A NEW addition to the US Forest Service (USFS) fleet of fire-fighting aircraft is the first of seven former US Coast Guard HC-130H Hercules. The aircraft, designated Tanker 118’, entered operational service on wildfire suppression missions last month (July), although it is currently only in an interim configuration – it is temporarily operating with a Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) pressurised 3,000-gallon tank, prior to conversion to full fire-fighting configuration.
Tanker 118 is based at Forest Service Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC), Sacramento, California, from where it is expected to operate for the next two years. Under the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), approval was granted for the transfer of the seven HC-130Hs from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service for use in the wildfire suppression role.
“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 US Air Force, which is critical to bringing the HC-130Hs into service.”
Tanker 118 had been located at Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento since mid-June while maintenance, installation and testing of the MAFFS unit and contractor pilot and maintenance crew training had been taking place. FSAS MCC will be located adjacent to CGAS Sacramento during the initial phase of the programme to allow continued co-operation. A search is under way for a permanent base of operations for all seven HC-130Hs.
Tanker 118 will fly this year and in 2016 with the interim MAFFS unit to provide an initial capability and for crews 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 500nm (925km) of FSAS MCC so that it can return there each night for maintenance by contract crews and obtain support from Coast Guard crews.
The US Forest Service, US Coast Guard and US 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 US Air Force will perform centre 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.
Including Tanker 118, the Forest Service has a total of 22 airtankers available full-time for wildfire suppression this fire season. The agency also has the ability to activate up to eight 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 of the ex-USCG HC-130Hs airtankers are expected to be modified and transferred to US Forest Service ownership by 2019. Alan Warnes