SAN BERNARDINO: Big plane seeks ‘next-gen’ air-tanker contract

SAN BERNARDINO: Big plane seeks ‘next-gen’ air-tanker contract

13 March 2013

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USA —  Known in Lake Elsinore as the man who brought the world’s largest seaplane to town to fight wildfires, Wayne Coulson now is rebuilding an ex-military cargo plane he hopes will become a prototype for the nation’s next generation of air tankers.

And if he gets his way, his pilots will use night-vision goggles to become the first air tanker crews to fly day and night, relying on high-tech gadgets to pinpoint their fire-retardant drops with laser-beam precision.

The overhaul and modernization work is being done at San Bernardino International Airport, the home of the U.S. Forest Service’s regional air tanker base.

Test flights are set for April. Coulson hopes to win a Forest Service contract to begin fighting fires by June.

His project comes at a time when the nation’s fleet of large air tankers has dwindled from 44 to 10 – eight of them more 50 years old.

Under a modernization plan announced a year ago, the Forest Service envisions a fleet of 18 to 28 so-called next generation air tankers: jet-engine aircraft that the agency hopes will be far newer and safer than its aging fleet of predominately piston-powered planes. Contract applications are being reviewed now.

Modernization was ordered after metal fatigue caused the wings to snap off two air tankers — ages 57 and 44 – in mid-flight during 2002, killing the tankers’ crews.

Coulson declined to discuss the cost of the proposed contract until the agency makes its decision.

He argues that his plane — an ex-Navy C-130Q Hercules turbo-prop — is a better choice than the converted airliners competing firms are offering. Unlike airliners, his plane was designed to fly low and slow, and carries its fire retardant in a lighter, simpler and more capable tank, he says.

His plane is 30 years old, but that’s relatively new by air tanker standards, and Coulson’s plane is completing an intense nose-to-tail restoration.

It is generally the same age as the C-130H models still in use by the armed services of many nations, he says.

The U.S. military even uses H models to fight wildfires when no other air tankers are available, though those planes are gradually being replaced by newer J-models.

A Canadian timber and aviation magnate, Coulson may be best known for his two World-War II-era Martin Mars seaplanes that were bought from the U.S. Navy and converted into air tankers.

“They’ve been fighting fires since 1960 – so roughly 52 years,” he says proudly.

In 2007, one of the glistening red-and-white giants helped fight a firestorm in San Diego. The next year, it battled wildfires in Northern California. And in 2009, it was based in Lake Elsinore, where it became a popular tourist attraction, floating at its moorings while awaiting fire calls.

It no longer fights fires in the United States, though it’s still active in Canada and Mexico.

With a 7,200-gallon capacity, the 65-year-old Mars hauled about twice the capacity of the nation’s large air tankers. But it no longer wins Forest Service contracts, an apparent victim of the agency’s reluctance to use what some see as antique airplanes.

Which helped trigger Coulson’s current project.

“We believe we’re bringing a like-new bird into the fleet,” he says of the completely overhauled C-130Q.

His long-range plan calls for him to convert additional youngish C-130s to air tankers. He believes about six are available worldwide.

And just like the current plane, he ultimately envisions installing night vision equipment and a GPS system that will automatically drop fire retardant precisely between two pre-selected locations designated by a laser device mounted in an accompanying helicopter.

The heart of the system is an already approved 3,500-gallon tank that the Forest Service used for many years in the first model of the Hercules, the Vietnam-era C-130A.

Unlike the pressurized tanks favored by some of his competitors, Coulson’s tank drops its fire retardant through doors in the plane’s belly, similar to the way warplanes drop bombs.

The so-called gravity system is simpler, lighter, cheaper and faster than the pressurized tanks now being used by his competitors, he says. And the entire load can be jettisoned faster in an emergency, making them safer, he insists.

“If you have an engine failure at a critical time in the drop, some airplanes will not recover,” Coulson said. “We believe the C-130 will recover, because we can … jettison all 3,500 gallons of retardant in two seconds.

“One second can make the difference between whether you live or die.”

Fire retardant weighs about nine pounds per gallon. So jettisoning the load makes the plane 31,500 gallons lighter – instantly.

“It’s like an absolute elevator,” he says. “It basically gets you out of trouble.”

With this year’s fire season fast approaching, the winners of the 2013 air tanker contracts are expected to be announced soon by the U.S. Forest Service.


Wayne Coulson is converting a former military C-130Q Hercules cargo plane to a firefighting air tanker at San Bernardino International Airport.


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