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.

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.