Update on air tanker contracting process

 

It was 482 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded in spite of the fact that all previous contracts for federal large and very large air tankers expired in December. The old contracts for a few air tankers were temporarily extended early in 2013 to provide some coverage.

Obviously the Forest Service is long overdue in awarding the contracts for legacy, next-generation, and very large air tankers. Fire season has been going on for several weeks in the south and the southwest, and Red Flag Warnings for enhanced fire danger have been common. Usually the tankers start coming on duty in mid-February.

There have been some indications that the Forest Service will announce contract awards this week for legacy air tankers, perhaps as early as Wednesday. But don’t hold your breath.

The privately owned air tanker companies, in order to remain alive in this industry, have to have nerves of steel and balls of titanium. They have to invest millions in the aircraft, deal with the FAA, pass a very expensive certification process required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, hope that Congress and the President appropriate enough money to fund a viable air tanker program, and then maybe, MAYBE receive a contract. And the contracting process is very daunting. Here is an example of a question from a potential bidder for a legacy contract, and an “answer” from the U.S. Forest Service:

Question: The response to question 44 in Response to Questions to the Draft Solicitation is confusing …. Please confirm that this RFP is only for legacy airtankers as defined by the “large Airtanker Modernization Strategy’.

Answer: The “Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” states that Legacy Airtankers are airtankers such as P-2V Neptunes, P-3 Orions, and Convair CV-580s. However, the strategy provides no formal definition of a Legacy Airtanker. This solicitation was developed around the specifications of the Legacy type airtankers as identified above. There is no specifically defined criterion that specifically defines a Legacy airtanker. Next generation type (again no formal definition) aircraft or any type of aircraft may be offered and may be awarded under this solicitation as long as they meet the specifications identified in the solicitation.

 

Report: contracts to be awarded for 7 next-gen air tankers

Tanker_41
A next-generation air tanker — one of Neptune’s BAe-146s, Tanker 41, at Missoula, August 11, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.

According to a report in Friday’s Durango Herald, 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. Secretary Vilsack was responding to a letter Senator Udall sent to the Secretary in January requesting an update on the modernization of the federal air tanker fleet.

The U.S. Forest Service first issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers 479 days ago but no contracts have been signed. The contracts were almost awarded last summer but were held up by protests that two unsuccessful bidders filed. The solicitation was reissued in October of 2012 but no results have been announced. It is possible that even after the USFS makes their decision about potential awards, there will be an additional 30-day delay while Congress is notified. The USFS is also overdue in announcing awards for “legacy air tankers”, the old P2Vs, the contracts for which expired December 31, 2012. Since there were no large air tankers on contract when this new year began, the agency temporarily extended the contracts for a few of the P2Vs. The call when needed contracts for very large air tankers, such as the DC-10, also expired last year and has not been renewed.

In 2012 the USFS only had 9 to 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This is in contrast to the 44 on contract in 2002. The agency has paid for eight studies about the use of air tankers since 1995, some of which recommended that 30, 40, or more are needed.

Next-generation air tankers will eventually replace the Korean War vintage P2V aircraft currently being used. They will be turbine-powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and preferably have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant.

Erickson to buy Evergreen Helicopters, Inc.

Evergreen helicopter at Custer 2008
An Evergreen helicopter, a Eurocopter AS 350 B3,  at Custer, SD July 9, 2008. Photo by Bill Gabbert

As we reported on Wildfire Today earlier this afternoon, Erickson Air-Crane, Inc. has signed an agreement to purchase Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., a company with approximately 400 employees. This will be the second major acquisition Erickson has made in the last three months. In November they reached an agreement to buy Air Amazonia, a subsidiary of HRT Participacoes in Brazil, along with their 14 helicopters. Both acquisitions are expected to close in the second quarter of this year.

For the $250 million price tag, Erickson will get 52 helicopters and 12 fixed wing aircraft from Evergreen Helicopters. The 64 aircraft are a mix of leased and owned. Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker”, which can carry up to 20,000 gallons of fire retardant, is not part of the deal and will remain with Evergreen. The 747 is still configured as an air tanker but has not fought fire recently. The company has not been interested in accepting the U.S. Forest Service’s only offer of a call when needed contract.

From Air Amazonia Erickson will receive 14 passenger transport and medium-lift helicopters, (7) S-61, (5) Bell 212, and (2) A350 that have been used in the oil and gas industry. At this time Erickson has no plans to use the Amazonia helicopters for aerial fire suppression.

Erickson Air-Crane, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, for decades has built, operated, and sold Erickson S-64 heavy-lift helicopters, using a license acquired from Sikorsky. Up through 2007 the company concentrated on firefighting (53% of their business) and timber harvesting (38%). With the planned diversification the company expects to add contracts for Department of Defense work amounting to approximately 43% of their revenue, as well as increasing the oil and gas component. They think that about 30% of their work will be in Afghanistan. After the acquisitions, firefighting will provide about 19% of Evergreen’s revenue.

Since the company went public in April 2012 their stock price has risen from $8.00 to $15.11 today. According to Zacks.com:

In 2012, the company generated revenues of $180.8 million, up 18.4% year over year. The increase in revenue was driven by new firefighting contracts, an active fire season and the company’s expansion of infrastructure construction, especially in support of the oil-and-gas market in South America.

