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.

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.

It will be another 2 years before CAL FIRE receives first converted HC-130H air tanker

Congress gave them to the U.S. Forest Service in 2013, but the agency rejected the aircraft

tanker 116 HC-130H
Tanker 116, one of the HC-130H aircraft that was partially converted, at Redding, May, 2017.

The first of the seven HC-130H former Coast Guard aircraft that Congress sent to the U.S. Forest Service in 2013, which were then rejected and regifted to CAL FIRE, will not be fully converted into a firefighting air tanker until 2021. The remaining six will be finished in the following years. The aircraft need various levels of depot level maintenance, some need new wing boxes, and they all need retardant delivery systems.

The Air Force is responsible for the required major maintenance and installation of the retardant systems. Three years ago they awarded a contract for the retardant systems, then cancelled it. A new request for proposals was issued March 9, 2019 with a response due date of April 29, 2019.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein and nine other members of California’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson several months ago in an attempt to motivate them to quit dragging their feet on the project.

In 2016 the Forest Service put together a brief planned timeline for receiving and modifying the aircraft which assumed the last of the seven would be fully converted into air tankers and delivered to the agency in 2019.

We have written about this debacle 38 times since the legislation to transfer and refit the aircraft was passed in 2013.

Senators ask USFS to keep operating the HC-130H air tanker until end of year

The USFS plans to shut down their HC-130H air tanker program September 17, 2018

Above: Three of the four former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft that have recently been at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Seen here: T-118 (in USFS livery), and two ships still with Coast Guard livery, 1709 and 1714.  Photo by Drew P. Hansen.

(Originally published at 3:07 p.m. PDT September 8, 2018)

Two Senators from California have written a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue imploring him to retain until the end of the year two former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft that the U.S. Forest Service decided they no longer want. Legislation passed a few weeks ago directed that seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, originally intended to be used by the USFS, be transferred to the state of California after work is complete by the Air Force to convert them to air tankers with conventional gravity-powered retardant tanks.

Below is an excerpt from the Senators’ letter, dated August 30, 2018:

…The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (Public Law 115-232) authorizes the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the State of California for firefighting purposes. Two of these seven aircraft are currently in use in California by the Forest Service. While they will eventually be outfitted with a gravity retardant delivery system, there is no need to pull these two aircraft from California’s front lines for many months. Instead, these aircraft should remain actively engaged in California as we approach the historically most active months of the fire year.

Given the continuing threat of catastrophic wildfires in California, we ask that you continue operating the two HC-130H aircraft in California to ensure that every asset is available to protect lives and property. Thank you for considering our request.

To be clear, today there are four former Coast Guard HC-130Hs at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Two of these four have been painted in USFS livery, Tankers 116 and 118, and two ships still have Coast Guard livery, 1709 and 1714. A third ship has been painted, Tanker 119, and it is already in long term storage. None of them have conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery systems. The Air Force should have installed them by now but had contracting difficulties which they did not solve.

The USFS has “borrowed” one of the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that is assigned to the Air National Guard base in Reno, Nevada — one of eight distributed by the USFS to four military bases (two each) that operate C-130s. They can be installed in a matter of hours in a C-130. The MAFFS units are owned and maintained by the USFS for the purpose of having access to a surge capacity of eight additional air tankers operated by the military.

One of the aircraft, T-116, made 330 drops in 2017.

But the USFS is only using one MAFFS unit, the one from Reno, so they can only operate one of the former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft at a time as an air tanker. The USFS has not used the aircraft on a routine basis for other duties, such as hauling fire equipment or firefighters, so right now the USFS can see no use for the additional HC-130H aircraft, except as possible spares if maintenance or other issues keep the primary ship on the ground.

The USFS plan is to return the borrowed MAFFS unit to the Reno Air National Guard base on September 17, effectively shutting down the program.

