GAO sustains protest of air tanker contract

Neptune's Ait Tanker 41
Neptune’s Tanker 41, a BAe-146, at Missoula, August 11, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 3:15 p.m. MT, March 31, 2014; updated at 8:40 a.m. MT April 1, 2014 with the text of a statement released by the GAO, and again at 11:20 a.m. MT April 1, 2014 with a response from the USFS.)

The Government Accountability Office announced today that they sustained the protest filed by three companies over the sole source air tanker contract that the U.S. Forest Service awarded to Neptune Aviation December 12, 2013. The non-competitive contract, worth about $141 million, specified that Neptune would supply two or more next-generation air tankers, BAe-146s, for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014.

A spokesperson for the GAO said their review concluded that the U.S. Forest Service “could not reasonably justify” the non-competitive process used in awarding the contract to Neptune.

The three companies that protested the sole source contract were Coulson Aviation (USA), Inc; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; and Minden Air Corp. If only the minimum two air tankers were signed up, the value of the contract would be about $141 million. If the options for five additional tankers were utilized, it would be hundreds of millions.

The protest automatically halted the activation of the sole source contract when it was filed in December.

We asked the USFS for their reaction to the GAO decision, and if other air tankers will be brought on, either by activating options under existing legacy or next-gen contracts, or will additional contracts be pursued? We received the following statement issued by their Washington office Tuesday morning:

The U.S. Forest Service is committed to ensuring that we have all of the resources we need to fight wildland fire and protect the lives and property of the American people. Airtankers are an important part of our efforts and we are currently reviewing the GAO recommendation.

In the protest filed with the GAO, hundreds of pages were submitted, listing dozens of reasons why the three companies felt the sole source contract should be terminated.

The Coulson company argued that on several occasions they told the USFS that they could supply more than the one C-130, but were told that the funding situation was too uncertain to commit more air tankers. Then a few months later, the USFS issued a contract potentially worth at least $141 million.

10 Tanker made similar offers, and in fact had a second DC-10 fully certified and on a call when needed contract that they would have liked to convert to an exclusive use next-gen contract. They also said they are working on retrofitting a third DC-10 which they expect to have ready to go by the end of calendar year 2014.

This was the third USFS air tanker contract that has been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO, the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.

Neptune will have six Korean War vintage P2Vs (2,082 gallons each) and one jet-powered BAe-146 (3,050 gallons) on exclusive use contract this year in what the U.S. Forest Service calls the “legacy” air tanker category. The company expects to have four additional BAe-146s ready to fight fire this year that are not currently on contract.

10 Tanker Air Carrier has one DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker on exclusive use contract and another on a call when needed contract. The company is in the process of retrofitting a third DC-10. They each carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant.

Coulson has one 3,500-gallon C-130Q on exclusive use contract and hopes to acquire and convert a second C-130.

Minden has a contract for a BAe-146 but it has not yet been tested or approved by the Interagency AirTanker Board.

The complete text of a statement by the GAO about the decision is below. It was written March 31 and released April 1, 2014.


The following is a statement from GAO regarding today’s decision resolving bid protests filed by Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc., 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC, and Minden Air Corp., B-409356.2 et al., March 31, 2014.

On March 31, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) sustained, or upheld, the protests filed by Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc., of Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Minden Air Corp., of Minden, Nevada, challenging the sole-source award of a contract by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Forest Service, to Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., of Missoula, Montana, for airtanker services to support wildland firefighting.  The contract contemplates Neptune providing at least two modern large airtankers for up to 9 years (the contract also contains options to add up to five additional aircraft in each year).  The total estimated value, based on all possible aircraft over all years, is approximately $496 million.
Continue reading “GAO sustains protest of air tanker contract”

Takeoff aborted due to a fish strike

From the Missoula Independent, March 31, 2014:


“After a jet aborted its takeoff at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base because the crew thought it had hit a bird, possibly an osprey, wildlife manager Lindsey Garven searched the runway for a dead bird but found only a fish. DNA samples from the fish and the jet confirmed the accident was a fish strike. Garven said the 9-inch sheepshead was probably dropped by a bird that had been eating it on the runway until the jet scared it off. The incident is only the second reported collision between an aircraft and a fish, the first having occurred in 1987 between a fish and a Boeing 737 taking off from Juneau, Alaska. (The Tampa Tribune and The New York Times)”

