CAL FIRE expects to have seven new Firehawk helicopters in operation this year

The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews

CAL FIRE's new i70 Firehawk helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i Firehawk, helicopter 205, being tested at Centennial, Colorado May 7, 2020. Photo by @skippyscage.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Siskorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

More hand crews

The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Research

The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 is sporting new livery

Tanker 119
Tanker 119 at McClellan, shortly after getting new paint. Photo by Mike McKeig November 20, 2020.

Mike McKeig sent us an excellent photo of CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 taken after the aircraft received a new paint job.

This is at least the third of seven HC-130H aircraft the agency is getting from the Coast Guard that have been painted in CAL FIRE livery. The plan is for all seven to receive internal gravity-powered retardant tanks so they can be used as air tankers. In May we had photos of Tankers 116 and 118.

The rudder on T-118 was also one of the last components to be painted, like T-119 at the top of the article.

A new contract awarded to DynCorp specifies that in addition to maintaining and supplying pilots for CAL FIRE’s fleet of S-2T air tankers, they will do the same for the HC-130H tankers.

Here is a “before” photo of T-119:

T-119 McClellan 5-5-2020
T-119, an HC-130H, was seen at McClellan May 5, 2020. Photo by John Vogel.

Below are Tankers 118 and 116:

CAL Fire air tanker 118 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.
CAL Fire air tanker 116 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 116 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.

Update on the CAL FIRE C-130 air tanker program

YouTuber Juan Browne, “blancolirio”, has an update on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s progress in converting seven former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into firefighting air tankers. It was filmed at Sacramento McClellan Airport and posted to YouTube June 28, 2020.

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

CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 spotted at McClellan

T-119 McClellan 5-5-2020
T-119, an HC-130H, was seen at McClellan May 5, 2020. Photo by John Vogel.

One of CAL FIRE’s seven HC-130H air tankers, T-119, was spotted by John Vogel at Sacramento McClellan Airport on May 5. This is the first report we have seen about the aircraft since it was in storage in Tucson at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, often called The Boneyard, in September, 2018.

The U.S. Forest Service received the seven aircraft from the Coast Guard in 2013, but regifted them to CAL FIRE in 2018 after losing interest. Approximately three were painted in USFS livery, T-116, T-118, and T-119. Before the transfer from the Coast Guard was finalized, they were all going to receive internal retardant tanks and various levels of maintenance, work to be overseen by the U.S. Air Force at a cost of up to $130 million; that work is still going on. Most of them were to be fitted with new center wing boxes. After many delays, in December, 2019 the Air Force awarded a contract to Coulson Aviation to install the tanks.

CAL FIRE has been showing off one of them, T-118, which has been repainted with their livery.

Contract awarded again to install retardant systems in CAL FIRE’s HC-130H aircraft

A contract awarded in 2016 was cancelled

T-131 tank, ready to be pushed into the aircraft.
The retardant tank for air tanker 131, ready to be pushed into the aircraft, March 20, 2014. Bill Gabbert photo.

Coulson Aviation has received a contract from the U.S. Air Force to install retardant delivery systems on the seven HC-130H aircraft that will be operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Coulson teamed with Lockheed Martin who will install the tanks at Lockheed’s facility in Greenville, SC.

The Air Force began the contracting process in 2014,  awarded a contract to Coulson in 2016, and cancelled it in 2017. But it was readvertised March 9, 2019 and awarded again to Coulson last month.

Coulson has been installing their version of a 3,500-gallon gravity-powered internal RADS retardant system in C-130Q and C-130H aircraft since at least 2013. It can be installed or removed in a few hours after the modifications are made to the plane.

On December 27, 2013 President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed that the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed routine and heavy maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.

After the Forest Service lost interest in the HC-130H aircraft in 2018, Congress passed legislation to transfer them to CAL FIRE. Since then they have been waiting for the retardant systems to be installed and the maintenance and other conversion tasks to be completed, which is expected to take until 2021. Most of them needed center wing box replacements, which in 2011 cost $6.7 million and takes about 10 months. CAL FIRE has been operating one without a retardant tank, Tanker 118, for several months to train flight crews.