Contractors have been operating and maintaining the aircraft, similar to the CAL FIRE model for their 23 air tankers. But the USFS contract for the flight crew will be cancelled on September 20, 2018. The maintenance contract will remain in effect.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Markus.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Legislation to transfer 7 Coast Guard HC-130H’s to CAL FIRE lands on President’s desk

Much work still needs to be performed on the aircraft by the U.S. Air Force before they become firefighting air tankers

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, spraying retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

The amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 to authorize the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the state of California made it through the conference committee and was passed by both houses. It was given to the President on Friday and he is expected to sign it. The aircraft will be converted to firefighting air tankers capable of dropping at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The part of the bill regarding the aircraft formerly owned and operated by the Coast Guard is a relatively small portion of the legislation that covers $717 billion in spending for the Department of Defense. It directs the Air Force to complete the center and outer wing-box replacement modifications as needed, programmed depot-level maintenance, and procure and install a gravity powered retardant delivery system in each aircraft.

The bill increases the maximum spending limits that were specified in the original 2013 legislation. The amount that can be spent on the retardant systems increased from $5 million to $7.5 million per aircraft, and the total amount spent on the entire project went from $130 million to $150 million.

In 2013, legislation directed that the seven aircraft be modified into air tankers and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. So far at least two have come close to completing the modifications, but none of them have had retardant delivery systems installed, due primarily to delays in Air Force contracting. Occasionally one at a time has been spotted, T-116 or T-118, dropping retardant, using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System taken from the eight MAFFS units that are usually assigned to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve squadrons. This fiscal year the administration decided, five years after the process began, that they are no longer interested in acquiring the HC-130H’s.

CAL FIRE has maintained a fleet of 23 S-2T air tankers for years that can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. These seven HC-130H’s would be a very significant addition to their aviation program.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to MrCAPT1409.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

CAL FIRE hopes to get the seven HC-130H’s the Forest Service turned down

Above: Tanker 116, an HC-130H, on final approach at Fresno, July 22, 2017. Photo by L.S. Braun.

(Originally published at 2 p.m. PDT July 267, 2018)

Now that the U.S. Forest Service has decided that they do not want the seven HC-130H aircraft that were in the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service, the door has opened for Plan B for those aircraft.

This story began in 2013 when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act directing that the Coast Guard transfer the planes and that the Air Force would arrange to take care the backlog of maintenance and the work needed to turn them into air tankers, appropriating up to $130 million to complete the work. At least two of the planes were close to completion with the exception of installing a retardant delivery system. Tankers 116 and 118 have been seen occasionally working on fires using a borrowed Modular Airborne FireFighting System in lieu of a permanent tank.

CAL FIRE has been considering the long range plans for their fixed wing fleet for a while. The 1,200-gallon S2T’s are not getting any younger and in recent years the agency has been supplementing those 23 air tankers with large and very large air tankers on a call when needed and exclusive use basis. At various times CAL FIRE has used BAe-146’s, DC-10’s, the 747 Supertanker and other tankers, all holding from 3,000 to 19,200 gallons. CAL FIRE was an innovator, being the first to contract for the Very Large DC-10 and 747 air tankers.

CAL FIRE Chief Ken Pimlott announced in an email July 26 that the agency is hoping to obtain the seven HC-130H’s:

…Senator Feinstein and her staff have worked tirelessly to seek amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that authorize the transfer of the seven C-130H air frames to the State of California. This amended language will be voted on by Congress in the next week.

If approved, there are a number of steps which must take place before California, and ultimately CAL FIRE, can take possession of these aircraft. Additionally, they must be developed into firefighting air tankers, which will require funding through future budget processes. The number of aircraft to be built and the ultimate base locations have yet to be determined, and may take several years to implement. However, the acquisition of these aircraft are an important step forward in bolstering our capacity to address the State’s wildfire risk.

