Forest Service to buy a brand new air tanker

This article was first published at Fire Aviation.

The U.S. Forest Service is advertising for the purchase of at least one new aircraft that will be used as an air tanker. A solicitation issued November 18, 2016 indicates that the agency intends to buy between one and seven “new production commercial aircraft to operate primarily as airtankers”. This procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.

As far as we know this will be the first time, in recent decades anyway, that a U.S. land management agency has purchased a NEW air tanker.

The seven HC-130H’s that the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard will be operated and maintained by contractors after they are converted to air tankers.

Coulson operates two C-130 type aircraft as air tankers, a C-130Q and an L-100-30 (382G), with the latter being an earlier demilitarized stretched variant of the C-130. As this is written they are both working on firefighting contracts in Australia during their summer bushfire season.

LM-100J
LM-100J. The image shows it equipped with a pressurized MAFFS retardant system, but the USFS aircraft will have a more conventional gravity-powered system. From Lockheed.

There is speculation that the $65 million appropriation was targeted to buy a new variant of Lockheed Martin’s C-130J, the LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J.

In Fiscal Year 2015 the Defense Department paid $88.9 million for each C-130J. The stripped down LM-130J is expected to sell for about $65 million. Lockheed is planning test flights of the new aircraft in the first half of 2017 with deliveries beginning the following year. Portions of the plane are being made in Marietta, Georgia; Meridian, Mississippi; Clarksburg, West Virginia; and India.

After the appropriations bill passed in 2014, Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert of California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky.

Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said,

…supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.

Some important specifications in the USFS solicitation match those of the LM-100J, including max normal takeoff weight, capable of operating from unimproved airfields, payload, cruise speed, multiple turbine engines, and a door that incorporates stairs.

Vendors can choose to equip the aircraft with two options:

  • A gravity powered retardant delivery system that would hold at least 3,000 gallons, and,
  • A pallet-based seating system for 40 passengers that can be installed or removed in less than 2 hours.

The Coulson company has the contract to install retardant delivery systems in the seven HC-130H aircraft the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard. It is likely those will be similar to the two systems already in use in Coulson’s two C-130 type aircraft.

Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $522,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.

Tom Harbour
Tom Harbour

Tom Harbour, the former National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service who retired at the end of last year has mentioned several times his affinity for the C-130 platform as an air tanker. In what we called his “exit interview”, he talked about it at 9:27 in the video, saying:

I like the 130-J and I told folks before and I’ll tell folks after, I like that 130J.

But he said he had no plans to work for Lockheed Martin after his retirement.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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8 thoughts on “Forest Service to buy a brand new air tanker”

  1. Good job. And let’s keep loading our firefighters into helicopters that were built before the invention of the countertop microwave. All this money spent on a program that your second year firefighter can tell you is the biggest waist of money in the fire suppression program. Well as soon as we pile up one of these outdated machines and kill a half dozen individuals then maybe we will assess their flight worthiness.

  2. Hopefully (but doubtfully?) the USFS has written the RFP and specs such that they get some competition on the bidding, although a committed purchase quantity of only 1 may make that unlikely.

  3. Why not have them still use pre- Vietnam War aircraft….they still pay USFS 1960’s wages. That’s why they officially call them forestry technicians and not fire fighters so they don’t have to pay them. Washington should be ashamed.

    1. If you want the official title of firefighter there are many fire departments where you can seek work. I have 27 yrs in federal land management fire management and am proud to be a forestry technician. There is nothing wrong with that title.

      1. jmg, I’m a former forestry technician (10 seasons in fire) and current municipal fire firefighter. Couldn’t agree with you more! We did a lot more working in the woods than just fire

  4. First don’t be fooled by the 65 million “window sticker”. With tax, license, wax job, interior seat protectant and o’yes a small 3500 gallon water tank, total $165 million. Who is in love with the C 130’s? Excellent airplane for the fire mission but not the only model on the lot. With seven excess property C 130’s still in the process of conversion why a new model, or why any F.S. owned (operated) air tankers? For over sixty (60) years the private sector air tankers operators have been providing excellent service. Today this aviation service hasn’t been better! Is the real mission of the Feds to challenge the private sector in an attempt to keep the cost of contracting down? Unlimited taxpayer money verses a for profit business. Most if not all air tanker bases “winterize” as soon as possible. So the air tanker base has a closed for season sign on the front door. Mother Nature pitches us a curve ball (fires) and the scramble is on to find personal and activate the base. Haven’t we seen this time and time again. Air tanker available (maybe) but the tanker base crews are out burning, picking up sticks, days off, vacation or on holiday status. If the Feds want to venture into the tanker business I would put my money on a new Super Scooper. Doesn’t require a reload facility or staff and is only limited by diesel fuel and water. Or to put it another way one 3500 gallon (C130) drop ever 40 minutes or six drops (CL415) delivering 9600 gallons every 40 minutes.

      1. Got me on this one so far. There is one thing about aviation, if you think something is going to cost a dollar it will cost two dollars probably. I was budgeting for the total package to operate a C 130. STRIPPED DOWN VERSION reported price 65 million.
        Department of Defense is paying 90 million per aircraft. Those administrative fee watch out measure in millions but hard to detect. Facilities spares, labor (same parts as the Coast Guard planes?) Its a Federal project which automatically means over runs, look at the F 35 fighter. Only time will tell if I’m close. One thing is for sure lots of money for only 3000 gallons.

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