Colorado releases aerial firefighting report

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsThe long awaited report required by the Colorado legislature about options for aerial firefighting in the state was released today by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC). The CFAC was created but not funded last year, and the next step is for decisions to be made about what aerial resources the state will acquire, if any, and then possibly, provide funds to operate them. The 103-page report, titled “Report to the Governor and General Assembly on Strategies to Enhance the State’s Aerial Firefighting Capabilities“, has a number of recommendations:

  • Increase the number of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) on exclusive use contracts from two to four.
  • Contract for the exclusive use of four Type 3 or larger rotor-wing aircraft. (Type 3 helicopters can carry 100 to 300 gallons.)
  • Contract for the exclusive use of two Type 2 or larger air tankers. (Type 2 air tankers can carry 1,800 to 3,000 gallons). The contingency, if the State is unable to contract for two air tankers, is to contract for two helitankers, or a combination of one fixed-wing air tanker and one helitanker.
  • Develop early detection and remote sensing capabilities by securing two fixed wing aircraft equipped with modern fire-detecting sensors that would be operated to actively identify and locate small fires in high-risk wildland and wildland urban interface areas. The report explains that these aircraft will help achieve “the goal of generating an incident assessment for every fire within 60 minutes of report or detection”.

In addition to assessing every fire from an aircraft within 60 minutes, the report also recommends that the “appropriate aviation suppression resources be delivered to the fire” within 60 minutes. These two goals, if accomplished, would be a major step forward, not only for the state of Colorado, but for most states and federal agencies. Of course CAL FIRE can usually deliver retardant to a fire within 20 minutes of the first report, but that is a very high bar.

The state government of Colorado has very little in the way of wildland fire initial attack capability, and relies on local agencies for fire protection. In fact, the report admits:

Colorado does not have the ability to deliver an appropriate and timely suppression response to small fires while they are still small.

The report mentions several alternative aircraft for acquisition and conversion to air tankers, including S-3, C-27J, and C-130 from the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. It basically threw out the S-3 for performance reasons, and said that there were no C-27Js available in the FEEP. Contrary to popular belief, it said, there were no C-130s available either. Another aircraft considered was the MD-10 that possibly could be donated by FedEx. That option was not chosen, because they:

…present much the same issue as surplus military aircraft that do not already have a proven, fielded system; that being it could add significantly to both cost and time to implement. Additionally, the age and condition of the donated aircraft could cause significant inspections and revitalization.

In addition, the cost of the engineering needed to modify the MD-10 for a retardant tank, avionics, and related equipment in order to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) could cost between $30 and $40 million. Installing the retardant system could add another $10 million for each aircraft.

In discussing the problems with locating and obtaining information about the Waldo Canyon and High Park Fires during the early stages, which together killed three people and burned 605 homes, the report said:

Colorado’s remote sensing fixed wing aircraft would be on site within approximately 30 minutes of launch and would employ thermal imaging sensors to survey the reported area. The fire would be located and mapped, and this information would be loaded in real time to the state’s information management system [a new system the report recommends] . Within an hour of the first report of smoke, the local incident commander would have access to a map of the fire, ingress and egress paths, fuels involved, fire behavior, values at risk, weather forecast, and other data needed to make informed decisions regarding the appropriate management response.

In spite of the recommendation in the report that the aircraft be provided by contractors, there is another recommendation (on page 48) saying:

…the government-owned/contractor model presents the most attractive mix of affordability and efficiency. If the initial purchase cost of the airframes precludes this option, the contractor-owned/contractor-operated model is also a reasonable approach.

Then, to confuse the issue further, in the next paragraph it says:

It is not recommended to pursue the government operated model.

The report optimistically expects that the contracted helicopters and air tankers would begin operations within six months of “program initiation”. Apparently the state of Colorado has a contracting department that is many times more effective than the one operated by the U.S. Forest Service, but that is a very low bar.

They expect the two Type 2 or larger air tankers to cost $11.9 million and the four Type 3 or larger helicopters to cost $4.7 million for exclusive use contracts each year. It appears they want to purchase the two “multi-mission fixed wing aircraft” at a cost of $10 million plus $1.7 million for operations, maintenance, and training.

