747 Supertanker obtains interim approval

Above: Firefighters in Santiago, Chile pose with the 747 Supertanker January 27, 2017.

(Originally published at 4 p.m. MDT July 25, 2017)

Today the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) bestowed “interim” approval status on the 747 Supertanker so that it can help suppress wildfires. This means the operator of the aircraft, Global SuperTanker (GST), can compete for federal air tanker contracts, if any become available, and can drop on fires for the duration of the 17-month interim period.

States and countries that will only contract for air tankers that have IAB approval may now consider signing the aircraft. California has not been hesitant to use very large air tankers like the DC-10 when they first became available. The U.S. Forest Service is much more conservative about making significant changes to their fire aviation program, and only used the DC-10 after it had been proven successful by California. The agency is also very hesitant, for example, to use water-scooping air tankers that have been in service worldwide for decades.

IL-76 747
An IL-76 air tanker and 747 at Santiago Chile, January 30, 2017.

The 747 received interim approval from the IAB in January of this year but it expired six months later on June 15 even though most new air tanker designs are given 18 months of interim status, the objective of which is to provide a period for real world use on actual fires so that bugs, if any, could be worked out and the users of the service could evaluate the effectiveness. During the winter and spring there was little opportunity for an additional very large air tanker to be called up to fight wildfires. However during that period it was used for several weeks in Chile, dropping on dozens of fires.

The video below, filmed in Chile, shows the 747 dropping water because retardant was not available. But it was mixing into the water an enhancer that increased the effectiveness.

Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of GST, said that during retardant drop tests in June the aircraft passed every one except for the last one on the last day, and that was because it was done during strong winds. The maximum wind speed allowed for the tests, Mr. Wheeler said, is 10 mph, but at the time of that last drop the wind was gusting at 17 to 25 mph. The test was suspended, and since it was the last day there was no opportunity to repeat it during allowable wind conditions.

We asked the USFS about the results of the test and they declined to answer our question, saying to check with GST.

Today the USFS released a statement confirming the interim approval for the 747:

The interim approval is for 17 months during which time GST must take steps to ensure its 747 aircraft delivers retardant in a manner that is effective and efficient and aids firefighting efforts on the ground.

Under certain circumstances, limited contractual options for VLATs are also available to the Forest Service and various states that maintain agreements with the agency. These certain circumstances could potentially include the severe wildfire situations in California and Colorado.

GST filed a protest with the USFS when they were not allowed to bid on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for air tankers that had specifications making very large air tankers ineligible to apply. The USFS denied the protest, and Mr. Wheeler said he will be deciding soon if their company will carry the protest further to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Last week the USFS posted a notice that it intends, sometime in the future, to accept bids for CWN very large air tankers, such as the 747 and DC-10 that can carry at least 8,000 gallons. The 747 carries 19,200 gallons while the DC-10 can hold 11,600. Most “large” air tankers can carry 2,000 to 4,000 gallons.

The initial version of the Supertanker built by Evergreen in a 747-100 made its first ever drop on a fire eight years ago at the Railbelt complex in Alaska in 2009. It last received Call When Needed contracts from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service in 2013. When Evergreen went bankrupt Global Supertanker bought the hardware and the rights to the retardant system and installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.

National media covers the lack of federal contract for 747 Supertanker

Above: The 747 Supertanker makes a demonstration drop at Colorado Springs, May 4, 2016.

(Originally published at 2 p.m. MDT July 17, 2017)

While large wildfires have been burning recently in the Southwest, California, and the Northern Rockies, many local news outlets as well as national media organizations like CBS News and the Associated Press have been covering the story about the 747 Supertanker that does not yet have a long-term contract with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

In January, 2016 the aircraft received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). This meant that it qualified to be used on fires, but did not include a contract. A couple of years ago the IAB began giving new air tanker designs interim approval to provide a period for real world use on actual fires so that bugs, if any, could be worked out and the users of the service could evaluate the effectiveness. The duration of the temporary approval has usually been 18 months, but the IAB only gave the 747 about 6 months, and that expired June 15, 2017. During those six months the air tanker was not used on fires in the United States (but was used extensively in Chile), so there was no evaluation in this country.

The USFS currently is soliciting bids from vendors for Call When Needed (CWN) air tankers. The closing date for the solicitation is June 20, 2017. The specifications only allow air tankers that carry between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons to apply. The 747 holds 19,200 gallons, six times more than a “next generation” BAe-146 and about 60 percent more than the 11,600 gallons a DC-10 holds, so it can’t even be considered. There are other requirements that may also eliminate Very Large Air Tankers such as the DC-10 and 747. Currently there are two DC-10’s on Exclusive Use Contracts and a third on a CWN contract.

Global Supertanker, the company that owns and operates the 747, is in talks with the USFS about this not-qualified-to-apply issue.

