Congress appropriated $65M for the air tanker fleet — now what?

(Last Updated On: December 17, 2014)
LM-100J
Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J

The omnibus federal appropriations bill that was just passed by Congress included a provision to allocate $65 million for the U. S. Forest Service air tanker fleet.

Specifically:

…for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such aircraft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National Forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the Forest Service…

Over a couple of days we attempted to find out what, exactly, the Forest Service is going to do with this $65 million that is now burning a hole in their pockets. We checked with the agency last week after the House approved the bill and were at first told they would not discuss it until the bill passed. Then the Senate approved it on Saturday, December 13 and the President said he would sign it this week. In response to our inquiry, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the Forest Service said on December 14:

We are continuing to work towards bringing 18 to 28 modern airtankers into service as outlined in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy we submitted to Congress in 2012. If this bill passes and is signed into law we will use the funding to further those efforts and we will be happy to provide specifics once we have them worked out.

To summarize, the official word is, the Forest Service says they don’t know how they will spend the 65 million in taxpayer dollars. This would tend to indicate, if true, that the request to place the provision in the appropriations bill came from somewhere other than the agency or the administration. That leaves congressmen and senators.

We began checking with the usual suspects, the Senators who have been vocal over the last two years about rebuilding the atrophied air tanker fleet. No one in the offices of John McCain, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, or Lisa Murkowski wanted to take credit for the proposal. Next we called the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, and struck pay dirt in the House.

Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert from California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers.

Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said, “supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.”

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, Jennifer Hing, had a similar response, saying, “The funding is for the acquisition/purchase of new aircraft.”

If it is actually true, that the Forest Service will buy one or more new aircraft to serve as air tankers, it will be the first time in 40 to 50 years, if ever. Historically since the 1960s anyway, they have contracted with private companies to supply and operate air tankers and have not owned outright any, to our knowledge. This was known as a Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated (CO/CO) system and was the paradigm until seven used C-130Hs were “given” to the Forest Service by the Coast Guard earlier this year. They are undergoing maintenance and retrofitting by the Air Force, and are expected to begin entering the USFS fleet in Fiscal Year 2018. The aircraft will be Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO).  A joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. This is probably a wise decision since the Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics.

What kind of new, next-generation air tanker will $65 million buy?

It would probably buy a couple of Russian designed Be-200s. They might even be made by a Colorado company, although who knows if the aircraft will ever be certified to operate in the United States.

In FY 2015 the Defense Department expects to pay $88.9 million for each C-130J. However, Lockheed Martin has started selling a less expensive civilian version, the LM-100J, which will be priced at around $65 million. Coincidence? Well, keep in mind that Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $380,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.

If the Forest Service and their Inspector General’s Office have the balls to buy an aircraft at the request of a lobbyist who was the former boss of the Chief of the Forest Service, then the agency might end up with a brand new LM-100J.

Maybe Mr. Rey will autograph it as it rolls off the factory floor in Marietta, Georgia.

What are your thoughts about how the Forest Service should spend their $65 million, which according to the legislation is supposed to go toward “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation air tanker fleet”.

26 thoughts on “Congress appropriated $65M for the air tanker fleet — now what?”

  1. The typical US-made airliner flies 4,000 hours per year reliably and with excellent maintainability. It is designed to last 100K hours, although many are relegated to less intense service or scrapped before that due to improved fuel economy on new ones. The KC-10A was for many years and probably still is the most reliable airplane in the USAF fleet. That’s because it’s a DC-10 airliner with extra tanks and a boomer.

    OTOH, the C-130/L-100 was designed by and for the DOD with other priorities. The BAe-146 was a poor airliner.

    It makes no sense to buy a new plane for fire abatement of maybe 400 hours a year when used airliners are available for a fraction of the price. I bet you could buy 10 Tanker and their 3 DC-10, lock, stock and barrel for $65 Million, and have a proven, working fleet.

  2. Mr Rey is also the man who is personally responsible for shutting down Aero Union,Norm Cook was doing everything right,all the paperwork was correct and complete,and Mr Rey continued to send it back,nitpicking one thing after another until the FAA stepped in and said it was just taking to long and they pulled whatever it was.(i know that i seem to have lost credibility there,but i just cant remember what it was that the FAA did to shut them down),but i do know from Norm Cook himself that no mater what he did,Mr Rey stalwarted him .

    1. Dave, Mark Rey left the government in 2009 long before the Aero Union Contract was cancelled in 2011.

      The reason the contract was cancelled was that the people that had recently bought Aero Union tried to manage it on the cheap and ran the company into the ground.

      While it was disappointing to see the P3s go away, most people with unbiased knowledge of the situation agree that the USFS had no other choice, for reasons of safety, but to cancel the contract.

  3. Just because Rey holds an MS in NR Policy and is a lobbyist who probably did not wait 2 yrs to get onboard Lockheed…..does not mean he has a grasp on the Airtanker industry whatsoever…

    Ye agreed, Dave

    We the the full documentation on Rey’s and LMA involvement in whatever paperwork that was nitpicked about …either Avenger or FAA had it in for AUC

    Until Rey and many other in LMA aviation hold aviation licenses….they themselves ought to stick to things they no about

    Lobbying does not qualify as aviation knowledge apparently….but seems to help

    Lockheed for whatever reason, sees a benefit of having a guy with no background onboard as lobbyist……..

    Any possibility of Mr Cook enlightening all of US or is it just better to leave things as is?

    1. You can stop beating the Aero Union “dead horse”. Former employees of Aero Union have stated how poorly the company was run (and their aircraft maintained) during its final years…

      1. i dont feel im beating a dead horse..Norm himself told me the owner of AU was a “complete bastard”,but it doesnt change the truth that norm got screwed,he is the one who told me about Mr Rey,and he told me the facts as he saw them.

        1. Dave, the “facts” you wrote about Mark Rey are completely false, and very easy to disprove with about two minutes of fact checking. Blaming someone else (who had a dog in the fight) for your distribution of incorrect information is not an acceptable excuse.

  4. You (F.S.) are going to eat the liver regardless if you like it or not, the political machine. Too many surveys, too many protested contracts, little or no direction for the private operators. This is what happens when the politicians are panicing to get the public off their backs. As a politician (I’m not) what is the number 18 or 28 air tankers? Why not 44? What is this air tanker Wheel of Fortune. I like Mr. Greybeards suggestion. The desert in California near Mojave is full of stored serviceable CIVILIAN airplanes and parts that could be converted into air tankers.

  5. I added additional information received today from Representative Calvert’s office, confirming that the intent is to purchase new aircraft.

    A portion of what was added:

    …there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies.

  6. That’s nice….

    Purchasing “new”……

    $65M may get you one aircraft

    Support within FS? Support in FY 15 as opposed to the last 60 plus FY’s ?

    Like todays kids say…..

    Whatever……..

  7. “passed along by other federal agencies”, today a bad direction. As bad as the purchase of a new of the showroom floor airtanker. The exception 40 Seats? Is there an airtanker that can deliver 28,000 gallons of retardant (700 gallons X 40) and be in forty different locations at once? The current air tanker operators saw the light years ago. Other than a C130 and several P2V’s it is a civilian world of air tankers. Mr. Greybeard I don’t think you could even come close to buying the 10 Carrier for 65 million but it is a very good point, bang for the buck.

  8. Well that 65 million should be going the the C-130s that have already been given to the Forest Service. I’m fairly certain that all 7 could be tanked with the Coulson tank that is in Tanker 131. Or as Johnny has suggested by a few SEATs. I honestly think that the Forest Service has no business trying to own a tanker fleet.

  9. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
    … Lewis Carroll

    The USFS Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy is OK as far as it goes but a strategy is not a program plan and a plan is not a requirements document. In the absence of a follow-on USFS airtanker program plan that fleshes out the existing strategic document and lays out specific objectives and specific capabilities with timelines that drive specific requirements and costs, the Congress will continue to “help” the USFS muddle through with an amalgamation of unfocused congressionally driven pork solutions.

    Where is the USFS air program plan with a supporting requirements document that is completely supported and backed by their Department?