The total cost for the aviation program, including miscellaneous costs for insurance, equipment, hangar leases, etc, would be $33.6 million the first year and $23.6 million in subsequent years.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Bean.

Report: U.S. may give armed SEATs to Yemen

Air Tractor AT-802U
Air Tractor AT-802U

Aircraft that are frequently used as crop dusters and single engine air tankers (SEATs) may be given to the government of Yemen to battle terrorists. BuzzFeed reports that models being considered are the Air Tractor AT-802U and Thrush. The two-seater aircraft would be equipped with laser-guided missiles and high-tech electronic intelligence equipment, as well as armor to protect the crew.

Wildfire Today reported on the armed AT-802U back in 2009 when it was a hit at the Paris Air Show.

The U.S. considered using drones, but they are getting a bad reputation. Officials apparently decided on sending up to ten of the single engine aircraft to Yemen, at least in part because “even poorly trained Yemeni pilots could learn to fly them”.

BuzzFeed reports:

According to a Central Command memorandum dated Feb. 3 and obtained by BuzzFeed, the “Precision Strike” program for Yemen would “greatly enhance counter terrorism (CT) objectives to support action against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” The U.S. government says AQAP is a Yemeni-based group that has tried to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S., including the infamous failed effort by the “underwear bomber,” Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in 2009.

One choice for Yemen’s “Precision Strike” plane, according to documents and the sources, is a version of an “Air Tractor” plane called a 802U. It’s a hardy airplane, manufactured in Texas. The fuselage resembles a World War II Spitfire fighter plane, though it flies more slowly.

Asked about the Yemen project, Air Tractor Inc.’s president, Jim Hirsch, said, “I’m not at liberty to discuss that program.” Although the Air Tractor is widely used as an agriculture plane for crop spraying, the company makes a version it says is for “counterinsurgency operations,” and Air Tractor’s website bills it as “a true irregular warfare aircraft.”

The other plane in the running is a Thrush, which looks similar to the Air Tractor and is also usually used as a crop duster. It is manufactured in Georgia by Thrush Aircraft.

Air Tractor AT-802U
Air Tractor AT-802U

Newfoundland-Labrador orders two CL-415 air tankers

Newfoundland Labrador CL-215
File photo of a Newfoundland Labrador CL-415 at Goose Bay. Photo by Sarah Moller.

Bombardier Aerospace announced today that it has signed a firm purchase agreement with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador for two Bombardier CL-415 amphibious air tankers. The transaction is valued at approximately $73.7 million US, based on list price, and includes various product enhancements. Deliveries of the aircraft will begin during the second quarter of 2014 and will continue in 2015.

With the two new aircraft, the province will have four CL-415s and one CL 215.

Canada is home to nearly 60 CL-215s and 415s – the largest national fleet of its kind in the world. There are 165 of the aircraft in service worldwide.

State Senator organizes air tanker demonstration

A Colorado state senator who is also a candidate for county Sheriff hosted a demonstration for an air tanker yesterday. Senator Steve King, who has been very outspoken about the need for the state to have their own aerial firefighting resources, invited Coulson to display their C-130Q air tanker at the Centennial airport on the southeast side of Denver. The aircraft, which has a contract with the U.S. Forest Service, conducted a drop near the runway after flying in from their base in Sacramento.

The video below details some of the sophisticated imaging and mapping capabilities of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, including identifying targets and a data link for transferring them to the C-130.

Interior of the S-76
Interior of the S-76. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Another report on the air tanker demonstration that has better shots of the C-130 drop can be found at KWGN.

Photos at Coulson’s hangar at McClellan

T-131, Sikorsky S-76, and Coulson's hauler
Coulson’s T-131, Sikorsky S-76, and hauler

We took these photos at Coulson’s hangar at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, March 21, 2014 after the Aerial Firefighting conference (except for one photo that was taken a couple of days earlier). We appreciate the fact that Wayne and Britt Coulson feel confident to talk about and show others their firefighting operation.

T-131, a C-130Q.
Caption this. T-131.
Any suggestions for a caption for this photo?
T-131 being pushed out of the hangar
T-131 being pushed out of the hangar
Stickers in the tool box, Coulson
Stickers in the tool box of one of the Coulson mechanics. These guys are not JUST mechanics, pilots, and crewmembers. Many of them are passionate about fire aviation.

Continue reading “Photos at Coulson’s hangar at McClellan”