Update on large air tankers, including the USFS C-130’s

This article was first published on FireAviation.com August 11, 2016.

Ten additional air tankers brought on temporarily

In the last few weeks the U.S. Forest Service has brought on ten additional air tankers on a temporary basis. This includes CL-415 water-scoopers, CV-580’s, and Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130’s. Two of the aircraft were acquired through Call When Needed (CWN) agreements; four via agreements with Alaska and Canada; two MAFFS through an agreement with the Department of Defense; and two water scoopers through other contracts.


The U.S. Forest Service expects to have two HC-130H aircraft at McClellan Air Field in September. These are part of the seven aircraft fleet of HC-130H’s that the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Tanker 118, an HC-130H
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015.

Last year one of the HC-130H’s worked out of McClellan using a MAFFS, a slip-in 3,000-gallon pressurized retardant system that pumps the liquid out the left side troop door. That was aircraft #1721 designated as Tanker 118, still painted in military colors. T-118 is now undergoing scheduled depot-level maintenance and should be replaced in September of this year by #1708 designated as Tanker 116. It will also use a slip-in MAFFS unit, one of the eight owned by the USFS, but should be sporting a new USFS air tanker paint job. After T-118 left, another former Coast Guard aircraft took its place, #1706. It is being used for training the contracted pilots and will not serve as an air tanker.

Early in 2015 the plan was to have two HC-130H’s at McClellan. One would be used as an air tanker, and the second would be used as a training platform. Below is a portion of that early 2015 plan which we covered February 9, 2015.

Forest Service C-130H schedule
The USFS plans in early 2015 for incorporating the seven HC-130H aircraft into a Government-Owned/Contractor-Operated fleet of air tankers. Click to enlarge.

Eventually the USFS hopes to have all seven converted to air tankers with removable retardant tanks. A contract for the installation of the retardant delivery systems was awarded to the Coulson Group in May. There is also much other work that has to be completed on the aircraft including programmed depot maintenance, painting, and wing box replacement on most of them. The work is being done or coordinated by the U.S. Air Force. They were directed by Congressional legislation to use their own funds, up to $130 million, so it is no surprise that the schedule keeps slipping as delays continue to occur in awarding contracts and scheduling the maintenance.

In 2014 Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS, said all seven aircraft would be completely converted by 2018. In early 2015 the USFS changed that to 2019. Now, a year and a half later, it’s anybody’s guess when or if this project that started in December of 2013 will be finished.


four CL-415 cody wy
Four CL-415 water-scooping air tankers at Cody, Wyoming during the week of August 1, 2016. Some of them had been working the nearby Whit Fire and scooping out of Buffalo Bill Reservoir six miles from the fire. Photo by Becky Lester Hawkins.

The USFS has two water-scooping CL-415 air tankers on exclusive use contract. As noted above they recently temporarily brought on two more on a call when needed basis. All four are operated by AeroFlite and as seen in the photo above were together at Cody last week.

Air Spray

There was some discussion in the comment section of another article on Fire Aviation about the status of the BAe-146 aircraft being converted to air tankers by Air Spray. The company has five of the 146’s; two are out of the country and the other three are at the company’s Chico, California facility. Ravi Saip, their Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told Fire Aviation that they expect to begin flight testing one of them in air tanker mode around the first of the year. After they receive a supplemental type certificate from the FAA, work on the second one would shift into high gear. Then conversion of the other three would begin.

Air Spray’s T-241 finishing its amphibious conversion at the Wipaire facility in Minnesota. Air Spray photo.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 single engine air tankers that they have purchased since 2014. Five of them have received the amphibious conversion by adding floats, and the other three are stock, restricted to wheels.

Air Spray’s Tanker 498, an L-188 Electra, is currently in Sacramento being inspected and carded by CAL FIRE so that it can be used in a Call When Needed capacity.

