Three U.S. Senators have introduced a bill that would transfer 14 surplus C-27J Spartan aircraft from the Department of Defense to the U.S. Forest Service to be used as air tankers. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation on Wednesday known as the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012 (S. 3441) “to help replenish the agency’s aging airtanker fleet”.
A news release from Senator McCain said:
The Forest Service says the C-27J Spartan would become a vital component of its overall airtanker modernization strategy. These aircraft would provide a modern, flexible, and extremely efficient Type 2 platform specifically designed to operate in challenging conditions.
“The Forest Service needs to modernize its entire airtanker fleet,” said Senator John McCain. “We have an opportunity to take the C-27J, an aircraft the Pentagon no longer wants, and give it to the Forest Service to enhance aircraft safety and lower existing maintenance costs. The C-27J should be kept in the service of the American people to help our brave fire crews, rather than sit in an airplane boneyard.”
The U.S. Air Force has ceased operating the aircraft in Afghanistan and plans to retire its fleet of 21 C-27-Js no later than fiscal year 2013 which begins in October. The only operator of the C-27J inside the United States is the Air National Guard.
The C-27J looks like a baby brother of the C-130J and uses two of the same turboprop engines that are used on the larger four-engine aircraft.
If converted to an air tanker, at only four years old they would be by far the youngest large air tankers being used in the United States. The P2Vs that currently comprise 8 of the 9 large air tankers active on exclusive use contracts today are over 50 years old. Even Tanker 40, the newish jet-powered BAe-146 operated by Neptune, is 26 years old.
In 2007 the Department of Defense awarded a contract for the acquisition of 78 new C-27J Spartan aircraft at a cost of about $26 million each, but according to one report only 52 have been built. It has sold to other buyers, new, for as much as $53 million. The United States received its first C-27J on September 25, 2008. The aircraft cruises at 362 mph, has a service ceiling of 30,000 feet, and a minimum control speed of 121 mph.
If it were converted to an air tanker, airworthiness compliance and adding a tank could cost around $2 million. The C-27J can carry a 25,353-pound payload, which could translate to a retardant capacity of 2,000 to 2,500 gallons; perhaps more if the interior was stripped. This would not meet the preferred USFS target of 3,000 gallons for a next-generation air tanker, but could be a valuable addition to the firefighter’s tool box. However, it would carry about twice as much as the S-2Ts being used extensively, and successfully, by CAL FIRE.
There is one little dark cloud hovering over this announcement. It was just 11 days ago that the entire U.S. fleet of C-27Js was grounded following a mechanical failure of one aircraft’s flight control system. Few details were disclosed by the Air Force, who characterized the grounding as a “precautionary measure” that is under investigation by the Air Force and the C-27J manufacturer, Alenia Aermacchi. Groundings like this for aircraft are not uncommon and are frequently resolved in a matter of weeks.
Should we do this?
I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the 55-year experiment of contractor-owned, contractor-operated air tankers should come to an end. We need to move to a government-owned, contractor-operated system. Well over 100 air tanker pilots have lost their lives during that period flying aircraft that have been discarded by the military decades before. Their age leads to frequent engine, air frame, and other mechanical problems that contribute to crashes, deaths, and down time for these aircraft which should be seen in museums and air shows, not diving into steep canyons, low and slow. The new next generation contracts will be bringing us converted passenger airliners that have been retired by their owners. While this may be better than 50-year old maritime patrol P2Vs, it is not a great solution, but is what the contractor-owned system is producing. Contractors can’t afford to purchase new C-130Js, C-27Js, or CL-415s at $25 to $90 million each.
A federal agency that has the experience and knowledge of managing aircraft should manage these C-27Js after they are acquired from the military, and they should acquire additional new or nearly new aircraft that have the design and performance criteria necessary for the very demanding task of delivering retardant in the wildfire environment. Then develop specifications for operating these aircraft to include extensive, regular, professional-level training for pilots and mechanics. Contractors would then maintain and operate them, seven days a week, using relief crews to provide days off and enough back home family time to reduce the currently unacceptable turnover rates among these crews.
So the bottom line is, yes, Congress should pass the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012 (S. 3441). While a 3,000, 5,000, or 20,000 gallon air tanker would look great flying over and supporting firefighters on the ground, an addition of 14 C-27Js would be a great shot in the arm of the atrophied fleet of air tankers that has declined through neglect and mismanagement from the 44 we had in 2002 to the 9 we have today.
In addition, the bill currently being considered by Congress should appropriate funds to convert the aircraft to air tankers, which could cost more than $30 million. Otherwise, the C-27Js may continue to sit in a boneyard.
We congratulate the three senators, McCain, Nelson, and Feinstein, for showing some leadership toward resolving the air tanker crisis…leadership that has been sorely lacking in the federal land management agencies’ aviation program over the last 10 years.
Thanks go out to Jerome and Ken