Air tankers to be cut by one-third in 2018

The large air tankers on Forest Service exclusive use contracts are being cut from 20 to 13.

(Originally published at 4:29 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)

The U.S. Forest Service is cutting the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year from 20 to 13.

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues are affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner. Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased. This means less funds available for our crucial restorative work on your National Forest System lands to prevent large fires.

exclusive use air tankers contract 2018

Ms. Anderson is correct about the severity of wildfires. The number of acres burned and the average size of fires have grown exponentially over the last two decades.

average acres burned wildfires united states

The air tanker vendor that is most affected by this change is Neptune Aviation. Last year the company had 11 air tankers on EU contracts, seven BAe-146’s and four P2V’s. This year they have only four aircraft — all BAe-146’s. But compared to the competition, Neptune has done very well over the last five to six years. (A phone call to Neptune was not immediately returned.)

Ms. Anderson said the Administration’s plans for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins October 1, 2018, call for 18 EU large air tankers. However, Congress has not passed a budget for FY 2019 and based on their recent history, it may or may not happen. Continuing Resolutions which freeze spending at previous levels, have been enacted more frequently than conventional full-year budgets. And if it is passed, there is no guarantee that the Administration’s recommendations will be honored.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on EU contracts, but after the wings fell off two aged military surplus air tankers in mid-air that year killing five aviators, many of the older aircraft were eliminated for safety reasons. Little was done to restore the fleet during the following 11 years and by 2013 there were only 9 on EU contract. In 2013 a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” aircraft began. Eventually over the next few years we saw the introduction of retired jet-powered airliners that were not as old as the 50+ year-old aircraft they began to replace.

By 2016 there were 20 large air tankers on EU contracts, plus one Coast Guard HC-130H that worked from 2016 through 2017. It was one of seven being transferred to the Forest Service that since 2013 have been going through a very, very lengthy convoluted process of being converted into air tankers. The one flying then was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods. Later we will have an article on this website about the fact that the Forest Service wants to abandon the HC-130H program.

Call When Needed air tankers

In addition to the 13 large air tankers on EU contracts, 11 are signed up on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis in 2018. The companies on the list are Aero Flite, 10 Tanker, Coulson Aviation, and Neptune. If the Forest Service thinks more than 13 are needed at any one time, they can start calling around to see if any of the four companies have any that are available — not working for a state, another country, or tied up in maintenance. Or, mothballed for financial reasons. The rates for CWN aircraft are much higher than EU resources. The business model for keeping an aircraft and crew in tip top shape but sitting idle for much of the fire season, is a difficult one for most private companies to pull off.

Walt Darran, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away in 2013, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker and crew ready to go.

call when needed air tankers contract 2018

Scoopers cut to zero

The number of scooping 1,600-gallon CL-415 air tankers is being cut from two in the first part of 2017 to zero the rest of this fiscal year, FY 18, which ends September 30, 2018. The CL-215/415 scoopers are beloved in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and other countries, but the Forest Service has always appeared to have a bias against them.

The 2012 RAND air tanker study ran simulations with from 8 to 57 scoopers being on contract. They found that at least two-thirds of historical fires have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible body of water. The report had several different models, assumptions, and variables but generally recommended more than 40 scoopers be on contract, with a lower number of conventional air tankers. The Forest Service decided to keep the taxpayer-funded report secret and not release it, even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Ultimately the RAND Corporation released the document.

Acquisition of $65 million air tanker may be cancelled

In December, 2014 the President signed legislation that included  $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. At the time, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calve, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior & Environment, said the funds would be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”.

We asked Ms. Anderson about the $65 million:

The President’s FY 2019 Budget proposes the cancellation of the $65 million for the new aircraft. The USDA Forest Service issued a solicitation to purchase Next Generation Airtankers in November, 2016. The agency cancelled the solicitation in June, 2017 after it yielded proposals with costs higher than the appropriated funds.

We thought the funds were intended to buy one of Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J’s, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million. Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door.

Reduction in helicopters continues

In 2017 there was an 18 percent reduction in the number of large Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts. That will continue in 2018.  For several years the U.S. Forest Service contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.

The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters last year was close to average, but the orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) were almost double the number of filled orders. Sixty percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

A study completed in 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

After almost four years, much work still needs to be done on the Coast Guard/USFS HC-130’s

Above: Tanker 118 at McClellan Air Field, May 3, 2017. Photo by John Vogel.

This is the first photo we have seen showing U.S. Forest Service Air Tanker 118 with its latest paint job. The USFS plan is to have two of the HC-130H’s at McClellan Air Field at Sacramento (the other is T-116) while the additional five are going through heavy maintenance and retardant tank installation.  One is to be actively used as an air tanker while the second is for training, or filling in while the other is down for routine maintenance. As far as I know they are sharing just one of the slip-in MAFFS II retardant delivery units that convert a C-130 into an air tanker. It only takes a few hours to install one of the systems.