747 SuperTanker

Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, told us that the FAA has awarded a supplemental type certificate for their reborn 747 SuperTanker — a major and sometimes very difficult barrier to overcome. Within the next two weeks they expect to receive the airworthiness certificate.

air tanker 747 T-944 colorado springs
T-944 at Colorado Springs May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Beginning next week representatives from the USFS will observe some additional static tests and then there will be an airborne descent test, a new test added in 2013, releasing retardant in a downhill drop. That test was not required when Version 1.0 of the 747 was certified. It may have been added after it was discovered that the first BAe-146’s that were converted and issued contracts still retained hundreds of gallons of retardant after downhill runs.

These steps should take less than two weeks, Mr. Wheeler said, after which they will submit the results to the Interagency AirTanker Board.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told Fire Aviation that the company was offered an opportunity to submit a proposal for a call when needed contract solicitation in 2015, along with numerous other companies, but declined to do so. Their next opportunity to obtain a contract will be when another general solicitation is issued in 2017, or perhaps sooner, Ms. Jones said. The agency issued a Request for Information a few weeks ago, which is usually followed some months later with an actual solicitation.

Judging from the list of CWN air tankers with contracts, apparently it is possible to submit a proposal and receive a USFS CWN contract even if the aircraft exists mostly on paper and could be years away from being FAA and Interagency AirTanker Board certified.

In the meantime Mr. Wheeler realizes that the USFS is not the only organization that hires air tankers and has been talking with a number of other agencies in various states and countries as well as companies involved in marine firefighting.

Global SuperTanker is in the process of finishing repairs on the 747 in Arizona after some of the composite flight control surfaces (flaps, spoilers, elevators) and engine cowlings were damaged by golf ball sized hail at Colorado Springs several weeks ago. There was no windscreen or fuselage damage.

Mr. Wheeler said that was the first severe hailstorm within the last seven years at the Colorado Springs airport. But, after the aircraft left to be repaired in Arizona a second hailstorm struck the airport that some have said was a 100-year event and did much more damage than the first one.

Permanent base for the HC-130H air tankers

On September 2, 2015 the USFS formally requested information from facilities that could support the seven-aircraft HC-130H fleet (Solicitation Number SN-2015-16), with responses due September 16. The agency was only asking for information from interested parties, and will not award a contract based on the Request for Information. A few politicians fell all over themselves arguing that the aircraft should be based in their state.

Since then no decisions have been made. Ms. Jones told Fire Aviation:

The U.S. Forest Service continues to cooperate with the Department of Defense to identify potential federal facilities, which must be considered first.

It is unlikely that more than one or two of the seven HC-130H’s would be at the new base at at any one time, except during the winter when they would not have to be dispersed around the country to be available for firefighting. While the base might not be a huge expansion of the aerial firefighting capabilities in an area, the stationing of the flight crews, maintenance, and administrative personnel would be a boost to the economy of a small or medium-sized city.

DC-10 air tanker to visit airports in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana

Tanker 911 dropping Poco Fire
Tanker 911 dropping on the Poco Fire in Arizona, June 15, 2012. Photo by Ian James.

UPDATED at 12:19 p.m. Monday, April 22, 2013:

The schedule for the visits of Air Tanker 910 to airports in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana described below has been revised due to snow at Rapid City — everything is being pushed by 24 hours. More details at Wildfire Today.


One of the DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers will visit airports in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana next week. Air Tanker 910, owned by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, has been in Michigan undergoing heavy maintenance in recent weeks and will leave from there Monday morning, April 22 and head west. On their way home in southern California, their plans are to stop at four cities:

  1. Brainerd, Minnesota, Monday morning;
  2. Rapid City, South Dakota, early Monday afternoon;
  3. Billings, Montana, Tuesday;
  4. Missoula, Montana, Tuesday.

If a DC-10 reloaded at Rapid City it would have to be from a portable retardant base, since it is unlikely that the existing rather cramped Tanker Base could support such a large aircraft, and possibly the weight would be more than the ramp could handle. Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, told us that if they worked out of Brainerd the aircraft would most likely drop water, rather than retardant. Finding a fire hydrant within reach of the three-inch diameter hose the aircraft carries can be easier than accessing a Tanker Base.

The DC-10 always carries 11,600 gallons of fire retardant, about six times more than the 50+ year old Korean War vintage P2V “legacy” air tankers that drop an average of 1,948 gallons according to a 2007-2009 air tanker study.