Maybe we’re entering a period of merger-mania. As we reported December 12, 2012, Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick. Aero Air acquired Butler’s three DC-7 air tankers, support equipment, and spare parts in Madras, Oregon. Kevin McCullough, now the President of Aero Air, and Jack Erickson, founder and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, became co-owners of Aero Air in 1998. Aero Air is currently converting some MD-87s into air tankers and hopes to snag a contract for “next-generation” air tankers, when and if the U.S. Forest Service ever issues the contracts. It has been 476 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.

Below are examples of the aircraft Erickson will be acquiring.

–From Evergreen Helicopters:

Evergreen helicopters Evergreen fixed wing

–From Air Amazonia:

Amazonia helicopters

Thanks go out to Kelly

Photoshop contest: advertisement on an air tanker or helicopter

We are introducing a contest…a Photoshopping contest.

It is inspired by Colorado State Senator Steve King who said he will be introducing a bill in the legislature this week to establish a fleet of aerial firefighting resources for the state. In addition, he suggested this:

Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on the tail of slurry bomber?

And “Firefighter Zero” chimed in with a comment on our article, saying:

Can you just picture a “slurry bomber” coming over the hill with NASCAR style advertising on it?

So I think we should lend a hand to the state of Colorado and give them some ideas. Do you have any suggestions? Send us a photo, a Photoshopped photo, which is your concept of how the new Colorado Aerial Firefighting Division (I just made up that agency name) could configure their air tankers or helicopters.

Any company logos that are copyrighted, and virtually all are, can’t be used. You will need to create your own advertising images. Here is more information about your submissions:

  • You may use THIS image taken by Bill Gabbert if you wish.
  • File size: no larger than 150k.
  • Only one submission each.
  • Image dimensions: no wider than 800 pixels, no taller than 400 pixels.
  • Format: .jpg, .png, or .gif
  • Include your name in the file name.
  • Copyrighted images of aircraft or company logos, unless you own the copyright, will not be accepted.
  • You can submit them through our Contact Us page.

Images must be received by the end of the day on March 25, 2013. The best ones will be published on Fire Aviation.

Colorado lawmakers push for the state to develop aerial firefighting fleet

A few hours before the 800-acre Galena Fire started on Friday west of Fort Collins, Colorado, two state lawmakers were quoted as saying they were going to introduce a bill in the legislature directing the state to develop their own aerial firefighting fleet. According to the Coloradoan, soon after the fire started before noon on March 15 firefighters requested air tankers but none were available.

Senators Steve King and Cheri Jahn plan to introduce a bill this week that would create a program similar to those in the states of California and Oregon which have their own fleets of aerial firefighting assets.

“We are pushing our luck when we think that the federal government will come flying in to save Colorado when it’s burning,” Senator King told 7NEWS.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Denver’s CBS4 which was published at 9:54 a.m. on March 15 just before the Galena Fire started:

“People have said ‘Oh my gosh, how in world will you ever pay for that? Oh my gosh, how can you make this?’ You know what, we can either keep saying that for the years to come or we can take hold of it and say ‘This incredible idea and we need to figure out how to make it work,’ ” Jahn said.

One idea is to make it a public-private partnership.

“Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on tail of slurry bomber?” King said.
If the state were unrestrained by federal rules, pilots of state air tankers might be able to do night drops sometimes, which federal pilots don’t do now.

“We have night vision goggles. We have GPS. We have all sorts of technology that the federal government does not even recognize or allow their firefighters to use,” King said.

When the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted in Colorado Springs last year there were 29 other large fires burning throughout the country and nine large air tankers to fight them all. With 4 million acres of dead trees in Colorado, the danger of another waldo canyon isn’t going away.

UPDATE: We started a contest for Photoshopped images of aircraft with advertising.

Coulson’s C-130H conversion

C-130H and Firewatch 76
Archive photo of Coulson’s C-130H and Firewatch 76. Photo by Coulson.

Most of the work on Coulson’s project to convert a C-130H into an air tanker is taking place at the San Bernardino, CA airport. Workers are making good progress, according to Brit Coulson. When it is complete, the internal tank will be able to be easily removed using the attached wheels so that the aircraft can be used at night, with a double crew, to transport cargo, such as fire trucks or other wildland fire equipment. More information about the project was in an April 9, 2012 article at Wildfire Today.

The Associated Press has a recent story about the conversion. Below is an excerpt from the article, in which Wayne Coulson has been promoted to “tycoon”. Congrats Wayne!

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — A Canadian tycoon is converting a 30-year-old ex-military plane into a high-tech firefighting aircraft, hoping to win a federal contract before the onset of this year’s wildfire season.

The Navy C-130 owned by Wayne Coulson is undergoing a nose-to-tail renovation at San Bernardino International Airport, the regional air tanker base for the U.S. Forest Service.

When finished, it will boast a 3,500-gallon tank for fire retardant, night-vision equipment and a GPS system that will make pinpoint drops when guided by a laser device mounted in an accompanying helicopter, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported Wednesday.

Test flights are scheduled for next month, and Coulson hopes to win a Forest Service contract by June.

[…]

Coulson, a timber and aviation tycoon, also owns a converted World-War II-era Martin Mars seaplane that has fought fires throughout California..

It has been 470 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded. Coulson is hoping to receive one of the new contracts.

Thanks go out to Dave