Forest Service announces contracts for legacy air tankers

(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MT, March 28, 2013; updated at 2:15 p.m. March 28, 2013)

On Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service awarded contracts to two companies for what they are calling “legacy” air tankers, for a total of eight aircraft in 2013. Minden will receive a contract worth $17.1 million and Neptune’s contract will total $180 million.

Minden will have their Tanker 48, a P2V, working under this new contract for one year, with options for four additional years, according to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the USFS in Boise.

Dan Snyder, President of Neptune Aviation, told Fire Aviation today that their company will have five P2Vs on contract for five years. Two other Neptune aircraft, one P2V and one BAe-146, will have a one-year fixed contract, with options for four additional years.  The optional years will be totally up to the USFS — if they have the need, desire, and the funds, they could activate the additional years, one at a time.

These awards mean that the USFS will have eight air tankers working this year under this “legacy” contract. Beginning in 2014 if the optional years are not activated, there will be six, if the information we have been provided is correct.

Mr. Snyder said they expect to have their signed contract in their hands within the next two days.

We attempted to talk to Tim Christy, Director of Flight Operations for Minden, but he was unavailable. Minden had one P2V on contract last year after their other one, Tanker 55, was damaged June 3 while landing on disabled landing gear, the same day that Neptune’s Tanker 11 crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots. For the last two or three years Minden has been working on converting a BAe-146 into an air tanker.

We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contract awards for next-generation air tankers powered by turbine, turbofan, or jet engines. That solicitation was first issued 484 days ago. Recently 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.

Also pending are contract awards for very large air tankers, such as a DC-10 or 747, which can carry 11,600 and 20,000 gallons, respectively. The P2Vs usually hold about 2,000 gallons while the BAe-146 has a 3,000 gallon capacity. The P2V cruises at about 225 mph. The BAe-146 more than doubles that speed, at 498 mph.

While it may seem surprising that a jet-powered BAe-146 received a contract through a solicitation for “legacy” air tankers, Mr. Snyder of Neptune said they were allowed to put any air tanker they wanted on their proposal as long as it met the specs in the solicitation. He said the USFS was looking more at cost than technical specifications, and wanted “best value”.

Neptune still has the two fully operational BAe-146 next-generation air tankers that worked on fires in 2012, Tankers 40 and 41. They will operate them for one more season, Mr. Snyder said. After they they may be modified. The company is also finishing the conversions of two more BAe-146s that will have a much improved tanking system that Mr. Snyder said will fix some of the issues uncovered in their first two converted aircraft, including trail-off of retardant, consistency, and constant flow. The new systems will still hold approximately 3,000 gallons, but the exact capacity has not been determined. The tanks will be internal, and from the outside will look very similar to Tankers 40 and 41. But the redesign is so different that the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) is requiring that they go through the expensive grid tests, in which retardant is dropped over a grid of hundreds of containers to determine the consistency and volume of the retardant when it reaches the ground. Neptune is negotiating with the IATB on the date and location of the test. If the IATB certifies the new tank design, Mr. Snyder expects that Neptune’s third and fourth BAe-146s could be available in the Spring or early Summer.

14 thoughts on “Forest Service announces contracts for legacy air tankers”

  1. Ok. but for some reason I don’t quite see the big picture here.
    So we have 4 fewer tankers? What is the “legacy” issue?
    Are the P-3’s in play? does anyone know? Why the 146 on a
    “Legacy” contract. I will bet there is Phos-Chek about to hit the
    fan from other contractors…
    This is getting curiouser by the second…

  2. Looks to me like they’ve “tried” to cover themselves for this season. Their is some question how many of the next gen tankers will be available for this year so they have it covered with these 8. Next year they will have five with the option for more, hoping that the next gen tankers will be ready to go. Will be interesting to see what the next gen contracts are and how it ties in.

    Neptune reworking their tanking system is interesting. I wonder what the other BAE conversions are using for tanks??

    Someone said that there was rumblings of the best P-3’s being sold to someone. Wonder who they went to??

  3. Bae146 part of Legacy???
    Right now a few of us are wondering what the heck is going on but this summer the devastaring fires will focus the attention of the medias and the public.

      1. The airplane was painted in a hi-vis scheme during the conversion.

        Tank testing is in progress, with very promising results. Expect press releases in the coming weeks with each significant milestone.

        1. Thanks for the update Tim. I look forward to seeing her working fires. What scheme did they finally choose one like 48 or 55?

        2. Tim, I concur with Matt. Thanks for the update, I appreciate it. Keep us informed about what’s happening with Minden’s air tankers. Is there a second BAe-146 being worked on?

  4. As far Neptune putting a 146 on the Legacy contract, I thought I read something a while back that stated as part of their contract obligation they can substitute another aircraft for one that had been awarded the contract as long as it was “equal to or greater than the aircraft it is replacing”, or something along those lines. I could be totally wrong on this though. I’m just glad they are getting some iron out there to help keep things in check.

  5. Forest Service contracting is getting to be like a vampire, hiding in the day and sucking blood at night when no one is looking. 484 days to come up with the same old crap. If they would stick to the new requirements, rather than change the game at the last minute to present what awards they see fit, progress may take place. It seems as though everyone is stuck in the same mind frame. In order to have progress, you need to have change. Make a plan everyone can follow and see it through to the end then make adjustments as needed. As a well known air tanker pilot once said, “If you do things the same as you did in the past, the future will remain the same as it is today.” There are a lot of ideas floating about out there but no leadership to make them work. KISS!

  6. Mr Snyder ….indicating that the USFS was looking at the cost rather than technical specifications.

    Hmmm …..sounds familiar. Maybe along those line the USFS just ought to streamline the IATB process into a ONE week process

    Because that in itself would get too costly in the terms of JET A and surely there are technical specifications of the tanking redesign that is “so different” that it would be too costly to conduct those tests in the interest of cost rather than technical specification……………

    IF one gets my drift……

  7. The BAE146 has a poor reputation in the airline industry, high operating costs etc. MD-80 is not designed to pull G loads of a fighter-bomber either. It is time for purpose-built scoopers to fill the LAT roles. CL-415 is ready…. There is another option for same price, twice the payload: Bring in the Be-200 as fast as possible.

  8. From what I’ve heard, CL-415s are coming – although maybe not until next year. Can’t wait.

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