According to a report in Friday’s Durango Herald, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers. Secretary Vilsack was responding to a letter Senator Udall sent to the Secretary in January requesting an update on the modernization of the federal air tanker fleet.
The U.S. Forest Service first issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers 479 days ago but no contracts have been signed. The contracts were almost awarded last summer but were held up by protests that two unsuccessful bidders filed. The solicitation was reissued in October of 2012 but no results have been announced. It is possible that even after the USFS makes their decision about potential awards, there will be an additional 30-day delay while Congress is notified. The USFS is also overdue in announcing awards for “legacy air tankers”, the old P2Vs, the contracts for which expired December 31, 2012. Since there were no large air tankers on contract when this new year began, the agency temporarily extended the contracts for a few of the P2Vs. The call when needed contracts for very large air tankers, such as the DC-10, also expired last year and has not been renewed.
In 2012 the USFS only had 9 to 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This is in contrast to the 44 on contract in 2002. The agency has paid for eight studies about the use of air tankers since 1995, some of which recommended that 30, 40, or more are needed.
Next-generation air tankers will eventually replace the Korean War vintage P2V aircraft currently being used. They will be turbine-powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and preferably have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant.