The Coulson Group may have gotten started as a logging contractor in British Columbia, but today a growing share of its business comes from flying above the treetops.
The 27-year-old aviation business marked a major milestone on Sept. 12, 2013, when its customized Lockheed C-130Q Hercules—also known as Tanker 131—went on contract with the United States Forest Service (USFS), dropping its first load of retardant on a California wildfire on Sept. 20.
The Coulson Group had to overcome many challenges to win the only contract for a large, multi-engine turboprop air tanker in the U.S. Now, the USFS is preparing to receive seven U.S. Coast Guard C-130H aircraft, which will be converted to air tankers by the Air Force. Coulson’s 4,000- U.S. gallon RADS-XXL tank stands a good chance of being installed in these aircraft, as it is the only FAA-certified C-130 tanking system in the world.
In 1960, Coulson Forest Products (CFP) was established as a logging company working for large timber companies on Vancouver Island. Today, the Coulson Group consists of five separate divisions that employ more than 250 people.
CFP manages an annual harvest of about 50 million board feet of timber in B.C.; Coulson Manufacturing processes about 45 million board feet of Western Red Cedar lumber for worldwide customers; Coulson Millworks dries and manufactures specialty Western Red Cedar products; and Coulson RimRock operates a casino in partnership with 57 local charities.
The fifth division is the one with the aviation connection. Coulson Aircrane operates a multi-purpose fleet of 11 aircraft based in Canada, Australia, and the U.S., including nine helicopters: a Sikorsky S-76B, two Bell 206B JetRangers, and six Sikorsky S-61Ns. The fleet also includes three fixed-wing firefighting aircraft: a Lockheed C-130Q and two giant Martin Mars flying boats, one of which will soon be on permanent display at the U.S. National Museum of Naval Aviation at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.
WESTERN RED CEDAR
When the U.S. softwood lumber market collapsed in 2006 during the economic crisis, knocking out the homebuilding industry, Coulson suspended its S-61N heli-logging operations and sought other work for its aircraft. This included overseas leases and joint ventures to support offshore drilling rigs, and the lease of three aircraft to Canadian Helicopters Limited for U.S. military support in Afghanistan.
S-61N logging resumed in 2012, with only one of the company’s six S-61Ns now used to harvest high value Western Red Cedar. The native B.C. wood is naturally durable and lightweight, with Coulson Manufacturing producing solid cedar products for high-end house siding and interior panelling. In 2010, Coulson Millworks was formed to produce Western Red Cedar veneers and laminates with a lower price point than solid boards.
Heli-logging operations on the west coast of Vancouver Island utilized a 900-pound, 3,000-psi grapple first developed and patented by Coulson staff 25 years ago. Fallers cut the cedar into ideal lengths for the mill and attach bright, colour-coded tags that signal to the pilots the weight of each log, so they can maximize the payload on the grapple, which is attached to the end of a 150-foot long-line.
Coulson’s sustainable logging practices are accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the company’s manufactured cedar products have received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification.
Coulson Aircrane took to the skies in 1987, when it bought its first heavy lift Sikorsky S-61N to selectively log inaccessible mountain slopes on Vancouver Island.
The fleet increased when heli-logging operations expanded to Alaska in 1990, and the Coulson Group opened a lumber manufacturing business in Port Alberni, B.C., in 1992, to cut high value softwood logs such as hemlock, balsam and fir for Asian customers.
Then, in 1999, Transport Canada granted Coulson Aircrane approval for night helicopter logging, which allowed the company to extend its operations during short winter days. To create a safe and productive logging environment, six-foot-high aluminum pods with three powerful lights were placed by JetRanger onto the tops of 50-foot trees, to light up a logging area like a stadium. Helicopter searchlights provided backup illumination.
All told, Coulson Aircrane has operated 13 different Sikorsky S-61Ns that have flown more than 120,000 hours. During peak logging years, the company employed four S-61Ns that flew between 2,000 and 2,300 hours annually, each lifting 7,000 to 9,000 pound payloads every two to three minutes.
“We began chasing Call When Needed (CWN) Type 1 helicopter contracts with the U.S. Forest Service in the 1990s, when logging was slow or the forests were shut down because of local fire hazards,” Britton Coulson, general manager of Coulson Aircrane, told Skies. USFS Type 1 helicopters have a useful load of more than 5,000 pounds, 15 or more passengers, or a retardant or water carrying capability of more than 700 U.S. gallons.
