Neptune drops their protest of awards for air tanker contracts

(Originally published at 10:20 a.m. MT, June 7, 2013; updated at 12:53 p.m. MT, June 7, 2013)

Neptune Tanker 431
Neptune’s Air Tanker 41, a BAe-146. The company would like to have four of these on federal contracts this year. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Neptune Aviation has withdrawn their protest of the contract awards for next generation air tankers. The protest delayed for 24 days the award of contracts for three air tankers, and delayed for a month the award of the remaining four that were first tentatively announced on May 6.

Fire Aviation obtained confirmation from Ron Hooper, Neptune’s CEO, that the company dropped the protest after it was first announced by Colorado Senator Mark Udall. When asked if Neptune had received any additional contracts after withdrawing their protest, Mr. Hooper told Fire Aviation that he was not able to provide any further information.

Later in the day the U.S. Forest Service issued this statement from Chief Tom Tidwell:

We have learned that Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., of Missoula, Mont., has withdrawn their protest of the Forest Service exclusive use contract award for Next Generation large airtankers. The agency is now moving forward with awarding the remaining four Next Generation contracts, previously announced on May 6, 2013, thereby modernizing our fleet in the quickest manner possible as we face the prospect of a challenging wildfire season.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on May 6, 2013 their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven air tankers that are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Neptune was not selected, and filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office.

The protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30 when actual signed contracts were finally issued to three companies for three air tankers:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

Neptune dropping the protest means contracts will be awarded for the other four air tankers that were left in limbo.

This announcement that contracts will be actually issued for the remaining four air tankers comes 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for these “next generation” air tankers. In the quote above, the USFS describes this as “modernizing our fleet in the quickest manner possible as we face the prospect of a challenging wildfire season”.

If all seven of these air tankers actually become certified, it will bring the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts up to 16, which is 28 fewer than in 2002.

However only one of the seven aircraft selected on May 6 is fully approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) to drop retardant on wildfires. That one is 10 Tanker’s DC-10, which has been busy for the last week working on fires in California and New Mexico. The contracts specify that the aircraft be fully certified within 90 days, but there is no guarantee that the other six air tankers can have their tank installations complete and pass the FAA and IATB tests within that time frame.

The original intent on May 6 before Neptune’s protest was to issue contracts to:

Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, and has operated air tankers for decades, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. A second Neptune BAe-146 was added a few weeks later.

The USFS said the five companies were originally selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.

We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.

We will be looking into this further to determine the motive for Neptune to withdraw their protest.

The first report of Neptune dropping the protest came from a reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette, Ryan Handy, based on Senator Udall’s information.

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