A Colorado Senator wants the federal government to override a protest that could delay the acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers this fire season.
Following the May 6 announcement by the U.S. Forest Service of their intention to award exclusive use contracts to five companies for the use of seven air tankers over a five to ten year period, one of the companies that failed to receive an award, Neptune Aviation, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. Unless the GAO grants emergency authority, Neptune’s action could delay by up to 100 days, until August 26, the date by which the new contracts could take effect.
Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the GAO protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake:
…”Wildfire season is coming, and I refuse to force Colorado communities to watch as preventable and containable wildfires are allowed to threaten lives and homes simply because of contractors’ squabbles. Make no mistake about it: This is an emergency, and this shortsighted protest will leave the U.S. Forest Service with outdated, Korean War-era air tankers to fight modern mega-fires,” Udall said. “That’s why I am calling on the U.S. Forest Service to override the protest filed this week and move forward with its next-generation air tankers contracts. Lives and homes are at stake, and I refuse to stand idly by as red tape suffocates any chance of the U.S. Forest Service finally acquiring these much-needed air tankers.”
Following the contract awards earlier this month, Udall cautioned private contractors that “Needless and costly delays will leave the Forest Service to fight modern mega-fires in the coming months with Korean War-era planes.”
Neptune’s protest is the second time awards for next-gen air tankers have been protested. The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012. And on May 6, 2013 the USFS announced, again, their intention to award contracts.
The protest process worked during Round 2 for Coulson and 10 Tanker; they lost out in Round 1 and their protests led them to awards in Round 2. Neptune no doubt figures they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by their protest. The company has invested heavily in converting BAe-146s; conversions on two are complete and were used on fires in 2012. They have two others that they hoped to convert this year.
Neptune knows the contract protest backwards and forwards, since Ron Hooper, their CEO, as recently as November, 2010 worked for the U.S. Forest Service as the Director of Acquisition Management for the agency. His name is also mentioned in a summary of the 1987 U.S. Forest Service “airtanker scandal”. When qualified as a contracting officer, he reportedly made a determination after the transfer of the 28 aircraft to private companies that the transfer was void and they should be returned to the government. At the time Mr. Hooper was the staff assistant to the Forest Service Deputy Chief for Business Operations. (More information about a GAO bid protest.)
Neptune will have five P2Vs and one BAe-146 working this year under a new “legacy” air tanker contract announced in March.
Of the five companies that are slated to receive the new contracts for the faster, more dependable, and higher retardant capacity next-gen air tankers, only one has aircraft that are close to being ready to drop retardant on fires. 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers which carry 11,600 gallons have been used on fires for years and should be ready to go. The other vendors are still in the process of physically converting their aircraft into air tankers and then have several hurdles to overcome.
After the contracts are actually signed and awarded, the companies have 60-90 days to complete the process of outfitting their aircraft with a tank design; prove the tank design in a controlled environment (dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground); be issued a Federal Aviation Administration Type Certificate; develop a maintenance and inspection program (Structural Integrity Program) for use of the aircraft as an airtanker and receive approval of it from the FAA; and be approved for a field trial (dropping retardant on real fires) by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB).
It would be surprising if all seven of the aircraft can meet these requirements in the time allotted. Coulson Aircrane, which is slated to receive a contract for a C-130Q, appears to be the closest other than 10 Tanker’s DC-10. Coulson is installing a retardant tank designed by Aero Union that previously had been approved by the IAB, however Coulson made some modifications. And various models of C-130s have been used as air tankers for decades.
The other companies, Minden Air, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, are converting, respectively, a BAe-146, two MD87s, and two AVRO RJ85s, all of which may be using new tanking systems that have not been tested until this year, at least on those models of aircraft.
For example Aero Air, also known as Erickson Aerotanker, may have problems with retardant being ingested into the MD87 jet engines mounted behind the wings. Designing and installing new tank systems on aircraft that have never before been used as an air tanker, such as the MD87 and AVRO RJ85 can expose some challenges that have to be overcome.
The Colorado Springs Gazette also has an article about this issue.
Thanks go out to Matt & Kelly.