Smokejumper aircraft at Missoula

C23B Sherpas

I was able to get some photos of some smokejumper aircraft at Missoula International Airport last week while attending the Fire Continuum conference. Parked, were two Twin Otters and two C23B Sherpas, and a third Sherpa taxied in while I was there.

Previously I had seen a Sherpa flying through the hills north of the airport. The Sherpa that just landed may have been dropping jumpers for training. The U.S. Forest Service has authorization to obtain 15 of the Sherpas from the U.S Army. So far six have been refurbished and Neptune Aviation is working on a seventh with an eighth soon to follow. It is possible that the remaining seven will be used for parts.

C23B Sherpas twin otter
A Sherpa taxis in after landing at Missoula.

C23B Sherpas

C23B Sherpas
Two C23B Sherpas at Missoula, May 25, 2018.
C23B Sherpa twin otter
Twin Otters have served smokejumpers for many years.

Smokejumper aircraft experiences problem during landing

Due to an issue with an engine on the C-23A Sherpa, the crew idled it, but during landing the engine went to takeoff power uncommanded.

tire failure Sherpa

Above: photo of the Sherpa’s tire failure from the Rapid Lesson Sharing document.

After an incident on April 13, 2016 while a C-23A Sherpa was transporting smokejumpers on a training mission, the Redmond, Oregon Air Group conducted an After Action Review and wrote a Rapid Lesson Sharing document. Below are excerpts:



On the morning of April 13, 2016, a crew of three experienced captains performed a Smokejumper Mission Check Ride during a practice jump. The Pilot in Command of the C-23A Sherpa retarded the left power lever in preparation for the jump run and the engine did not respond appropriately. The number 1 engine would not reduce to flight idle as commanded.

We elected to discontinue the check ride and return to the airport to land.

The crew reduced the engine RMP power lever back to almost idle and the left engine stabilized at idle. We consulted the emergency checklist and decided to leave the engine running.

During line up for final the crew elected to keep the engine running due to a 90 degree crosswind condition in case a go around was required. On landing the left engine went to take-off power, un-commanded, and aircraft started to depart the runway. During subsequent actions to control the aircraft, brakes were applied and on ground contact the right main tire failed. The pilot in command ordered the left engine shut down and second in command shut the engine down. PIC was able to exit the runway and airplane was shut down on an adjacent taxiway.


After the mission an AAR was conducted between the crew, maintenance, leadership and the participating smokejumpers. The only possible action in hindsight the crew indicated was not bringing the power levers over the gate into ground fine range which may of influenced the rapid RPM increase. The aircraft fuel controller was removed and sent in for overhaul. Disassembly of the fuel unit revealed a small burr on the throttle shaft bushing.

Questions for discussion between crews:

  • When would you declare an abnormal event an emergency and roll the trucks?
  • What situations would you consider it safer for the remaining jumpers to exit the aircraft than return with it?
  • What other abnormal conditions have you encountered that are not in the abnormal procedures (Chapter 4) section and how would you handle them?
  • What discussions need to take place with the guys in the back during occurrence of unplanned events?
  • Discussions on the above topics during ground time can save valuable time in the air when abnormal conditions do occur.

This year will likely be the farewell tour for P2V air tankers

P2V Redding

Above: A P2V air tanker on final approach at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Updated at 8:50 a.m. MST January 12, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service expects to issue a new round of Exclusive Use and Call When Needed air tanker contracts in the “near future”. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the agency, said they plan to solicit proposals for Next Generation 3.0 Exclusive Use and 2.0 Call When Needed air tankers. Next Generation 3.0 is intended for operations in 2018 and Call When Needed 2.0 is for this fire season.

It is very unusual for the USFS to begin a contracting process more than a year before the expected mandatory availability period (MAP). In recent years they have attempted to award the contracts only a few months before the aircraft are needed to begin work. The first Next Gen contract, V1.0, was awarded 550 days after being advertised.

In 2015 we wrote:

The USFS should get their [stuff] together and advertise the solicitation, not the Request for Information, at least one year before the mandatory availability period. Top quality air tankers, crews, and maintenance personnel can’t be magically produced out of thin air.

