Today the U.S. Forest Service awarded a sole source contract to Neptune Aviation to supply two next-generation air tankers for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014. The estimated value of the contract is $141,000,000 and has a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. The hourly rate begins at about $8,000 and increases to about $12,000 by the end of nine years.
For the contract, Neptune is expected to use two BAe-146 airliners that are being converted to 3,000-gallon next-generation air tankers. Some of the requirements to qualify as next-gen are that they are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Those two Neptune aircraft would be in addition to the first two BAe-146s they converted which have been active on a “legacy” air tanker contract this year.
Issuing a sole source contract is much more unusual than allowing multiple companies to submit bids. To only consider one source, the federal government has to provide justification, and in this case they used the “industrial mobilization exception”, which includes a necessity to “keep vital facilities or suppliers in business or make them available in the event of a national emergency, or prevent the loss of a supplier’s ability and employees’ skills”.
On May 6, 2013 the U.S. Forest Service announced their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven next-gen air tankers. Neptune was not selected, and the company filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. The reasons Neptune was left out of that contract, according to information Fire Aviation has received, could have been their problems providing consistent retardant drop patterns with their new BAe-146 tank, and, one of the considerations in awarding the contract was crash history. This year Neptune has been working to improve the tanks and said that by 2014 their BAe-146s would all have modified versions of the tank system.
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, which the contracting officers felt were not affected by the protest:
- 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
Then suddenly on June 7 Neptune withdrew their protest which allowed the contracts for the remaining four aircraft to be awarded to:
- Aero Air, for two MD87s
- Aero Flite, for two Avro RJ85s
The awarding of the final next-gen contracts came 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for the aircraft.
Only two of those seven air tankers have been constructed and have passed the certification requirements of the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board — the DC-10 and the C-130Q. The other five missed their contractual start dates. In September the USFS issued “cure notices” to the three companies. They responded to the USFS indicating the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014.
In the sole source justification for the new Neptune contract the USFS wrote they are “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014”.
When Neptune suddenly dropped their protest of the next-gen contract in June neither the company nor the USFS would disclose the reason. There was speculation Neptune felt confident at that time there would be a development later in their favor.