Former Gov. Schwarzenegger and current Gov. Newsom discuss new firefighting equipment

They toured CAL FIRE facilities at Sacramento McClellan Airport

Air Tanker 118
Air Tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport August 1, 2019. Screengrab from Fox40 video below.

Thursday morning Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Governor Gavin Newsom toured CAL FIRE facilities at Sacramento McClellan Airport and received a briefing on some of the new firefighting equipment that the agency is in the process of acquiring.

They checked out Air Tanker 118, an HC-130H formerly operated by the U.S. Forest Service and before that, the U.S. Coast Guard. It has had some depot level maintenance performed and new livery, but still needs to have a retardant delivery system installed, like the other six HC-130H aircraft the agency also recently received. CAL FIRE expects to begin operating some of the HC-130Hs in their final configurations as they slowly become available beginning in about two or three years.

CAL FIRE is training their pilots for the transition by leasing a C-130 air tanker, T-134, from Coulson which has a permanently installed retardant delivery system with a removable internal tank.

The agency is also replacing its aging fleet of 12 Super Huey firefighting helicopters with brand new Sikorsky S-70i (Firehawks) from United Rotorcraft. The aircraft will be capable of fighting fires at night.

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.

Photos of air tankers at McClellan

Above: Air Tankers 102 (MD-87) and 134 (C-130)

Don Hosford took these photos of firefighting aircraft at Sacramento McClellan Airport August 31, 2018.

air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tankers 23 (P-3) and 944 (747)
air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tanker 914, a DC-10
air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tanker 118, an HC-130H

Continue reading “Photos of air tankers at McClellan”

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.

Not all Forest Service aircraft are FAA type certified

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design that will be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard. The aircraft will be maintained and operated according to Coast Guard guidelines, rather than Federal Aviation Administration procedures.

After the Governor of Montana wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Agriculture complaining about what he called “nonsensical restrictions” that prohibit the use of the state’s five UH-1H helicopters on U.S. Forest Service protected lands, we started looking into the root of the problem. The former military helicopters are actually owned by the USFS, and are leased to the state under the provisions of the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program which require that the helicopters be maintained in full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. But the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) apparently does not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates for the helicopters.

However, the USFS does not maintain all of their government owned aircraft in strict compliance with FAA regulations.

When we asked the USFS why the agency does not allow the non-certificated Montana aircraft to be used on USFS lands, Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones, told us:

The Forest Service and the State of Montana Department have different standards and regulations to which each must adhere. Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety.

The USFS and the rules governing the loan of FEEP aircraft require the Montana helicopters to be maintained and modified according to FAA standards. Since these requirements are not met, the helicopters can’t be used on USFS fires.

Even though the USFS requires compliance with FAA procedures for their contracted air tankers and helicopters — and the state of Montana’s aircraft — the following USFS aircraft are not FAA certified, nor will they be:

  • Tanker 118, the HC-130H acquired from the Coast Guard that has been dropping retardant on fires this summer using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Neither the aircraft or the MAFFS have ever been certificated by the FAA.
  • The other six HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.
  • Four C-23A Sherpas used for smokejumping and hauling cargo.
  • Two AH-1 Cobra helicopters.
  • The eight MAFFS units used in military C-130s for fighting wildfires, and the modifications made to the C-130s so that they can use the MAFFS.

After the seven HC-130H aircraft are finished with their heavy maintenance and air tanker retrofitting, they will be owned by the USFS and maintained and operated by contractors. But they will not be brought under the FAA umbrella, according to Mrs. Jones:

The U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting mission is a Public Use mission in government owned aircraft. The Forest Service maintains airworthiness on Tanker 118 in accordance with Coast Guard maintenance standards, and the Coast Guard maintains engineering authority.

The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130s used to drop retardant with the MAFFS are maintained, modified, and operated according to military procedures.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS solicitation for the Next-generation V. 2.0 air tankers, issued November 26, 2014. From Section C:

Aircraft shall conform to an approved type design, be maintained and operated in accordance with Type Certificate (TC) requirements and applicable Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs). The aircraft shall be maintained in accordance with an FAA approved inspection program and must include an FAA approved Supplemental Structural Inspection Document (SSID), Structural Inspection Document (SID), or Instruction for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) for the airframe structure, as applicable with an ICA and Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS) approved by the manufacturer (or equivalent) and the FAA for the airtanker role.

The USFS is not the only federal agency operating former military aircraft that bypasses the FAA. Others include the Coast Guard, NASA, and NOAA.

We asked a person in the commercial air tanker industry (who did not want their name disclosed) about the USFS not following FAA procedures:

The FAA governs the largest fleet of commercial aircraft in the world and are looked upon by foreign agencies as the golden standard. They can certify an A380 to pack 700 people but cannot certify a restricted category airtanker? The USFS is hiring a ton of ex-military people who all stick together with their other Air Force buddies and think the military is the be-all-end-all.

I think it would be fair to argue that the FAA knows much more about airtankers than the Air Force or the Coast Guard. The USCG maintenance program is not setup for an airtanker mission profile, nor is the USAF. I talked to the FAA guy who was on all the calls with the USFS about this program and he was in disbelief when they finally made the decision not to have any FAA involvement.

Photos of air tankers on the Lowell Fire

Tanker 44 Lowell Fire
Tanker 44 on the Lowell Fire, July 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rhodes.

