Air Tanker 131, Coulson’s C-130Q, made its first drop on a wildfire Friday, September 20. It split one load, dropping on both flanks of the Sanctuary Fire on the Los Padres National Forest near the Hopper Mountain Condor Sanctuary where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raises the Condors.
The video above is the first drop for T-131 ever on a wildfire. The second video, below, is the second drop on the other flank.
Tanker 131 and T-44, a P2V, worked the fire with lead plane Bravo-52. The fire was contained at 27 acres.
A big thanks go out to Gary Monday of Ventura County Fire Department who shot the video.
Tanker 131 was dispatched to its first fire today, September 20, near Santa Maria, California.
(Originally published September 13, 2013)
Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, a converted C-130Q, has been fully certified by the FAA, the Interagency AirTanker Board, and the U.S. Forest Service. The 3,500-gallon aircraft was carded on Tuesday and the pilot check rides occurred Wednesday. Its first assignment was to report to the San Bernardino airport, which ironically is where it spent the last several months while going through the conversion process.
Wayne Coulson, President and CEO of Coulson Aviation USA Inc., said, “This C-130Q has been outfitted with a Coulson RADS-XL Constant Flow tank and a state-of-the-art drop controller system that will enhance the accuracy of retardant drops by using GPS speed and other inputs.”
T-131 becomes the second air tanker to be certified and activated, of the original seven that were awarded “next generation” contracts.
As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The contracts were for exclusive use and for five years, with options for the USFS to extend them for an additional five years. Another option allows the addition of more air tankers from the vendors. The activation of the contracts was held up by two rounds of protests in 2012 and 2013 from Neptune Aviation, 10 Tanker, and Coulson, but the awards, after over 500 days of dithering, finally went to:
Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 (later changed to a 90-day exclusive use contract) and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.
The mandatory availability period for the six next generation air tankers was supposed to begin in the first part of August, 2013. Other than the DC-10, none of them made that date. Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite are still working on their conversion projects.
Coulson’s C-130Q, Tanker 131, can see light at the end of the tunnel. The aircraft has the new wrap applied and looks pretty spiffy. Today they flew it from San Bernardino up to McClellan to get approval for FAA Part 137, which is for “Agricultural Aircraft Operators”, for “dispensing of any chemical designed to treat the soil or crops”.
Britt Coulson told us they are still working out a few certification details with the U.S. Forest Service, but their goal is to have the aircraft ready to drop retardant over fires as early as the end of this week, or at the latest, next week. The tank holds 3,500 gallons and very seldom will they have to reduce that load due to density altitude. Eventually they may install a larger tank.
Britt Coulson sent us these photos and told us that last week they ran the engines and conducted calibration static tests on Tanker 131, their C-130Q air tanker. The aircraft was over at the USFS Tanker Base at the San Bernardino airport for some of the tests. They expect to complete the calibration next weekend and begin flight testing in the next few days.
If any of the other air tanker vendors with new exclusive use contracts would like to send us information and photos, we would certainly appreciate it.
The image above depicts what Coulson’s C-130Q, Air Tanker 131, should look like when it first appears over a wildfire, which is scheduled to happen in early August. The inspections and maintenance are nearing completion, the engines and props have been reinstalled, the tank is installed, most of the painting is complete, and the wrap shown above will be applied in the middle or end of July. Britt Coulson told us today that they expect to start doing run-ups the first week of July. He said they expect to be ready for their contract-specified Mandatory Availability Period which begins August 1.
The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.
The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.
The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.
The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.
The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.
It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.
Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.
While it certainly is not ready to drop retardant over a fire today, the conversion of Coulson’s C-130Q into an air tanker is progressing very well.
The company was selected this week by the U.S. Forest Service to receive an exclusive use contract for the 32-year old aircraft that had been sitting in a Wisconsin museum for the last 10 years. Before that it was used by NASA for research, but it began it’s life as a strategic communications link aircraft for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces.
A C-130Q is similar to a C-130H, but the “Q” model was outfitted with a complex antenna system for communications with submarines and bombers.
In addition to building and installing the retardant tank, the work going on at the San Bernardino airport includes inspections which required that some of the skin be removed from the wings and other surfaces. The inspection is almost done and the aircraft is being put back together.
Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that the top portion of the retardant tank is finished and the bottom is nearing completion. They expect to conduct flights in June leading toward FAA approval for a restricted category type certificate. They will also need to go through a test for the Interagency AirTanker Board which involves dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground to determine consistency and quantity.
ABC7 in Los Angeles produced the video report below about the aircraft:
In a Coulson company newsletter published on the internet in February, 2012, Jim Messer, Chief Operating Officer, described the process they went through in selecting the aircraft to be used as an air tanker:
…To get to this point we conducted an extensive review of various aircraft capabilities and performance, looking at over 30 aircraft before concluding that the C-130 is the best available.
In the process to acquire an aircraft specific for the airtanker role, Coulson focused on those airframes that were designed specifically for the mission profile of aerial fire fighting. Although many retired high time airlines designed for high altitude point to point flights were available at lower cost they were discounted for the mission required in the fire fighting role.
The C-130Q aircraft was designed to undertake aerial wildland fire operations. Its manoeuvrability, and performance, operating at low levels at low speed with, heavy loads in rugged terrain, immediate power response, and STOL capabilities makes the C-130 a natural fit as an Airtanker.