“In 2001, we won a three-year exclusive use contract with the USFS, to provide a Sikorsky S-61N configured for initial attack rappel operations to protect the Los Padres National Forest, from a base at Arroyo Grande helibase in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.,” said Coulson.
“This was one of the first times the USFS used a Type I helicopter for rappel operations,” he continued. “Our S-61 was configured to transport up to 18 firefighters at a time and we attacked hot spots with a 1,000 U.S. gallon SEI Bambi Bucket attached to a long line.”
Then, in 2005-2006, Coulson won its first contract in the Southern Hemisphere when two S-61Ns were contracted by the southern Australian state of Victoria and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC).
The Australian fire season can be ferocious, as demonstrated by the Black Saturday fires of Feb. 7, 2009, in Victoria, which killed 173 people, injured 400 and saw more than 3,000 structures destroyed—Australia’s highest fire losses in recent history.
With the contract now in its eighth year, the two S-61Ns are based in Mansfield and Colac in Victoria State, and shipped back and forth across the Pacific by sea.
The helicopters utilize a Bambi Bucket with a PowerFill pump that can be refilled from water sources too shallow to dip a bucket, and the Coulson-developed Fire Boss 4000 S-61 Delivery System, with a collapsible external belly tank with a snorkel.
In 2009, Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc. teamed up with ERA Aviation to put another S-61N to work on a USFS rappel contract in Santa Ynez, Calif., in 2009.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service hasn’t hired any commercial S-61Ns for 34 Type 1 exclusive use helicopter contracts,” observed Britton Coulson, “but we still fly S-61Ns on Call When Needed contracts in the U.S. each summer.”
In 2007, the Coulson Group entered the fixed-wing aerial firefighting business when it purchased the world-renowned Martin Mars Flying Tankers waterbomber operation, based at Sproat Lake in Port Alberni, B.C., since the early 1960s.
The 200-foot wingspan Martin Mars can drop 27,276 litres (7,200 U.S. gallons) of water. Two of the original four Mars were destroyed in the early 1960s, but the remaining two—Philippine Mars and Hawaii Mars—attacked hundreds of fires, saving thousands of acres of valuable forest over their lifetimes.
The Coulson Group saw an opportunity to leverage its extensive helicopter firefighting experience in Canada, Australia and the U.S. It bought the local company and renamed it Coulson Flying Tankers in early 2007.
At the time, company CEO Wayne Coulson said the goal was to transform the Martin Mars operation into “a real business” that could battle wildfires worldwide. This required a significant investment in mobile maintenance, fuelling, and support equipment that could accompany the Mars wherever it deployed.
British Columbia awarded the Mars a summer exclusive use contract, and in October 2007 the Hawaii Mars was dispatched to southern California to battle fires fanned by the hot Santa Ana winds.
Aircraft operations at Lake Elsinore, southeast of Los Angeles, generated huge crowds and media attention, which helped raise the Coulson Group’s profile as an innovative firefighting company. The Mars returned to California again in 2008, operating from Lake Shasta while protecting northern California.
Then—in anticipation of a long-term contract with the USFS—Coulson invested about $2 million to upgrade Hawaii Mars with a glass cockpit, so it could safely operate in high-density U.S. air space. Water drops were made on a calibrated grid so the aircraft could receive U.S. Air Tanker Board (ATB) certification.
Coulson also replaced an amphibious Soloy-Cessna 206 lead plane (bird dog) with a twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B helicopter outfitted as a “one of a kind” airborne fire management intelligence platform.
Unfortunately, the USFS Mars contract was terminated at the end of the 2009 season, for reasons not fully understood.
“Everyone agreed that the Mars did a great job and their only complaint was that the aircraft was old,” said Britton Coulson. “The Mars can still carry the same payload as three and a half S-64 Skycrane helicopters at a cost that is less than one Skycrane, so it was definitely a very cost effective aircraft.”
Coulson received an unexpected call in April 2011 to fly the Hawaii Mars to Lake Amistad near Del Rio, Texas, to battle wildfires across the southern border in Mexico. The Mars flew a record 130 hours in 20 days.
In the summer of 2013, B.C. surprisingly cancelled its exclusive use contract for Hawaii Mars at the end of the season. The future of the massive aircraft remains uncertain.
NEXT GENERATION AIR TANKER
As Hawaii Mars was being pulled out of the water at Sproat Lake for perhaps the last time in September 2013, the Coulson Group was celebrating the entry into service of its first land-based, fixed-wing air tanker—a Lockheed C-130Q—in California.
