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.
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.
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.
(Originally published at 3:07 p.m. PDT September 8, 2018)
Two Senators from California have written a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue imploring him to retain until the end of the year two former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft that the U.S. Forest Service decided they no longer want. Legislation passed a few weeks ago directed that seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, originally intended to be used by the USFS, be transferred to the state of California after work is complete by the Air Force to convert them to air tankers with conventional gravity-powered retardant tanks.
Below is an excerpt from the Senators’ letter, dated August 30, 2018:
…The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (Public Law 115-232) authorizes the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the State of California for firefighting purposes. Two of these seven aircraft are currently in use in California by the Forest Service. While they will eventually be outfitted with a gravity retardant delivery system, there is no need to pull these two aircraft from California’s front lines for many months. Instead, these aircraft should remain actively engaged in California as we approach the historically most active months of the fire year.
Given the continuing threat of catastrophic wildfires in California, we ask that you continue operating the two HC-130H aircraft in California to ensure that every asset is available to protect lives and property. Thank you for considering our request.
To be clear, today there are four former Coast Guard HC-130Hs at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Two of these four have been painted in USFS livery, Tankers 116 and 118, and two ships still have Coast Guard livery, 1709 and 1714. A third ship has been painted, Tanker 119, and it is already in long term storage. None of them have conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery systems. The Air Force should have installed them by now but had contracting difficulties which they did not solve.
The USFS has “borrowed” one of the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that is assigned to the Air National Guard base in Reno, Nevada — one of eight distributed by the USFS to four military bases (two each) that operate C-130s. They can be installed in a matter of hours in a C-130. The MAFFS units are owned and maintained by the USFS for the purpose of having access to a surge capacity of eight additional air tankers operated by the military.
One of the aircraft, T-116, made 330 drops in 2017.
But the USFS is only using one MAFFS unit, the one from Reno, so they can only operate one of the former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft at a time as an air tanker. The USFS has not used the aircraft on a routine basis for other duties, such as hauling fire equipment or firefighters, so right now the USFS can see no use for the additional HC-130H aircraft, except as possible spares if maintenance or other issues keep the primary ship on the ground.
The USFS plan is to return the borrowed MAFFS unit to the Reno Air National Guard base on September 17, effectively shutting down the program.
Contractors have been operating and maintaining the aircraft, similar to the CAL FIRE model for their 23 air tankers. But the USFS contract for the flight crew will be cancelled on September 20, 2018. The maintenance contract will remain in effect.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Markus. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
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.
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.
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.
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.