The U.S. Forest Service has awarded exclusive use contracts for seven P2Vs and one BAe-146 air tanker for 2013. The agency has not yet announced any awards from the solicitation for “next-generation” air tankers they issued 505 days ago. There are indications they will give contracts to 7 next-gen air tankers, bringing the total number of air tankers to 15 for this year. In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on exclusive use federal contracts. The USFS has said they may again borrow, if needed and available, some old CV-580 air tankers from Canada for a few months that carry 2,000 gallons of fire retardant. The CV-580s were produced between 1947 and 1954.

USFS Chief: “We will have the resources we need”

Chief Tidwell
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell testifies at Committee hearing. Credit Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Testifying Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, assured the Senators that there would be an adequate number of firefighting resources available this year.

In spite of budget reductions that will cut 500 firefighters and up to 75 engines from his agency, Chief Tidwell said:

We will have the resources we need.

He said the Forest Service will rely on call-when-needed contracts for air tankers to fight wildfires, but said when they are activated they will cost “one-and-a-half to two-times” more than exclusive use contracts for air tankers that are on duty six days a week.

According to a March 22 report in the Durango Herald, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers. Secretary Vilsack was responding to a letter Senator Udall sent to the Secretary in January requesting an update on the modernization of the federal air tanker fleet.

The U.S. Forest Service first issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers 503 days ago but no contracts have been signed. They were almost awarded last summer but were held up by protests filed by two unsuccessful bidders. The solicitation was reissued in October of 2012 but no results have been announced.

During the second half of the western fire season last year, there were between 9 and 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, down from 44 in 2002. If the USFS awards contracts for 7 next-generation air tankers, adding to the 9 Korean War vintage legacy air tankers, the agency may supplement the total with up to 8 old CV-580 air tankers if they are available from Canada and the state of Alaska. In addition, 8 military C-130s may be accessed if they are available and needed.

Montana is grateful for borrowed Canadian aircraft

Highway 87 Fire
In August retardant dropped by air tankers helped slow the spread of the Highway 87 Fire in Montana. Montana DNRC photo.

Several firefighting aircraft from Canada have been in Montana this summer, on loan thanks to an international agreement. The provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta sent three CV-580 air tankers, two lead planes, and one Bell 212 helicopter under the provisions of an arrangement between five U.S. states and five Canadian provinces titled the “Northwest Wildland Fire Protection Agreement”, which allows ground and air firefighting resources to be exchanged between the two countries. The aircraft have been stationed at Helena and Billings since June.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Billings Gazette about the agreement and the aircraft:

With the Canadian tankers and helicopter available, fire crews can throw more resources — and do it faster — than usual at new starts in an effort to nip them before they can blow up. For example, the Hibbard fire sparked on Sunday north of Pompeys Pillar and, within hours, three heavy tankers and a helicopter were helping local crews, dousing the fire after it burned 326 acres.

“We want to get in there and dogpile the fires as soon as we hear about them,” [Matt] Wolcott [the Montana DNRC Southern Land Office’s area manager] said.

And its not just the Billings area benefiting from the Northwest Compact. They’ve helped out everywhere from Yellowstone National Park to the Hi-line, from the Crow Indian Reservation to the Missouri Breaks.

Last year, Montana also sent crews to help fight fires in Alaska and an overhead crew, engines and other resources to British Columbia during the 2010 fire season.

While the U.S. has sent ground-based firefighters to Canada on several occasions, I can’t recall any long-term deployment of government-owned air tankers from the U.S. to Canada. Oh, right… that’s because we don’t have have any.


Thanks go out to Dick and Kelly.

USFS adds a DC-10 and three more CV-580s to the temporary list of air tankers

Two, DC-10 air tankers
10 Tanker Air Carrier’s two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers. Photo: 10 Tanker

The U.S. Forest Service has activated the Call When Needed contract for one of the DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers and has also called in three more air tankers from Canada, CV-580s borrowed from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons of retardant, five times more than the CV-580 which holds a maximum of 2,100 gallons.

