Coulson paving the way with jet lead planes in aerial firefighting

AvatarBy Dayna Fedy | November 26, 2020

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 32 seconds.

Coulson Aviation’s Cessna Citation II 550 jets, which the company is in the process of converting into aerial firefighting intelligence aircraft, will offer “a totally different capability than what the industry has seen” once complete, according to Britt Coulson, company president and COO.

The four jets, previously operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, were originally modified and equipped with military fire-control radar, infrared cameras, custom instrument panels and law enforcement communication packages.

Coulson’s latest Tanker 132 — a new, painted C-130, which will be heading to Australia — sits with one of the company’s Citation II jets. Both aircraft are painted in Coulson’s signature livery. Coulson Photo

Now that the Citations have been purchased by Coulson, the company is in the process of upgrading the jets with new avionics and technologies. The aircraft will have full Universal Avionics electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) cockpits, with synthetic vision, data downlinks, “and all the bells and whistles,” said Britt.

On the first two Citation jets Coulson received — which are to be wet-leased — Britt said the company is installing firefighting-specific intelligence platforms. “So, our technology team has built their own mission console,” he said. The aircraft will have satellite uplink, as well as a combination of FLIR Star SAFIRE 380-HD gimbal systems and line-scan systems “to really maximize what the aircraft can do,” said Britt. “So they can go up and stream out live data [or] video images; communicate direct with the customer’s common operating picture; and overlay fire perimeters and data directly onto the customer’s maps.

Once complete, Coulson believes the Citation jets will offer “a totally different capability than what the industry has seen.” Coulson Photo

“So, what we’re installing is basically a custom design solution, specifically for what our mission is.”

Coulson views a jet lead plane like the Citation as “the next generation from where it’s been,” Britt told Skies. With many operators using aircraft like Aero Commanders, Coulson believes it’s embracing jet lead planes like no one else has.

“It’s just a totally different capability than what the industry has seen,” said Britt. “Not only are we talking about a jet-powered, next-gen lead plane with new avionics, we’re talking about putting line-scan, high-def cameras, and gimbals on them with mission systems to be able to do so much more.”

He added that the program is “coming along very nicely.” Coulson’s first Citation jet is scheduled to go to Australia on wet-lease by the end of the month for firefighting operations — including intelligence, line-scan, and lead plane missions. That aircraft recently completed test flights at Portland Airport, which Britt said “went great. The team that Flightcraft did a very good job on the maintenance. They had a couple minor snags that happened, and then they flew up to Port Alberni, [B.C.], and everything has been great.”

The second Citation is scheduled to go to Chile on wet-lease for fire mapping and lead plane-type operations. That aircraft is currently undergoing maintenance, before heading to the paint shop, and then receiving avionics upgrades, said Britt.

The third jet is expected to roll into maintenance around the first week of December, and Britt hopes to have the aircraft online in early January. The fourth jet is currently still “a project, [and] doesn’t have a definite home.”

Pictured is one of Coulson’s Citation II jets at Portland Airport, where it recently completed test flights. Coulson Photo


All four aircraft will be painted in Coulson’s signature crimson and white livery.

In addition to its Citation program, Coulson was also recently awarded an aerial firefighting contract for its Boeing 737 Fireliner by the United States Forest Service (USFS), as part of the Next Generation Air Tanker Services 3.0 contract.

The USFS began the contracting process to add next generation large air tankers (LATs) to its fleet of fixed-wing firefighting aircraft in November 2018. The Forest Service first announced LAT contracts with three recipients, including Coulson, in March 2020, but the announcement was protested. A second award attempt was made by the USFS on Oct. 27, and Britt said Coulson was notified on Nov. 19 that the contract has been protested again.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has a maximum of 100 days to make a decision on the contract awards, and “everyone’s optimistic that this one will be decided within the 100-day window, and next season we should be on contract,” Britt told Skies.

Coulson was recently awarded an aerial firefighting contract for its signature Boeing 737 Fireliner by the United States Forest Service. Derek Heyes Photo

Coulson will supply one B737 Fireliner, Tanker #137, for a one-year guaranteed contract with the USFS, with the possibility of up to four or five more years at the discretion of the Forest Service. “By doing a one-year guarantee with five[-year] options, although [the Forest Service expects] to extend and go through the whole same term, it allows them to be more flexible with their budget,” explained Britt.

Coulson Aviation is the first in the world to convert Boeing 737 commercial airliners into Fireliner aircraft. Each Fireliner receives over 43,000 technician hours to become fully compliant and operational.

Britt said: “With the impressive 4,000 USG [US gallon] payload of both our B737 and C-130 [Hercules], our fleet continues to provide agencies with the largest capacity large airtankers.”

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