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.
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.
The Press-Enterprise has an article about the air tanker conversion that Coulson is working on at the San Bernardino, California airport, converting into an air tanker what the article identifies as a C-130Q. According to the article test flights are scheduled to begin in April. Coulson is hoping to receive a next-generation air tanker contract for the aircraft.
The Santa Maria Public Airport 55 miles north of Santa Barbara, California has reduced the landing fees charged to air tankers using the airport. An article in the Santa Maria Times says the fees will be reduced from $1 per 1,000 pounds to 50 cents per 1,000 pounds. In addition to this fee, firefighting aircraft have to pay ramp handling fees and fuel flowage fees.
After being downgraded to a call-when-needed air tanker base for three years, the Los Padres National Forest in October, 2011 restored it to full-time status during the fire season.
Contracts for next-generation air tankers
Late in the day last Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for eight “legacy” air tankers, which included seven P2Vs and one BAe-146. Some people within the agency thought contracts for next-generation air tankers would also be announced last week, but that did not happen. The USFS is probably bending over backwards this time in an attempt to minimize the chances of the awards being protested again. Last summer after the awards were announced but not yet finalized, two companies that were not slated to receive contracts filed protests, which sent the agency back to the drawing board, starting the process over again after making dozens of changes in the solicitation.
It has been 487 days since the USFS began the solicitation process for next-generation air tankers.