Seven U.S. Coast Guard cargo planes that Congress transferred to the Forest Service for aerial firefighting won’t be in service this fire season.

And when those C-130H planes do fly, private contractors will operate and maintain them, according to National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.

“We envision bringing those into service incrementally beginning in the fall,” Jones said Tuesday. “First they will be transferred to the Department of Defense to be outfitted with tanks and do upgrades to bring them into service. The Forest Service will own them but contract out the operations and maintenance.”

That’s mixed news for fire-bomber operators like Neptune Aviation. The Missoula-based company has six P2-V propeller-driven firebombers on contract with the Forest Service, along with two modern BAe-146 jets and three more on the way.

In December, it won a sole-source contract for two of its BAes after three other aircraft providers failed to meet their Forest Service next-generation firebomber contracts last year. That award has been protested (see related story).

“The 2014 defense authorization bill sent those seven planes to the Forest Service, but there’s no money for transfer or conversion,” Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said Tuesday. “I don’t know what the Forest Service intends to do with them. I think they ought to rely on the private sector for tanking and maintenance. If they do, we’d definitely be interested in that.”

Jones said the legislation did provide up to $130 million for upgrades to the C-130H planes.

“These aircraft were designed and operated for military purposes and will need to be configured, equipped and staffed to perform wildfire suppression missions before they can be brought into service,” Jones said in an email. “C-130H aircraft owned and operated by Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units already serve as air tankers through the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) program. The U.S. Forest Service’s experience with these aircraft, and knowledge of their performance in wildfire suppression missions, will enable the agency to use them effectively as soon as upgrades are completed.”

However, the MAFFS tanker has not performed as well as other firebombers, and delivers an average load of 2,400 gallons. Coulson Aviation USA of San Bernardino, Calif., has developed a 3,500-gallon retardant tank for its new C-130Q firebomber that went into service last fall.

And there could be other complications, according to Rick Hatton, president of 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC, another firebomber company based in Albuquerque, N.M.

“Getting used C-130H models from the Coast Guard is only a start of spending millions and millions of dollars to modify and maintain them, let alone operate them,” Hatton said. “There are wing issues on those aircraft that are not cheap, but all that gets ignored when you get senators advocating this and that.”

The Coast Guard transfer developed by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John McCain, R-Ariz., also included 15 C-23B Sherpa cargo planes. Those are smaller aircraft often used to carry smokejumpers to backcountry fires. NIFC’s Jones said they would not be used as retardant bombers.

“The agency will own all of the Shorts C-23B (Sherpa) aircraft,” Jones said. “Some will be operated by U.S. Forest Service pilots and others will be operated by private industry under contract. All C-23Bs will be maintained by private industry under contract.”

The deal did not include a fleet of C-27 Spartan cargo planes that were considered earlier last year as possible additions to the Forest Service firefighting air force. Those planes drew controversy for lacking the 3,000-gallon minimum payload called for by the Forest Service’s next-generation fire bomber contract.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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