Matthew Rhodes sent us these excellent photos of air tankers dropping on the Lowell Fire. He said he took them July 25 near Gold Run in Placer County. Thanks Matthew!

The Lowell Fire has burned 1,700 acres 46 air miles northeast of Sacramento, California, west of Interstate 80.

Tanker 60 Lowell Fire,
Tanker 60 on the Lowell Fire, July 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rhodes.
Tanker 60 Lowell Fire
Tanker 60 on the Lowell Fire, July 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rhodes.
Tanker 118 Lowell Fire,
Tanker 118 on the Lowell Fire, July 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rhodes.
Tanker 118 on the Lowell Fire
Tanker 118 on the Lowell Fire, July 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rhodes.

Tanker 118 in the air over McClellan

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

Air Tanker 118 saw activity Saturday on the Lowell Fire near Gold Run, California 46 miles northeast of Sacramento. This aircraft is one of seven that are in the process of being refurbished and converted into air tankers after being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. Yesterday’s mission may have been the first time the HC-130H has dropped on a fire.

The conversion process is not quite complete on T-118. It still needs a permanent internal gravity-based retardant tank and a paint job. Until the tank is installed, it will continue to use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) slip-in unit that used compressed air to force the retardant out of the 3,000-gallon tank, turning the thickened retardant into a mist.

The photos were taken Saturday at McClellan Airport by Jon Wright. Thanks Jon!

The Union has a photo of T-118 dropping retardant over the Reynolds Fire on Saturday, July 25.

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

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave and Jon.

USFS HC-130H air tanker to be available for duty this week

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, being prepped for air tanker duty at McClellan, June 8, 2015. DRS photo by Phil Welker. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service is making one of their HC-130H air tankers, Tanker 118, available for wildfire suppression missions this week. The aircraft is one of seven that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS, but the titles for all of them still remain with the Coast Guard.

The work on Tanker 118 to completely convert it into an air tanker is not complete. It needs a conventional internal gravity-based retardant tank, and obviously, a paint job that will hopefully include some professionally crafted tanker numbers on the tail.

Tanker 118 arrived at McClellan Airport on June 17, where maintenance, installation and testing of the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS), and contractor pilot and maintenance crew training have been taking place, including training with a lead plane.

The aircraft and personnel will be working out of Forest Service Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC) in Sacramento, California adjacent to the Coast Guard station at the airport. A search for a permanent base of operations for all seven HC-130H aircraft is underway.

While the Forest Service and Coast Guard will jointly own and manage Tanker 118 until all of the necessary modifications are complete, the Forest Service has contracted with Consolidated Air Support Systems (CASS) of Temecula, California for aircrew services and with DRS Technologies of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for maintenance.  Tanker 118 will only fly wildfire suppression missions within 500 nautical miles of FSAS MCC so that it can return each night for maintenance by contract crews and support from Coast Guard crews.

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

Until the aircraft receives the conventional, permanent retardant tank after the 2016 fire season, it will be using one of the eight MAFFS units that have been assigned to four Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve bases that operate C-130s. The MAFFS units, which can be inserted into a C-130 in a matter of hours, hold up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant that is forced out of the tank by compressed air, turning the thickened retardant into a mist.

MAFFS unit
A MAFFS before it is installed in a C-130. It is transported to the aircraft on the green trailer, which is not loaded onto the aircraft. US Air Force photo.

The MAFFS unit that will be used by T-118 is from the 145th Airlift Wing with the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte. That leaves seven MAFFS units that can be activated if there is a need for additional air tankers.

The other six HC-130Hs still need major work, including demilitarization, wing and airframe modifications, designing, contracting for, manufacturing and installing retardant tanks, and equipping them with radios, Aircraft Flight Following, and other equipment. The USFS expects to have all seven HC-130Hs fully functional and absorbed into the air tanker fleet by 2019.

When Tanker 118 comes into service, it will be operated with the 14 existing large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Recently the USFS temporarily activated an additional seven air tankers using the Call When Needed contracts that were awarded in June:

  • T-02 (N474NA) Neptune BAe-146 (presently on loan to Canada)
  • T-40 (N146FF) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-163 (N366AC) Aero Flite RJ-85
  • T-41 (N471NA) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-911 (N17085) 10 Tanker DC-10
  • T-162 (N355AC) Aero Flite RJ 85
  • T-01 (N473NA) Neptune BAe-146

That makes 22 large air tankers that are available now, counting the 14 on exclusive use contracts, the one USFS HC-130H, and the seven that are on temporary call-up assignments. But those seven CWN tankers can be sent home anytime.

Having 15 air tankers on exclusive use contracts is the most since 2010 when there were 19. There have not been 22 air tankers on EU contracts since 2004 when we had 27. In 2002, 44 large air tankers were on EU contracts.

Graph, request for large air tankers

The USFS is trying to award “up to seven” additional EU contracts for next-generation air tankers. They hoped to have them working by May 30, but protests about the contracting process by two companies brought that process to a halt. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit. The OMB is required to reach their decisions by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s.

On July 8 the GAO issued their decision on Coulson’s protest, and it was denied. They still have not decided on Erickson’s, due on July 17. We believe that if both protests are denied, the USFS can immediately, or as soon as they can, award additional EU contracts for air tankers.