The photo below shows T-118 in 2015. Both versions show the crude looking “118” on the tail that detracts from the otherwise very acceptable new paint design. That scheme, approved in 2014, also used the crude font for the number. In addition to flying with the Coast Guard, aircraft #1721 also served with the Air Force and the Navy.

T-110 HC-130H air tanker
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015.

The Air Force, responsible for converting the Coast Guard HC-130H’s into air tankers, has been dithering for years about installing the permanent internal gravity-powered retardant delivery systems in the seven aircraft that are being transferred to the USFS. Most of the ships also need program depot maintenance including new wing boxes. That process began in 2013 when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act directing that the Air Force arrange to take care of all of the maintenance and conversion work needed on the planes. Unfortunately, Congress did not give the Air Force a required completion date.

It is interesting that private companies like Aero-Flite, 10 Tanker, Neptune, and Coulson can turn an aircraft into an air tanker in less than a year, but the work on these HC-130H’s is not expected to be complete until the end of this decade, about seven years after it started. And not a single one is finished, four years after it began.

These aircraft that the Coast Guard was happy to unload, are not getting any younger while the Air Force vacillates.  Adding another seven years while they are going through the conversions means that Tankers 116 and 118 will be 36 and 32 years old, respectively, in 2020.

Tanker 116 in Boise

We shot this photo of U.S. Forest Service air tanker 116, an HC-130H, in Boise on April 20. It was there to deliver the MAFFS unit it has been using so that the Reno National Guard folks can train with it and the other one normally assigned to Reno. After the training the unit will be retrieved by T-116 and hauled back to McClellan in California where that tanker is based.

Two C-130’s and their crews from each of four military bases — Channel Islands, Cheyenne, Colorado Springs, and Reno — are going through their annual training and recertification in Boise this week.

20 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contracts this year

We also have updates on the MD-87’s, as well as the HC-130H aircraft the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.

The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.

air tankers contract wildfire 2017
This does not include Call When Needed, Single Engine, or scooper air tankers.

In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)

2016 call when needed wildfire air tankers

There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.

Future contracts

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.

The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.

Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.

MD-87’s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.

Coast Guard HC-130H’s

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.

The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.

500 nautical mile radius
500 nautical mile radius from Sacramento, California. Fire Aviation graphic.

None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.

Tanker 116 Mather California
Tanker 116, an HC-130H, landing at Mather Airport east of Sacramento, February 28, 2017. Photo by Jon Wright.

None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.

The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.

One of the last steps in the conversion of a Coast Guard aircraft into a USFS air tanker

Tanker 116 is scheduled to be transferred to McLellan Air Field at Sacramento this month.

Above: Sam Vigil, 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Support Squadron aircraft painter at Robins AFB in Georgia, touches up the new paint on an HC-130H that is being converted into a U.S. Forest Service air tanker. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tommie Horton)

One of the last steps in the conversion of a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H into an air tanker for the U.S. Forest Service is applying 80 gallons of paint. The aircraft that just received the new livery is the first of seven that will be going through the transformation over the next several years.

Much of the work is being done at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. This was a unique project for the Air Force. Normally the paint the workers use is designed to minimize the visibility of their aircraft, but the goal for an air tanker is just the opposite. They had to do shiney gloss red and white, instead of flat grey.

USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H
T-116 at Robins AFB in Georgia, August, 2016. Photo by Bill Tinney.

The article below does not specify, but it is likely that the aircraft being worked on is Tanker 116, formerly Coast Guard #1708, which is scheduled to be delivered to McClellan Air Field this month. It will operate with a slip-in MAFFS 3,000-gallon retardant system until a permanent retardant delivery system can be installed.

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By Jenny Gordon, Public Affairs officer

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Georgia

Painting a C-130H with a new glossy paint scheme doesn’t happen very often in the Corrosion Control Flight at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex.

Most of the time its professional cadre of aircraft painters spray on the customary flat gray color familiar on many a surface of weapon systems that visit Robins from across the globe.

But earlier this month things turned a bit more colorful inside one hangar on the flight line, thanks to a visit from one particular aircraft making its way through the final stages of programmed depot maintenance here.

During its visit here, the Coast Guard aircraft received a new center wing box, replacement of its outer wings and work on its elevator, all before its upcoming transfer to the U.S. Forest Service where it will eventually assist in firefighting missions.

The new USFS paint scheme – the first to be laid out on an aircraft – involved hours of tedious work from a team of nearly 45 painters. Much of it involved the careful laying of tape across parts of the plane. That’s so that once a different color of paint was applied to an area masked over, a precise fine line could be seen once the tape was removed.

What you want is a nice, sharp edge on those areas where colored paint is applied. Putting down that tape didn’t involve a laser level of any kind – it was all done freestyle by hand.

“It was a real challenge,” said Ronnie Harrell, Corrosion Control supervisor.

One of the first things you’ll notice is an eye-popping ‘poppy red’ shade that spans from the nose to the tail, and under both wings, along with a thin layer of black that carefully curves along the edges of the former’s dominant color scheme.

There are some nine different colors represented on the aircraft, ranging from yellow and light gray, to matte black and white.

