Cuts in numbers of air tankers could result in the use of more expensive CWN aircraft

The exclusive use large air tankers are being cut from 20 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

Above:  Tanker 101, an MD87, at Rapid City December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at at 3:05 p.m. MT February 21, 2018)

With the federal government’s drastic cut in the number of large air tankers on Exclusive Use (EU) contracts this year we did some calculations to look at the increased cost of this strategy. If the Forest Service desires more than the 13 that are on EU contracts, down from 20 in 2017, they can activate those on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts — that is, IF they are available. But this comes at a much higher price tag.

There are two costs for air tankers — daily plus hourly. If the aircraft just sits at an air tanker base available with a flight crew it only earns the daily availability rate. When it flies, an hourly rate is added. Both of these rates are higher for most air tankers.

We averaged the daily and hourly EU and CWN rates for three models of air tankers provided by three different companies, BAe-146 by Neptune, RJ85 by Aero Flite, and C-130 (382G) by Coulson. The numbers below are the combined averages of the three aircraft:

EU Daily: $30,150
EU Hourly: $7,601
CWN Daily: $46,341 (+54%)
CWN Hourly: $8,970 (+18%)

These costs only account for the additional costs of contracting for the air tankers, and do not include any increased costs of new, small wildfires escaping initial attack due to a lack of available air tankers or Type 1 helicopters. It also does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost. In 2017 the Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts were cut from 34 to 28, and that continues in 2018.

State and local wildfire organizations that in the past have counted on the federal government’s air tankers to assist them when they desperately need air support, had better look for alternatives. However, this slow motion atrophy of the air tanker fleet has been going on for the last 15 years.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

gabbert prescription keep wildfires small

You may want to express your opinion to your Senators or Representatives.

Forest Service cuts air tankers by one-third

The agency also intends to abandon the project to convert Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers

Fire Aviation broke major stories today. Below are excerpts:

The number of air tankers is cut for this fiscal year

The U.S. Forest Service is cutting the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year from 20 to 13.

air tankers number each year wildfire

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues are affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner. Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased. This means less funds available for our crucial restorative work on your National Forest System lands to prevent large fires.

Fewer Type 1 helicopters this fiscal year

Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contracts have already been cut from 34 to 28. These are the largest firefighting helicopters, holding 700 to 2,800 gallons.

Forest Service to abandon the HC-130H conversion program

The U.S. Forest Service intends to abandon the program that it has been working on since 2013 to convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers for fighting wildfires.

This is the last year the agency will support the HC-130H program. After four years none of the seven aircraft have completed the entire maintenance and conversion process.

HC-130H 1709 Jeanie Menze
One of the Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, #1719, being transferred to the USFS; shown with Jeanine Menze several years ago–1st USCG African American female aviator. She earned her wings June 24, 2005.

Coulson’s new 737 rolls out of the paint shop

Above: Coulson’s first 737 being converted to an air tanker. Photo provided by Coulson Aviation.

Coulson Aviation has purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines and plans to convert them into air tankers. The first one being worked on just rolled out of the paint shop in Spokane. Britt Coulson said he expects it to be complete by the end of this year, then they will start on a second one. This will be the first 737 to be used as an air tanker. More information and photos are at

Photos of firefighting aircraft in Chile

Above: personnel with the 747 SuperTanker crew pose with a member of the Chilean Air Force (in dark green jumpsuit).

In case you have not been following Fire Aviation and the stories about the 747 SuperTanker being mobilized to help manage the wildfires in Chile, here are some photos. More information is at

IL-76 russian air tanker
The Russian IL-76 Taxiing past the 747 SuperTanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
IL-76 russian air tanker
Water flows out of these huge pipes in the IL-76 when a large flapper valve is opened.

Continue reading “Photos of firefighting aircraft in Chile”

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. 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.

Wildfire news, September 14, 2016

Highlights of recent news about wildland fire.

California has fewer inmates available for fighting wildfires

With fewer inmates available for fighting fires, the state of California is turning to civilian crews within their Conservation Corps.

From KCRA:

…But the number of available inmates is declining because counties now oversee most lower-level felons under a law aimed at easing prison overcrowding. In addition, there are fewer incentives for inmates to risk their lives since a federal court broadened an early release program for firefighters to include other inmates.

The state is about 600 inmates short of the 4,300 prisoners who could be available for fire lines. So this year, the California Conservation Corps reopened a camp to train three crews of young civilians to do the same backbreaking work as the inmates. Corps Director Bruce Saito expects to create at least four more fire crews with roughly 15 members each by next summer and a half-dozen new crews during each of the next two years.

The corps has more than 1,400 members, but fewer than 200 currently work alongside local, state and federal firefighters battling blazes in rural areas.

The members include both men and women and range in age from 18 to 25. They enlist for one year and earn the state’s minimum wage of $10 an hour. Military veterans can enroll until they turn 30…

Oregon sues 3 people responsible for starting the Ferguson Fire

Oregon hopes to recover $892,082 from three individuals who they say are responsible for starting the Ferguson Fire that burned 200 acres and destroyed two structures in Klamath County in July 2014.

The suit alleges that Joe Askins started a campfire, then took a nap. When he awoke, the campfire had escaped. Askins also said “I’ll take all the blame for the fire,” according to the lawsuit.

More evidence that beetle-killed forests do not increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

An article at News Deeply summarizes several research studies which mostly concluded that beetle-killed forests do not burn more severely than forests that have not been attacked by the insects. This is in spite of statements to the contrary by the Secretary of Agriculture, a spokesperson for CAL FIRE, and media stories about trees that are now part of a “tinder box”.

Air tanker 132 starts contract in Australia

air tanker 132 australia
Air Tanker 132 is reintroduced to the media in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Sgt. Brett Sherriff, Royal Australian Air Force.

Fire Aviation reports that Coulson’s Air Tanker 132 started its contract with New South Wales on September 6, helping to provide air support for wildland firefighters in Australia. This is the second year in a row that the L-382G, a variant of the C-130 platform, has worked down under during their summer bushfire season.

Cheyenne is concerned about the effects of the Snake Fire on their water system

“The location of the fire is close proximity to our major watershed collection area for the Hog Park Reservoir” said Dena Egenhoff, the Board of Public Utilities’ (BOPU) Water Conservation Manager. “We are unable to know the impact of the Snake Fire at this time, but the location suggests there may be some adverse impacts to the City of Cheyenne’s water collection system.” As of September 11, 2016, the Hog Park Reservoir is 91.8% full

For Cheyenne, BOPU collects water in the Little Snake River drainage from snow melt and streams and transports it under a mountain by a tunnel to the eastside of the Continental Divide. That water is then stored in Hog Park Reservoir. From there, the collected water from Hog Park Reservoir is traded for water in Rob Roy Reservoir which can more easily be transported without pumping to Cheyenne. “In this way, the amount of water can be exchanged between the two different Mountain Ranges with all water rights being satisfied,” said Dena Egenhoff.

The Snake fire is in south-central Wyoming just north of the Colorado border. It is 115 air miles miles west of Cheyenne, and 20 miles west of the 38,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire that has been burning in Colorado and Wyoming since July 19, 2016.