It took a lot of tenacity and perseverance to win the USFS contract, after its first bid was rejected and later accepted after an official protest.
“We looked at more than 30 different aircraft before selecting the C-130Q for our bid for the USFS next gen¬eration heavy tanker contract,” explained Britton Coulson. “The Hercules was designed for low level tactical missions in the mountains, to drop loads in flight, and has responsive turboprop engines. We thought it was a better choice for a next generation air tanker than a jet designed to carry passengers at high cruise altitudes,” he added.
The C-130Q received an in-depth programmed depot maintenance (PDM) inspection and a full USFS structural integrity program (SIP) that required more than 35,000 man-hours of work.
Coulson took the major step of obtaining an FAA restricted category type certificate for the C-130Q, and then received an FAA-certified Coulson 3,500 USG retardant aerial delivery system (RADS)–XL tank developed using the intellectual property Coulson bought for the original RADS tank, certified by the Air Tanker Board.
At a recent presentation at the C-130 Operators Council in the U.S., Wayne Coulson explained that the RADS-XL system offers many advantages over the Modular Aerial Fire Fighting System (MAFFS II) utilized in C-130Js operated by the U.S. Air National Guard and in C-130Hs flown by foreign militaries.
The advantages of the RADS-XL include capacity (3,500 USG versus 3,000 USG); price ($3.5 million versus $7+ million); weight (2,300 pounds versus 15,000 pounds); flow (gravity flow versus pressurized flow); and flow rates (1,600 USG/second versus 700 USG/second).
The Coulson RADS-XL tank has two parts: a fixed portion mounted in the floor of the C-130 cargo compartment, and a removable portion on wheels that can be quickly installed or removed from an aircraft in 30 minutes.
The installation does not negatively impact the aircraft’s weight, cabin pressurization or multi-mission use, and the constant flow design can provide coverage levels 1 through 8 (the number of gallons in a 100 square foot area). It features a new generation tank controller with a GPS-based start/stop function for precision drops, and is integrated with a SkyTrac satellite-based flight tracking program.
Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc. was awarded a five-year contract for the C-130Q that includes five optional one-year extensions, for a total of 10 years. The contract is also scalable, so the USFS can add up to four additional C-130s at its choosing.
The USFS has indicated a preference for a government owned, contractor operated (GOCO) model to operate the C-130Hs it is receiving from the U.S. Coast Guard, and has mandated a gravity flow tank, like the Coulson 4,000 USG RADS-XXL.
On March 20, 2014, DynCorp International announced that it had formed a strategic partnership with Coulson Aviation to pursue new aerial firefighting business opportunities.
“We see a number of opportunities where our two companies can work together,” said Wayne Coulson. “The USFS is seeking an operator for its C-130Hs, the State of Colorado plans to raise funds to contract its own air tanker fleet, and several foreign militaries are interested in upgrading their C-130Hs to carry Coulson RADS-XXL tanks.
DynCorp is one of the largest contract aircraft operators for the U.S. government. It operates 23 Grumman S2T air tankers and 15 North American OV10 Bronco observation aircraft from 12 bases, for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire).
The lead plane for the C-130Q Tanker 131 is Coulson’s Firebird 76, a Sikorsky S-76B originally modified to support Hawaii Mars in California in 2009. Firebird 76 is equipped with a full air tactical group supervisor radio package, Axsys Technologies V9 high definition colour and infrared stabilized gimble, an AeroComputers Ultichart 5100 mapping system for capturing fire perimeter, drop location, and hot spot data, and two HD digital video recorders to record HD and IR video simultaneously.
“The aerial firefighting industry is slowly shifting from its past into a new and exciting future,” said Wayne Coulson.
“The new way will be incorporating technology into air attack platforms that can communicate with air tankers to increase effectiveness; thus, doing away with carpet bombing targets. Wildfires will have the same intensity, technology-wise, as a battle in Afghanistan, creating target and tactical-specific outcomes which measure success, creating best practices for agencies.”
He continued, “As government budgets are getting tighter, we, as an industry, must do more with less and can see that the weak-performing air tankers will have a short life, making room for the best of the best…that’s competition.”
Coulson is also pursuing other new opportunities to fight wildfires at night using S-61Ns or C-130s flown by pilots equipped with night vision goggles (NVGs), directed to their targets using an NVG laser pointer installed on an S-76B. One Coulson S-61N already has an NVG-compatible cockpit, and a second aircraft will be upgraded this year.