It took about 80 gallons of paint to cover every inch. But it couldn’t all be done in one sitting. Once areas were masked, touch-ups were made, sanding happened and things were rinsed. Thousands of surface points were then seam-sealed, similar to a caulking process, which in this case keeps water from penetrating into the aircraft and causing corrosion.

Once that’s done, PreKote is added across the aircraft, which acts as an adhesion promoter so paint sticks. Once this dries, then the masking process starts. All this before a coat of paint even touched anything.

A coat of white was first applied over the entire aircraft. Then you wait for it to dry. Then it’s applied two more times. Because so many different colors were involved, there was a lot of waiting, sometimes as much as a 12-hour dry time in between paint applications.

Workers had it down to a routine by the end, alternating between demasking areas of the plane, masking, painting, drying, then waiting. Then they repeat the process once other colors are added.

In getting ready to first apply a coat of poppy red over a large swath of the aircraft, you had to make sure the paint underneath was dry. Then mask the surrounding area so any overspray wouldn’t get anywhere.

“You want to give the paint plenty of time to dry between the two so it won’t peel off,” said Harrell.

On this C-130, which stayed in the hangar a little over two weeks earlier this month, a gloss paint was used, making things a little more interesting.

“You have a fine line between getting a good shine and a run,” said Harrell, referring to the careful technique of applying coats of gloss. “You have to worry about running with a gloss, but not as much as with flat. It will run, but not as much.”

He added, “It’s hard to get a big area like this painted, and a challenge not to have paint colors bleeding into the others.”

Some of those challenging areas were laying out the tape prior to applying poppy red, adding stripes, and adding tape under the belly of the plane. Curves toward the tail also required some fine tuning as that involved quite an intricate layout.

A gray paint was also used for a walkway up on top. It’s a gritlike, sandy substance that prevents anyone who’s walking up there from sliding off due to the gloss.

In applying gloss, what you’re looking for is a nice sheen, not a heavy buildup, according to several aircraft painters. In applying the first coat of white, you put on an even coat, and by the final pass you’re trying to get it to shine.

A good estimate is to apply a coat at a distance of 14 to 16 inches away from the surface. It also depends on how fast you paint, since the closer you are to the aircraft, the faster you’ll paint in your spray pattern. Do it for awhile and you get a feel for how things should look, or in this case, shine.

“It looks a lot better than I thought it would due to the paint system we used,” said Paul Lowery, work lead. “It’s good to put out something different.”

Mark Stoddard, a quality assurance representative at Robins from the Coast Guard’s Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, N.C., has been following the aircraft closely for many months. Until the plane is installed at a later time with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (fire retardant system), the Coast Guard will still maintain configuration management of the airframe and its maintenance procedures.

“Things have gone very well on this first aircraft,” he said.

Added Harrell, “We were really looking forward to this job. Once stencils were added and things started to take shape, it really started to look like what we do. The first thing people will see is that paint job.”

Photos of USFS Air Tanker 116

Earlier this week we posted a photo that showed a portion of Air Tanker 116. This is one of the seven HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted to air tankers. Now we have four more photos that were taken by Bill Tinney while the aircraft was at Robins Air Logistics Compound in Warner Robins,Georgia. Thanks Bill.

The expectation is that T-116 will be delivered to McClellan Air Field by September 15. Sometime after that it will be operated as an air tanker using one of the eight slip-in MAFFS retardant systems until a permanent retardant delivery system is installed.

USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H

 

USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H USFS air tanker 116 HC-130H

The photo above shows external fuel tanks hanging from the wings. I would be very surprised if the USFS operated the aircraft as an air tanker with the tanks. The HC-130H is designed as a long range search and rescue platform with a 5,000 mile range, longer than the typical C-130. In an air tanker role, fuel is not usually an issue, since it has to continually land to reload with retardant.

New paint for Air Tanker 116

It should be delivered to McClellan Air Field in California by September 15.

Above: New paint for what will be Air Tanker 116, formerly Coast Guard HC-130H #1708. Photo by Brian Miller.

The HC-130H that is being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service that will be designated as Air Tanker 116 has recently received a new paint job. The projected delivery date to McClellan Air Field in California is September 15. Sometime after that it should be in service as an air tanker, but will be using on a temporary basis one of the eight USFS slip-in MAFFS retardant systems until a permanent retardant delivery system can be installed.

Coast Guard HC-130H 1708
Coast Guard HC-130H #1708 in its previous life. Photo by Andrew Sieber 7-20-2009.

The paint design is similar what was approved over two years ago and the one on the recently acquired Sherpa C-23B aircraft, but varies a bit from the design, in that the engine cowlings are not red on the top as they are in the design and on the Sherpas.

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design approved in January, 2014 that was to be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard.

The USFS has a wide assortment of paint schemes on their firefighting aircraft fleet. This may have something to do with the power the regional aviation officers have over the programs in their regions, as opposed centralizing power in a national aviation program. We collected photos of some of the aircraft in January of 2014.

On August 11 we published a comprehensive update on the status of the transfer of the seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft.