Neptune Aviation assembled their five BAe-146 air tankers on the tarmac at Missoula for picture day. It is a pretty remarkable photo — five jet-powered air tankers that meet the basic U.S. Forest Service criteria to qualify as “next-generation” air tankers, which require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons.
Only one of these five air tankers has a confirmed contract with the federal government, the USFS. It is on a “legacy” contract. Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now for the USFS are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.
A very unlikely option would be for the USFS to allow competitive bidding on an additional contract. All of the existing valid legacy and next-gen contracts allow for up to four additional aircraft to be added as “additional equipment” to each line item. The vendors that won the awards for those contracts are all hoping to add more aircraft down the road, and would most likely be very distressed if another company came in that lost competitive bidding previously, and basically took away their opportunity to supply more air tankers.
But, it is painful to see four recently retrofitted, freshly painted, jet air tankers sitting on the tarmac — with a rather bleak future.