Coulson to build a C-130H air tanker

C-130H and Firewatch 76
Coulson’s C-130H and Firewatch 76. Photo by Coulson.

Update at 1:20 p.m. MT, March 14, 2013: Brit Coulson told us a few days ago that they no longer plan to place a 5,000-gallon tank in the aircraft. It will be a 3,500 US gallon capacity tank instead.


The U.S. Forest Service may begin awarding contracts within the next several weeks based the responses to their solicitation for “Next Generation” air tankers which closed February 15, 2012 . The list of attendees at the January 11 pre-proposal conference provides some clues as to which companies are interested: Coulson, Cherokee Holdings, Erickson, Minden, Lockheed Martin, Aero Flite, Firebird, and Conair.

Britt Coulson, of Coulson Aviation, told Wildfire Today that they submitted a proposal for a C-130H which they intend to convert into an air tanker. The company has been in the aerial firefighting business since 1986 and currently has a fleet of five Sikorsky S-61 helicopters, two Bell Jet Rangers, and a very high-tech Sikorsky S-76. The S-76, or “Firewatch 76”, is outfitted with an array of sophisticated sensors for evaluating air tanker drops and the speedy helicopter serves as a bird dog or lead plane for their huge Martin Mars amphibious air tanker. In 2010 Coulson loaded the S-76 onto a 747 and transported it to Australia where it worked as an aerial platform for observing and evaluating drops made by 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 air tanker when the state of Victoria tested the 11,600-gallon air tanker.

The Coulson C-130H was previously operated by the military, which put about 10,000 hours on it, then NASA picked it up and added another 3,000 hours. Now at 13,000 hours, the 30-year old aircraft is not very aged from an hours point of view, certainly when compared to a used airliner which might have four to eight times as many.

C-130H internal gravity tank
5,000-gallon internal retardant tank. Image provided by Coulson

Coulson has a design for a 5,000-gallon internal retardant tank that they intend to put inside the C-130H. They told us that a full 5,000-gallon gravity-fed tank weighs about the same as a pressurized 3,000-gallon tank that is used on the military MAFFS air tankers. The gravity tank does not have to have the heavy accessories like an air compressor, multiple smaller tanks, and complex piping. Gravity tank systems are much less complicated than pressurized systems. Colson will install constant-flow doors which will provide a dependable and consistent application of retardant.

One obstacle that could interfere with Coulson’s plans is the rumor that the U.S. Forest Service is looking for reasons to exclude ex-military aircraft from the awards from this “next generation” solicitation. Coulson said their C-130H meets all of the specifications in the solicitation, so they will be extremely disappointed, to say the least, if their proposal is disqualified or ignored based on the ownership history of the aircraft.

On the other hand, former Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service when he worked in D.C., might be pleased. His new employer, Lockheed Martin, who hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”, would very much like to sell to the USFS or private companies a few dozen brand new C-130Js at $80 to $90 million a pop. Mr. Rey resigned from his post with the Department of Agriculture in January, 2009 and by July 6 he had already filed a Lobbying Report as a Lockheed Martin employee. This is interesting, because the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, according to Wikipedia, “prohibits Cabinet Secretaries and other very senior executive personnel from lobbying the department or agency in which they worked for two years after they leave their position”. In 2011 Lockheed Martin spent $15.2 million on lobbying in Washington.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

16 thoughts on “Coulson to build a C-130H air tanker”

  1. Leo, I agree with most of what you have stated. I think most of those that need the help of aerial resources (all of them, including helicopters), would as well.

  2. Where are all the congressmen that “wanted tankers a phone call away”. in Texas when the big fires happened? one of the names was Congressman Michael McCaul.

  3. Well DRD

    Therein lies the problem…

    I again stick by an agency that can do full service and if DOI is “puttering along” with SEATS…that is THEIR problem. Doesn’t matter how much mud is laid down or by who…..i’ts the iron and the program that is delivering the mud that needs a house cleanin!

    Maybe they BLM and DOI did not stand up or “stir the pot” and put their .95 cents in…. don’t know…

    What I am for, and I am sure there is more than just me, is that this WHOLE thing be taken away from all land management agencies, and as Mr Coldwater writes here, make a 1 singular agency for all National Assets under ONE all risk / all hazard operations and man it with aviation experts with certified FAA and collegiate backgrounds in aviation.