So this Next Gen 3.0 being advertised about 14 months before the expected MAP is a huge step in the right direction — but only if it takes much less than 550 days to make the awards.

The current “Legacy” Exclusive Use contract issued in March, 2013 under which seven air tankers operated by Neptune Aviation are working includes six P2Vs and one BAe-146. It expires at the end of this year. Dan Snyder, President of the company, told us that as far as he knows there are no plans for the USFS to issue any more contracts for which the Korean War vintage aircraft could qualify — the P2Vs can’t meet the specifications for Next Gen air tankers.

So this year will likely be the farewell tour for the P2Vs. Take pictures while you still can.

The last CWN and Exclusive Use contracts allowed very large air tankers such as the DC-10 to qualify. If that continues to be the case in this next round of contracts there could be a 747 and possibly more DC-10s in the sky. Currently two DC-10s are on Exclusive Use contracts and third on CWN worked for much of the 2016 fire season. Last week the 747 SuperTanker received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board.

And speaking of Neptune, Mr. Snyder said that by the time the Next Gen 3.0 contract is in effect next year they will have a total of nine BAe-146s fully converted and available. The ninth one arrived at their facility in Missoula on November 20, 2016.

In addition to their air tanker business, Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the C-23B Sherpas the USFS received from the U.S. Army which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.

Neptune has completed the work on three Sherpas and has started on a fourth. They “woke up” or serviced an additional seven that were in long term storage to make them flyable again.  A timetable for converting those seven will be determined by the USFS, who expects to use the Sherpas to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

USFS has one fully operational C-23B

The U.S. Army transferred 15 to the U.S. Forest Service

Air Tanker Base Observation team sherpa C-23B
Air Tanker Base Observation Team and Aircrew with a C-23B, August 23-29, 2016. L to R: Shane Ralston (MSO), Billy Phillips (MSO), Abe Fandrich (MSO), Brad Richards (RDD), Matt Huse (IWA), Robbie Cline (BJC), Leslie Casavan (SBD), Frank Castillo (MSO), Marc Durocher (SMX). The team of agency airtanker base and fixed-wing base qualified personnel were tasked by the USFS Washington Office Aviation Division to observe a number of airtanker bases and fixed-wing bases in terms of how they manage the aircraft. They also asked questions about training and experience of the base personnel.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 signed by the President December 13, 2013 not only transferred seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted into air tankers, it also directed that 15 C-23B Sherpas be transferred from the U.S. Army to the USFS. The legislation directed that the change of ownership occur within 45 days of the bill being signed.

Now that over 2 1/2 years have passed, the USFS has one Sherpa that is fully reconfigured, operational, and available to be used on a daily basis. The agency refers to it as the National Logistical Sherpa and is using it this year to haul cargo. It will not be used this year for paracargo or smokejumper missions.

According to an information sheet distributed by the Forest Service, the aircraft has a crew of four, two pilots and two loadmasters. It can carry up to 18 passengers or a payload of 7,280 pounds of fuel and cargo. It has a range of 550 miles (with 4,000 pounds of cargo), a cruise speed of 198 knots, is IFR capable, and costs $2,310 an hour to operate.

The military version of the aircraft is called the C-23B. The civilian variation is variously known as SD3-60, SD-360, and Short 360. 

The Forest Service is calling their aircraft an SD3-60 because they are pursuing Federal Aviation Administration civil certification of the non-certificated C-23B aircraft. This would enable the agency to use them to perform several aerial firefighting missions in addition to delivering smokejumpers and cargo.

These tasks could include transporting fire crews, incident management teams, and other overhead and support personnel to airfields and airports that larger transport planes could not use; transporting cargo and communications equipment; and supporting all-hazards incidents. In the future SD3-60s could also be used for off-season/non-fire personnel/administrative support; interagency cooperative agreements (i.e. DoD jumpers, Air Force Academy, Customs & Border Protection); smokejumper and rappel boost; large fire support; Law Enforcement and Investigations Rapid Response Teams; tactical supply support; infrared mapping; search and rescue; wild horse feeding; and as a training platform.

