SOON TO BEGIN FLYING WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION MISSIONS
The USDA Forest Service (Forest Service) and the U.S. Coast Guard (Coast Guard) are in the final stages of preparing for the Coast Guard to transfer a Next Generation Airtanker to the Forest Service. The agencies expect Tanker 118 to begin flying wildfire suppression missions from Sacramento, California this week.
The Forest Service began to use airtankers to drop fire retardant to reduce the intensity and spread of wildfires in the 1950s. For the past 35 years, the Forest Service has used airtankers contracted from private industry. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service for use in wildfire suppression. The first HC-130H, known as Tanker 118, is currently located at Forest Service Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC) in Sacramento, California, which will be its base of operations for the next two years. Tanker 118 is expected to be available to fly wildfire suppression missions beginning Friday, July 10.
“While we will continue to rely on our partners in private industry to provide airtankers, operating aircraft ourselves will provide additional stability to the fleet,” said Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Forest Service. “We greatly appreciate the outstanding support that we are receiving from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force (Air Force), which is critical to bringing the HC-130Hs into service.”
Tanker 118 has been located at the Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento since mid-June while maintenance, installation and testing of the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) unit and contractor pilot and maintenance crew training have been taking place. FSAS MCC will be located adjacent to CGAS Sacramento during the initial phase of the program to allow continued cooperation. A systematic search for a permanent base of operations for all seven HC-130H aircraft is underway.
"The Coast Guard is very happy with the outstanding cooperation we have experienced with the Forest Service in establishing this first-of-its-kind program for our service,” said Cmdr. Michael Frawley, chief of Aeronautical Engineering, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters. “We look forward to a strong partnership that supports the Forest Service in achieving safe and effective wildfire suppression missions in the coming years."
Tanker 118 will fly this year and in 2016 with the MAFFS unit to provide an initial capability and to gain experience in operating the aircraft. While the Forest Service and Coast Guard will jointly own and manage Tanker 118, the Forest Service has contracted with Consolidated Air Support Systems (CASS) of Temecula, California for aircrew services and with DRS Technologies of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for maintenance services. Tanker 118 will only fly wildfire suppression missions within 500 nautical miles of FSAS MCC so that it can return there each night for maintenance by contract crews and support from Coast Guard crews.
The Forest Service, Coast Guard, and Air Force have been working together to complete the significant amount of work that is needed on all seven HC-130H aircraft before they can begin flying wildfire suppression missions. These modifications include demilitarization; performing wing and airframe modifications; designing, contracting for, manufacturing and installing retardant tanks; and equipping them with radios, Aircraft Flight Following, and other equipment.
The Air Force will perform center and outer wing-box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-fed retardant delivery system (RDS) in each aircraft before they can be transferred to the Forest Service for firefighting missions.
When Tanker 118 comes into service, the Forest Service will have a total of 22 airtankers available full-time for wildfire suppression this fire season. The agency also has the ability to activate up to 8 military C-130s equipped with MAFFS into service as needed. An additional HC-130H is expected to arrive at FSAS MCC in October to serve as a training aircraft. All seven HC-130Hs airtankers are expected to be modified and transferred to Forest Service ownership by 2019.