    THAT means managers from airtanker biz, airline biz, freight dog biz ,industry biz, CFI biz.

    Then that operation will issue dictums to the agencies, the mission profiles manned by subject matter experts from your biz. So in effect, maybe the Gov needs to own the National assets under one house and that sure would NOT be land management agencies

    Those folks STILL have issues managing the lands AND deteriorating infrastructure that BOTH Congress and the land management agencies have been ignoring for years.

    It is just tooooo bad that one land management agency screws it up for everyone. Therein lies a reason for a ONE lone aviation agency like the FAA to run with it and start a new agency from scratch….sort of like everyone chirping about DHS….look at that operation…it is here to stay after 10 -12 yrs. Sooo maybe be a new organization needs to be stood up and let the USFS and DOI get back to managing the land and ordering up aircraft from a new organization that COULD be a better player that can identify a problem after the last 20 yrs. But we as pilots know full well about the FAA, probably better than most land managers. Maybe it it is time for the FAA to start pressing this issue, but you know what? The probably have suffered most budget cuts and personnel shortages in the aircraft inspection arenas. Maybe far worse than tha USDA /FS and USDOI, to accomplish an aviation safety mission.

    The land management folks. in some cases, have done an admirable job. Now its time for a change. There are studies as far back as 1981 that show GSA, predecessors of OAS were not dong a great service back then and I am sure ALOT of thise early issues were policy driven and written in blood. These issues of military aircraft and yes, the wings that fell off of the C130 and PB4Y2 were not the only issues the land mangement agencies suffered to get that famous BRP study written and what happened with that?

    Classifications and series are not that important in this whole concept… is how everyone in the land management arena has used and possibly abused operators by shutting them down and the use and stretch under the Public Use heading that had a NTSB 2 day meeting over during November.

    But I will stand corrected on the 460/462 deal. Got it about the “above my pay grade stuff.” It more about the general public and its trust in government to do the right thing, and as a taxpayer, former wildland firefighter, certificated pilot and mechanic ( like many of my brothers), and degreed forester…….this is an absolute insult to the aviation industry, the airtanker industry, and above all the GS3 thru GS8’s on the ground. There has to be better way and hopefully at the end of this year Washington DC sees an end to this prolonged silliness and maybe there will be a ground swell both politically and professionally to do away witrh the current status quo with identified National Assets that could be handled with faaar more professionalism

  4. For the record, Leo, It’s not the 460’s and 462’s that make the decisions… And you’d be surprised, I think, to know who’s turned wrenches, or flown civilian or military aircraft. But let’s talk about the series here. You mention 460, which is an “interior” dept. classification… The only reason I bring this up is the impression that this is a problem caused by both the DOI and DOA… It’s not. The USFS made the call several years ago that THEY would manage the large airtanker fleet, and that DOI (BLM) could putter along with SEATS (if they wished). Interesting as it is however how that whole thing happened (rest assured there was not on 462 or 460 in the room), The BLM has at it’s disposal the capability to deliver 72,000 gallons of retardant, as apposed to the USFS’ 22,000. Let’s not get into speed, as I have been down that road…. The fact is that this is a single agency problem (by their own making), and that those decisions are made well above the level of the people that want and NEED fire retardant, to make their lives better.

  5. Hard landings vs not?


    Each aircraft civilian or military has a logbook or reconstructions of logbooks somewhere usuually not with the aircraft and for good reason. Military maintenance is just as rigid or more so than some civilian operators…but I am sure there are plenty o foresters, forestry techs and contract types that can “spot a rusty, untrusty old wreck of a machine out that NEVER turned a wrench on an aircraft but are willing to tell folks they know the difference after aviation training each season!!

    Exclude military acft from contracts? With that train of thought…anyone from the land maaaaaangement agencies lookin for FEPP deals at AMARC or DM ought to be run off the property if they are going to exclude military acft from contracts. IT IS an amazing bunch that can state ” no military aircraft” in their contracts after 60+ yrs of service as airtankers. I would kind of be worried about an organization that says one thing for YEEARS and now this silliness>

    Does not surprise me nor should anyone else here one iota.

    Hopefully the USFS faces an arduous, uphill battle with this if they do not provide folks like Coulson and others in the past who have tanked and retanked older iron to satisfy “contract requirements.”