The USFS expects to bring 9 more of the 15 aircraft into service beginning in 2017 primarily to be used as smokejumper aircraft. One will be used for parts while four will remain in storage for the time being.

The aircraft will be flown by USFS and contractor pilots, under a  Government-Owned/Mixed-Operations (GO/MO) model for the SD3-60 fleet.

C-23B at Neptune
C-23Bs being worked on by Neptune Aviation. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the aircraft which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.

Neptune completes their part of the conversion process on two USFS Sherpas

C-23B at Neptune

Photo above: C-23Bs being worked on by Neptune Aviation. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation has finished their portion of the process of converting two of the U.S. Forest Service C-23B Sherpa aircraft to civilian SD3-60 certificates. The contract Neptune received last year could involve converting another 13 of the former U.S. Army Sherpas. The USFS expects to use them to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

Neptune’s project began at the USFS facility in Ogden, Utah where the first two aircraft were done, but is in the final stages of being moved to the company’s facilities in Missoula, Montana for the remaining aircraft.

Field Aviation in Oklahoma City began the process in October, 2015 of converting the analog cockpits in the Sherpas to glass flight decks using the Garmin G950 system.

USFS Sherpas to get glass flight decks

The analog instrumentation on the Sherpa aircraft the U.S. Forest Service obtained from the Army will be converted to glass flight decks using the Garmin G950 system. The work is being done by Field Aviation in Oklahoma City who started on the first one in October of last year.

Garmin 950
Example of a Garmin 950 flight deck. It can be configured as a two-display or three-display system with 10- or 12 inch flat-panel LCDs. Garmin photo.

The USFS received 15 of the aircraft which are known by a confusing list of names: Sherpa, C-23B+ (the military designator), and the civilian names of SD3-60, SD-360, and Short 360.

SD3-30. (Similar to, but not one of the SD3-60 aircraft recently received from the Army). USFS photo.

The contract, which has a potential value of $19 million, was awarded on July 29, 2015. At a minimum it will cover the flight deck installations in four of the SD3-60 aircraft with the possibility of converting 11 more.

The USFS expects to use the planes for delivering smokejumpers, cargo, and possibly firefighting personnel. They already have four SD3-30s, a variation, which is a little smaller with less powerful engines. According to Wikipedia the larger SD3-60 has a cruising speed of 249 mph, a range of 732 miles, and can carry 36 passengers (but fewer smokejumpers).

The schedule calls for the delivery of the first aircraft by the end of the third quarter of this year. Modifications on the remaining three Sherpas should be complete by the end of 2017.

On the Garmin G950 system, flight plan information is overlaid on a dynamic map displaying airspace, rivers, lakes, parks and woodland areas – typical landscapes for USFS missions.

The platform, which is 250 pounds lighter than the round dial analog system, also incorporates a terrain awareness and warning system, wide area augmentation system, and localiser performance with vertical guidance approach capability.


Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill.

The last Forest Service DC-3 retires

The last DC-3 operated by the U.S. Forest Service retired this week following a ceremony at the Missoula smokejumper base.

N115Z smokejumper DC-3
The last U.S. Forest Service DC-3 departs from Missoula December 10, 2015 after retiring from smokejumper duty. Image by Jason Junes.

Known to the jumpers it hauled as Jump 15, it took off December 10 from Missoula and a flew to McClellan Airfield in Sacramento at 16,000 feet and 200 mph, unpressurized of course. There it will await an auction and a new owner.

The 71-year old aircraft, first operated by the Royal Air Force, was manufactured as World War II was winding down. The radial piston engines were replaced 24 years ago with turbines by Basler extending its life while providing more reliability and less maintenance. The aircraft’s sister, Jump-42, another DC-3, retired in November, 2012.

Approximately 607 DC-3s were built between 1936 and 1942. At that time their cost was $79,000. Most of them had 14-cylinder Pratt and Whitney radial engines.

With the two DC-3s now gone, the smokejumpers will be using some of the 15 C-23B Sherpa aircraft they received from the Army and two De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters. The Forest Service has been contracting for two additional Twin Otters but those will be phased out as the C-23Bs transition into the fleet after going through modifications, maintenance, and painting.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.