The U.S. House and the Senate are considering different versions of the National Defense Authorization Act referred to by Chief Pimlott. The conference committee charged with modifying and merging the versions agreed to require the Air Force to complete the conversions of the seven aircraft and give them to the state of California.

Here is what they came up with, in Congress-speak:

The House bill contained a provision (sec. 1075) that would amend section 1098 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (Public Law 113-66) to relieve the Air Force from the mandate to modify United States Coast Guard (USCG) HC-130H aircraft with firefighting capabilities for use by the United States Forest Service (USFS). The Senate amendment contained no similar provision. The Senate recedes with an amendment that would maintain the mandate for the Air Force to modify the USCG HC-130H aircraft, but designate the state of California as the ultimate recipient of the aircraft, vice the USFS.

The amended bill still has to be voted on and approved by the Senate and the House and then signed by the President, which could happen as soon as next week.

Coast Guard/Forest Service air tanker is back in the air

Michael Piper got these photos of Air Tanker 118 apparently off the television as one of the HC-130H air tankers was working the County Fire west of Sacramento. Click on the photos a couple of times to see larger versions.

After Congress authorized $130 million to transfer seven U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted to air tankers, much work was done to bring maintenance up to date, replace wing boxes, and issue contracts to private companies for regular maintenance and operation. But a few months ago the current administration announced they plan to abandon the project.

This may be the last year we see any of them fighting fire. Then I guess they’ll go to the boneyard in good shape, some with new wing boxes. There’s a rumor that CAL FIRE is considering  upgrading from their 1,200-gallon S-2T air tankers to a version of the C-130 which carries at least 3,000 gallons. Maybe they will get their hands on them.

Over the last three years one has been seen occasionally over fires, using a borrowed MAFFS slip-in tank system. As far as I know, no permanent retardant systems have been installed in any of the seven HC-130H aircraft.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, spraying retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

Forest Service contracts for aircraft onboarding analysis

When we saw the solicitation above and read the detailed description, we thought the U.S. Forest Service was planning to add more air tankers to their fleet or resurrect the Coast Guard HC-130H program, but that turned out to not be the case.

The solicitation seeks to hire seven contract personnel, with most of them being required to work out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It closed April 10 after being open for only about two weeks.

Their tasks will include:

  • Program and project management support;
  • Development of operations and management strategy;
  • Acquisition program support for aviation support contracts;
  • Technology insertion for aviation assets and facilities;
  • Analysis and implementation of supportability services for airframe, engine, and avionics.
  • Economic analysis for technology insertion and transformation efforts;
  • Safety program support for aviation and ground operations.

In February the Administration announced their desire to abandon the acquisition and conversion of seven Coast Guard HC-130H’s into firefighting air tankers after spending tens of millions on the project. They intend to operate one this year that is partially complete, borrowing a slip-in MAFFS retardant system.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, using a MAFFS unit to spray retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

We asked Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones for a plain text translation of the language in the solicitation:

This solicitation is for engineering services needed for the USDA Forest Service to have one HC-130H equipped with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) available to fly wildfire suppressions this year (2018) as in 2015 and 2017. The current contract for these services expires May 31st.

Ms. Jones supplied an update on the future of the HC-130H air tanker program:

Section 1098(a) of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the USDA Forest Service for use as Airtankers in wildfire suppression. Based on recent increased private sector investment in Next Generation Airtankers, the agency has determined that government-owned Airtankers are no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required Airtanker needs. As such, the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget notes that the USDA Forest Service will seek Congressional support to terminate the NDAA provisions pertaining to agency-owned HC-130H aircraft. Any changes or modifications to these provisions will require Congressional action.

So apparently this contract for seven people mostly working out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, will be to support one aircraft. If, however, unlike Ms. Jones’ description, they could perform these services for the entire USFS Fire and Aviation Management aircraft fleet, including contracting, it could be a worthwhile investment.

We are reminded that in June, 2015, 522 days after the USFS HC-130H acquisition began, they came to a conclusion, according to a Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).