CAL FIRE T-118 HC-130H
Tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport July 12, 2019.

In November Coulson bought five C-130H transport planes from the Norwegian Defense Materiel Agency (NDMA) and will convert them into firefighting air tankers. The formal takeover is planned for the end of this year or early in 2020.

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

Coulson purchases five C-130H aircraft from Norway

They will be converted to air tankers

https://wildfiretoday.com/tag/cave-fire/
Norwegian C-130H aircraft in storage. Coulson photo.

Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc. has bought five C-130H transport planes from the Norwegian Defense Materiel Agency (NDMA) and will convert them into firefighting air tankers. The formal takeover is planned for the end of this year or early in 2020.

The NDMA is Norway’s commercial and technical designated procurement and divestment authority for their Department of Defense.

In March 2018, the NDMA sales process began with a Request for Proposal. Six companies responded, however only Coulson Aviation was able to provide the required documentation, including the current government contracts, which was part of the sales regulations. The sales have been approved by U.S. Authorities, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Norwegian Ministry of Defense.

“These C-130H’s have been maintained to the highest standard and with our modifications, along with a new glass cockpit, they will continue to serve the public for years to come,” said Britt Coulson, President of Coulson Aviation.

The five C-130Hs have been stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.

“These airplanes have been very important for the Norwegian Defense, and I am pleased that they will now also be useful for civilian purposes, said Frank Bakke-Jensen, Minister of Defense in Norway. Mette Sørfonden, Director General for NDMA, added “This is the most significant material sales project finalized after the establishment of NDMA, and it has been an important achievement […].”

Coulson has been operating C-130Q  and C-130H models since at least 2013. In 2017 the company purchased six 737-300’s with the intention of converting 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. Conversions on at least two 737-300s are complete, with one being sold to the government of New South Wales Australia. The other has a call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

Air Force removes 123 C-130s from service to inspect wing boxes

C-130 air tankers are being inspected

Tanker 131 Trailhead Fire
Tanker 131 on the Trailhead Fire. Photo July 1, 2016 by Matthew Rhodes.

The Air Force has removed from service 123 C-130s after “atypical” cracking was found in the lower center wing joint, or “rainbow fitting”, in some aircraft.  This affects C-130H and J-model aircraft that have not received the extended service life center wing box and that have greater than 15,000 equivalent flight hours.

The Air Force will inspect all 123 aircraft which takes about eight hours. Replacing the fitting, if necessary, will take 1 to 2 months after the work can be scheduled for depot level maintenance.

This issue does not affect the seven HC-130H aircraft the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection will be receiving from the Coast Guard since none of them have more than 15,000 equivalent flight hours, according to Dennis Brown CAL FIRE’s Chief of Flight Operations. Those seven aircraft, slated for conversion to air tankers since Congress passed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act in December, 2013, are still the property of the Coast Guard and have not been officially transferred to CAL FIRE, in spite of the fact that at least one is sporting CAL FIRE livery. The HC-130Hs are waiting for the Air Force to have retardant delivery systems installed in addition to other maintenance requirements.

CAL FIRE T-118 HC-130H
Tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport July 12, 2019.

Over the weekend Coulson Aviation inspected the only C-130 type aircraft they have under U.S. Forest Service contract, Tanker 131, a C-130Q,  and no cracking was found, according to Kaari Carpenter, Public Affairs Specialist for the agency.

Coulson also has a C-130Q, T-134, under contract with CAL FIRE that is being used train the agency’s pilots for the transition from S-2Ts to HC-130Hs. Dennis Brown of CAL FIRE said the aircraft is under the 15,000-hour requirement but will be inspected tonight, regardless.

In 2018 Coulson had a civilian version of a C-130, an L-382G, under USFS Call When Needed Contract, but that air tanker has been replaced on the list with a B-737, Tanker 137, which was on contract in Australia during their summer. It was used on a fire in the United States last week, which may be the first time a 737 air tanker has dropped on a fire in North America.

Thanks and tips of the hat go out to Bean and Jim. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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.