15.

In the photos above, Wayne Coulson, the CEO and President of Coulson Aviation, is wearing a white shirt and a light blue tie. Mr. Ceballos is next to him in the brown suit.

Google’s automatic translation of the text in the above post:

I am grateful to the CANADA CCC programme which allowed the ministry of defence to be linked to Coulson Aviation, a specialized company and certified in air fire operations. We signed a memorandum of understanding to analyse and, eventually, develop as a whole, an air combat division, with the FAA’s hr and operational operations to serve the national plan to fight fire.

We checked with Britt Coulson, Vice President of Aviation, who explained that the company “is in the final stages of negotiations with Argentina to [provide] a turnkey fleet of command and control, fixed wing, and rotary wing assets” as well as a full training program. If the agreement is consummated, the aircraft would be on contract, owned and operated by Coulson.

Mr. Ceballos is also interested in the Russian-made amphibious Be-200 air tanker and has pinned the following at the top of his Twitter account:

Twitter’s automatic translation of the above text:

Visit to Beriev to evaluate B200 (Multiflight Amphibious Plane).

In addition to having three operational C-130-type air tankers and a fourth one on the way, Coulson has purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines and intends to convert at least some of them into air tankers. One has been painted and has started the conversion process.

Coulson 737 air tanker
One of Coulson’s 737’s — the first one to be painted and to start the air tanker conversion process.

Coulson to convert 737’s into air tankers

Coulson 737 air tankerCoulson Aviation is adding not only additional air tankers to their fleet, but is branching out into a different model of aircraft. The company has purchased six 737-300’s and intends to convert them into 4,000-gallon “Fireliner” air tankers. Britt Coulson said they saw an opportunity when Southwest Airlines made a decision to replace their 737-300’s with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two of the 737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they have a relatively low number of hours in the sky.

The first conversion has started, with a freshly painted 737 scheduled to roll out of the paint shop in Spokane on May 22, 2017. The next step is to add the gravity-based tanks which will have the same technology used on their C-130’s.

The air tanker is being designed as a multi-use aircraft with the ability to haul passengers. Mr. Coulson said, “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

The company likes the three C-130’s that they have already converted to air tankers, but finding additional C-130’s for the civilian market is very difficult.

A 737 will be able to use some air tanker bases that larger aircraft, like the C-130, can’t, with a wingspan that is about 38 feet shorter.

Mr. Coulson said they expect to begin installing the retardant system in June with a completion date of December of this year. When that is complete they will start on another. The first conversion will be done by Coulson Aircrane Canada.

More photos of the aircraft.

Picture day for Coulson’s C-130’s

Coulson C-130 air tankers

While Coulson’s three C-130-type air tankers were all together in Reno last month for carding by the U.S. Forest Service and pilot training the company took the opportunity to grab some photos of the aircraft while they were flying in formation.

They are all variants of Lockheed’s C-130 platform — Tanker 131 is a C-130Q while Tankers 132 and 133 are L-382G’s. Tanker 133, the newest addition to the fleet, just became operational a couple of weeks ago.

Scroll down to see how Dan Megna got the photos.

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tanker

To take the photos Coulson rented an OV-10 that conveniently has a small compartment in the rear. Professional photographer Dan Megna sat in that tiny space to get the shots.

Air Spray and Coulson to roll out additional air tankers

Both companies expect to introduce new air tankers in the next few months.

Coulson's "new" Tanker 133
Coulson’s “new” Tanker 133 just after the decorative wrap was applied. Coulson photo.

Coulson

Britt Coulson told us today that their most recently converted air tanker, Tanker 133 will be complete by the end of this week (see above photo). It will be the third in the C-130 series that the company has converted and is their second L-382G, which is a civilian version of the C-130. Their first L-382G, Tanker 132, was first grid tested in 2015 and in recent months was on contract in Australia. T-133 should be complete before the company begins pilot training at the end of this month.

Coulson is also working on a fourth air tanker. The “new” Tanker 134 is the second C-130Q that they have acquired and should be ready to go about four years after their first C-130Q, Tanker 131 reported for duty. The aircraft needs heavy maintenance, and to get it done they will remove the tail and wings and truck it down the highway from Tucson to another facility in Mesa. Britt Coulson said they expect to have it complete by the end of this summer.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q which will become Tanker 134 later this year. Coulson photo.

The C-130Q’s began as strategic communications links 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. They are similar to the C-130H, but the 12 “Q” models that were made were outfitted with complex electronics systems, including a six-mile long trailing wire antenna, for communicating with submarines and bombers. Tanker 131 still has the remains of a vent for cooling the winch that was used to reel in the long antenna.

Privately owned C-130’s are extremely hard to find, and it is likely that very few more, if any, will be converted to air tankers in the near future.

Air Spray

Meanwhile Air Spray expects to roll their first converted BAe-146 out of the hangar in a week or so to begin static tests of the retardant system while the aircraft is parked on the ground. After that is complete they will start flight tests and work towards the grid test, dropping retardant into a matrix of cups on the ground at Fox Field. Ravi Saip, the company’s Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told us today that he expects the tanker will be ready to fight fire sometime this summer.  They are also working on a second BAe-146, which, so far, has the interior stripped out. Air Spray has been working on the first one since at least 2013, when the estimated completion date was fire season 2014.

Air Spray's BAe-146
Air Spray’s BAe-146s as seen in a 2013 Air Spray photo. Ravi Saip said when they roll the nearly completed aircraft out of the hangar he will send us a better picture.

Mr. Saip told us that the recent contracts for federal air tankers require that instead of being certified in the “restricted” category, they must comply with the requirements of a “standard” aircraft. The Forest Service, and especially the FAA, have been pushing for this change for jet-powered air tankers for a while.While it complicates the conversion and approval process, it also opens the  possibility of air tankers being allowed to carry passengers if the Forest Service wanted to plug that into the contracts.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) — three on wheels, and five on floats. They are on contract with Alaska, Oregon, the Forest Service, and one is on Call When Needed.

Mr. Saip said the one with the Forest Service at John Day, Oregon is the only SEAT the agency has on contract and is instrumented with strain gauges like the large air tankers.

The Bureau of Land Management usually does all of the contracting for the federal SEATs. Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the BLM, told us in March that the number of SEATs on exclusive use contracts was expected to be the same as in 2016 — 33 aircraft.