    1. Doesn’t matter if it’s new airplanes, crews, fancy detection programs or miracle suppressant: simply pouring money at the problem of unwanted wildfires will never succeed. We need a more nuanced and proactive strategy, which current public opinion over introducing fire to the landscape, liability concerns, conflicting jurisdictional patchworks of responsibility, fire suppression industry lobbyists and a general lack of motivation all conspire to defeat. The ongoing War on Wildfires is an exercise in recurring futility (à la the Wars on Drugs and Terror). Sadly, it’s not limited to the US (here’s looking at you Australia, Canada, France, Spain, Greece).

      But hey, I’m sure a shiny new Herc will look good on some agency’s ramp somewhere. Heck, get a hundred of them. We’ll be sure to outwit Mother Nature then, right?

      1. I don’t think any amount of a proactive or nuanced approach (although both are manifesting slowly in the FS) will reduce the need for suppression resources at their current levels. If the strategy of managing fires for resource benefit continues to develop, and prescribed fire and fuels reduction miraculously are understood and accepted by the public, then resource needs (including aircraft) will be more, not less.

        Bean is right about the absence of a plan for a genesis in aerial fire fighting. Would any government agency have an interest in such a document if they were denied sources of funding year after year after year? Would quality aviation leadership commit to a career in an organization that puts cost reduction before firefighting? Conversely, how do you think an agency head would react when members of Congress randomly slap 65 million in their lap and say “go buy yourself a new air tanker”. The source of management issues in the FS lies with Congress as much as it does in the agency itself.

        1. Steve, you’re on the mark. However, it has been my observation that unless you have to have a solid program plan you believe in and can clearly outline the rationale for your requirements, you will never be able to compete for your share of the budget in D.C.

          “We don’t have a budget because we don’t have a plan because we don’t have a budget.”

          In this case the solution to the chicken-egg problem starts with a solid plan.

  10. Based on history 65M won’t scratch the amount they will waste trying to get any aircraft in service! To many hands in the pot. Very sad.

  11. For a host of reasons the USFS had lost all credibility with me. They have repeatedly lied to the public on a number of issues and they consistently fail to be good stewards of the PUBLIC’S land……so anything they say or do regarding air tankers must be highly suspect IMO

    1. Amen to that Jerry! The USFS is just another inefficient,ineffective government agency that lost it way years ago.The term “public Land”is just a thorn in their side as from the top down they think it belongs to them not us.Most of the upper management has never worked in the private sector,they think their paychecks are just manna from heaven not hardworking taxpayer money.Unfortunately i see little hope for improvement.When people go from mommas house to college then directly to the government trough they have a much different view than private sector folks.Now add the expense and expertise required for aviation and its a recipe for turmoil.

  12. Well lets see…the had 12 million to build 10 Cobras into FireWatch ships…they burned thru that money on the first one then had to get more for the 2nd…the other 8 are MIA. Yup, this 65 million will go to a great use and will be spent wisely for sure.

  13. Being a former AH1 crew chief

    Burning thru 12M not impossible with that ship

    But better DynCorp to take care of it

    Maybe those Cobras could find better work with a 20 mm cannon….say Kuwait?

    Good to seem them flying with those ‘703’s burning thru 262 gallons or less

    You can bet the other 8 airframes are stored somewhere but Bill took pictures of 2 Cobras outside, not covered…..maybe he can discuss why DynCorp decided that…

  14. I just jumped in to this late. Ok. let me get this straight. – $65 million bucks.
    One aircraft? Will look nice on the ramp at say, Missoula? Moses Lake?
    Salt Lake? I’m still shaking my head over the USCG 130’s.

    1. I am a big believer in a large toolbox. as said above 40 SEATS are mighty handy. So is Tanker 10. So are the
      ODF DC-7s and the Nextgen folks that work . But, if the Public image is that Shiny C-130
      making a drop in front of the 11 O’clock news…..
      and the fact that the not so shiny ones are still being IRAN’ed ..

  15. Public perception of suppression.

    Their own $65 million dollar airplane sitting on the ramp is a whole lot of perception.

    In the tradition of Rear Admiral Farragut the USFS forges on.

    It worked out well for Admiral Farragut, he is remembered as a great American Naval hero (to the North).

    Perhaps the USS USFS will run aground and somebody will go to jail.

    Roger

  16. I was raised in a Part 137 family. There was crashes and deaths, unfortunately. This fire bombing, protecting fire fighter, the public and natural resources an’t no shinny New York City airline business.

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