The CV-580s are modified Convair CV-340 or CV-440 aircraft manufactured between 1947 and 1954 which have had the piston engines replaced by turbo-props.

On June 6 the USFS announced they were borrowing two CV-580s, and they have been working on the High Park fire in Colorado, reloading at the Rocky Mountain Metro Airport. Now there are a total of five CV-580s temporarily in the lower 48 states; one borrowed from the state of Alaska and four from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Those five plus the DC-10 which may be hired for only a short time as well, bring the total of large air tankers under the control of the USFS, counting two S-2Ts, to 17 — for now.

CAL FIRE recently reached out to the USFS and allowed the federal agency to arrange to bring on two S-2T CAL FIRE air tankers one month earlier than they would have come on duty otherwise. These two aircraft will only be used in California. An S-2T carries 1,200 gallons of retardant, 10% of the capacity of a DC-10.

To summarize the current 17 large or very large air tankers that are currently available:

  • eight P2Vs (exclusive use contract)
  • one BAe-146 (exclusive use contract)
  • five CV-580s (borrowed temporarily from Alaska & Canada)
  • one DC-10 (brought on with “Call When Needed” contract)
  • two S-2Ts (in California only, brought on 1 month early)

We talked with Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker Air Carrier who told us that one of their DC-10s, Tanker 911, will be airborne this afternoon en route to Phoenix and will be available there for fire duty tomorrow, Tuesday. Only one of their two DC-10s is on a CWN contract, since it is not economically feasible for them to have two large expensive airplanes with crews available, when there is no guarantee that either will be used. Mr. Hatton is hopeful that both will receive exclusive use contracts when the USFS’s “next-gen” contracts are announced. That announcement was expected in May.

A Call When Needed contract can fit into the business model of the owner of a helicopter nicely, if their main source of earning income is passenger transport, TV news and traffic reporting, agricultural spraying, construction, or other uses. But an air tanker is a huge investment for a piece of equipment that is single-use; dropping retardant on wildfires. If they are not used for that, they sit, earning nothing, while the pilots and mechanics may sit too, but might still be earning a salary. That can’t go on forever.

USFS “shores up” air tanker fleet

In the aftermath of Sunday’s tragic air tanker accidents in which two pilots working for Neptune Aviation were killed, and a second air tanker made an emergency landing on disabled landing gear, the U.S. Forest Service announced today that they have “shored up” the air tanker fleet by temporarily adding some aircraft. They are arranging for two CV-580 air tankers to become available on a temporary basis. One is under contract with the state of Alaska and the other is being borrowed from the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre. The CV-580s can carry 2,100 gallons of retardant, about the same as the P2Vs that currently comprise eight of the nine air tankers on exclusive use contracts with the USFS, but they are speedier, cruising 115 mph faster than the P2Vs.

CAL FIRE reached out to the USFS and allowed the federal agency to arrange to bring on two CAL FIRE air tankers, presumably S-2Ts, one month earlier than they would have come on duty otherwise. These two aircraft will be used in California. An S-2T carries 1,200 gallons of retardant.

The USFS is also bringing on five large Type 1 helicopters earlier than previously scheduled.

When I saw the headline on the USFS news release announcing they were “shoring up” the air tanker fleet, I wondered if they were finally announcing that they have awarded multiple contracts for “new generation” air tankers. The solicitation for the next-gen air tankers closed in February, but as usual, the U.S. Forest Service office of Fire and Aviation Management has difficulty making decisions. There was also the possibility that they were going to announce exclusive use contracts or call when needed activations for the very large air tankers, such as the DC-10’s or the 747, but that did not happen either.

This “shoring up” tactic is smoke and mirrors — a band-aid on a serious case of analysis-paralysis cancer in the agency. It is simply a distraction from the real issue.

We have tried to find out the details of the USFS’ solicitation for a sixth air tanker study, which closed April 20, but calls to Kellan Logan, the USFS contracting officer in charge of the solicitation, have not been returned.

UPDATE AT 9:13 a.m. MT, June 7:

We heard from Mr. Logan today about the sixth air tanker study, which has been awarded.