    Asking industry, without helping them, ( spell Beech , Boeing, Cessna, etc some going to China, some on verges of banruptcy) and including them during the whole process for sole built airtankers without renumeration and awarding (spell GUARANTEE ) contracts after all their labor…haven’t seen many GS 460 and 462’s running rivet guns or swinging wrenches……well you get the picture…any “garoooontees” out there yet indicating they are tooling up for 25-35 LAT’s just because Smokey Bear says “we want, we want, we want” while the entire aviation industry is in new iterations due to the economy, seems a little presumptuous on some folks parts that they are going to get someone to roll over and buckle for their airtanker dreams or “dream works” what ever the hell they are ” dream /skunk workin.” Remember USFS, you are nooo Mr C. Kelly’s of Lockheed. Your dream or skunk works do not hold a cndle to that operation no matter what Mr Rey thinks. Maybe his little violation of govt service and rule breaking gets him showed the door by Lockheed due to ethics…Isn’t that somewhat the same ethics years ago got the USFS in the 1990’s C130 debacle…What is old is new and what new is old, huh??

    New day in age folks, USFS needs to reallllly realize nothing is for free in this industry.

    Maybe the politicos will swing their weight this year…and those folks still blaming FEMA for all the “screwups”…how do u blame an agency with approx 5000 FTE’s and probably that many more as DAE’s after disasters, think that that agency could screw up a tankers program? Sure, be critical of DHS, but this tanker debacle has “new agency (ies)” ripe for some forward thinkers. “Cuz” approx 60 yrs + of Smokey Bear and 100 yrs + of aviation tech….surely the USFS should have kept up…I be3t with all the IT systems they have bought in the last twenty years…..they would have had enough money in the till for at least 2 of their C130J dream machines.

    I say good luck to their solicitation process…that ought to take 5-10 yrs in itself to take hold…looking at past performance!!

    What all this talk of “Next Gen” turbine powered only… really? Look out Minden and others with piston powered aircraft. These folks ad their belief of all civilian only turbine powered aircraft is going to take the next ten to 20 years just to accomplish.

    Really all these RFP’s and solicitations when budgets are being cut? Again, maybe it will take a severe budget cut to convince these people they area little late coming to the SJS (shiny jet syndrome) party dreamin that they are going get all the new fancy gadgets airplanes.

    Good on Coulson on the C130H model…somebody at the USFS think that “H” is a civilian ship. Even the civilian 130’s are byproducts of the military models…

    This season is going to be interesting…it also will be interesting to see how more budget cutting goes in the next few months to years. Even the military is taking its hits…Time for the USFS to take a hit as well and not the Big Bob Marley they have been smokin as of late!

    1. Coulson has stated they intend to provide and tank a C130H . They did not purchase it or build the tank yet.No money spent

      1. my mistake , they do own one and they are trading a mars for another one.The mars will go to aviation museum in florida

  6. The
    Black Hills got were pretty well documented when taken out of DM. Reading through the log books can be a scary task. There was one of the P2Vs that had had a hard landing with all the details and repairs done after. I think it was one we used for parts and it never made the tanker line up. It is some of the things wrong with the aircraft that the Navy didn’t find that scares me.

    1. possible exclusion for former military aircraft would be ‘undocumented hard landings.’ The plane might have low hours, but a high number other than routine landings.

    2. I will give you three numbers and a certain company
      Rewind back to 2002 and enter Tanker 130 {A Former Military C-130A Hercules} The plane flew for the USAF and also {Supposedly} flew covert missions for the CIA,

      After the Air Force retired it and sat in storage, the plane went to Hawkins and Powers where it flew until June 2002 when it broke up in midair in California.
      Because of that I can see why the USFS wants to exclude ex military aircraft from flying with a private company.

      Just because the plane has low hours how many undocumented hard landings during black ops are on the frame.

      In a way it’s like buying an old police car. Just because the odometer is low doesn’t mean the car has been put through hell.

  7. The plot thickens. The last few sentences about the ex Forest Service employee now works for Lockeed Martin……….? At last count there are seven air tanker companies in business today and ready to fulfill the Forest Service “dream works” requirement for fixed wing air tankers in a timely manner. Example the Coulson C130H. Something doesn’t “wash” here. Eliminate four Type 1 helicopter contracts this season hoping Congress will pony up some money for a fleet of new airplanes? After what is going to happen this fire season in the West the Forest Service will be in a better position to ask for money. It doesn’t hurt to ask.


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