Last year the current version of the Supertanker was used on fires in Israel, and earlier this year it spent several weeks working on fires in Chile. On February 1, 2017 working out of Santiago it conducted a total of 11 drops on 7 sorties. Six of the sorties were near Navidad and Matanzas 115 miles (185 km) southwest of the Santiago airport where many structures were threatened. The seventh was near Concepcion, 404 miles (650 km) south of Santiago. In total, 138,400 gallons (508,759 l.) were delivered to assist the firefighters on the ground who actually put out the fires.

747 Supertanker first drop 2009
The 747 Supertanker operated by Evergreen drops on the Railbelt Complex of Fires in Alaska July 31, 2009. Photo by Mike McMillan, Fairbanks Area Forestry.

The initial version of the Supertanker built by Evergreen in a 747-100 made its first ever drop on a fire eight years ago at the Railbelt complex in Alaska in 2009. It last received Call When Needed contracts from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service in 2013. When Evergreen went bankrupt Global Supertanker bought the hardware and the rights to the retardant system and installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.

 

Rep. Adam Schiff questions the number of Type 1 helicopters on contract

Above: A Type 1 helicopter, an Air-Crane, makes a drop on the Draw Fire in South Dakota, July 24, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

When the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts by 18 percent earlier this year, we were not aware of any significant outcry among influential individuals who care about wildfire preparedness.

For years there had been 34 Type 1 helicopters on EU. On February 26, 2016 the USFS issued another round of EU contracts to 13 companies for a total of 34 Type 1 firefighting helicopters. The contracts were initially effective for one year, through April 30, 2017, with the possibility of three one-year renewal option periods.

But this Spring six of those helicopters were not renewed for the 2017 wildfire season, reducing the number to 28. There are at least a couple of dozen other Type 1 ships that have Call When Needed (CWN) contracts, but they can’t be depended upon to always be available, waiting around at no cost for the phone to ring and a contract to be activated. They will seek other employment when not on an EU contract. And CWN aircraft cost the government more to operate than EU resources.

Last week Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), sent a letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell expressing concern over the decision by the Forest Service to change six Type 1 helicopters from EU to CWN.

“As we enter peak fire season in Southern California, I would like to know the implications of this decision on readiness and speed of response in the event of a fire, since as you are well aware, the speed of response can be the difference between a destructive wildfire and a controlled event,” Rep. Schiff wrote in the letter.

In March we asked Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, why there was a reduction in the number of Type 1 helicopters:

At this time, the agency has determined 28 to be the appropriate number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts given current types and numbers of other aircraft in the fleet. This is in line with the 2012 Airtanker Modernization Strategy.

However, that Airtanker Modernization Strategy does not make an independent recommendation on the number of helicopters or air tankers that are needed. But it refers to a study conducted from 2007 to 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, which concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Screen grab from the 2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III, page 21.

Forest Service cancels procurement of new air tanker

The U.S. Forest Service has canceled the solicitation issued on November 18, 2016 for the acquisition of one to seven new multi-engine air tankers. It was thought by some that this procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.

The specifications appeared, after a brief perusal, to fit a C-130-type aircraft, including Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million.

Lockheed's LM-100J
Lockheed Martin’s LM-100J. An artist’s conception of it using a slip-in MAFFS to dispense fire retardant. Lockheed image.

When we inquired about the reasons for the cancellation and the plans for spending the appropriated $65 million, USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones said the only information available was:

The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing its requirements for the airtanker.

With the reports in the national news since January 20 about massive budget cuts for federal agencies, it is not surprising that this aircraft would be axed. The fact that the official word from the USFS is they are “reviewing [their] requirements” looks like they are hesitant to own an action that would reduce planned spending for homeland security, in the form of support for firefighters.

Vendors with SEAT contracts

Single Engine Air Tankers

Above: Tanker 466 operated by New Frontier Aviation reloads while working a wildfire south of Angostura Reservoir in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota (and other states) typically have SEATs on contract during the summer. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Here is a list of the companies that currently have Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) under U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management contracts. This list does not include SEATs working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or other federal or state agencies.

USFS, exclusive use:

  • Air Spray USA, Inc.

BLM, call when needed (or “on call”). There are no SEATs under BLM exclusive use contract at this time:

  • Aerial Timber
  • Aero Seat
  • Aero Spray
  • Air Spray
  • CO Fire Aviation
  • Columbia Basin Helicopters
  • Evergreen Flying Services
  • Fletcher Flying Services
  • GB Aerial Applications
  • Henry’s Aerial Service
  • M&M Air Service
  • Minutemen Aerial
  • New Frontier Aviation
  • Queen Bee Air Specialties
  • Western Pilot

BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract

Above: Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

For the previous three years the Bureau of Land Management had 33 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. As we enter the 2017 wildfire season there are none.

In 2014 the agency awarded EU contracts for 33 SEATs that guaranteed one year with a 100-day Mandatory Availability Period and four additional optional years. In 2016 the vendors were notified that two optional years, 2017 and 2018, would not be activated. One of the affected aircraft companies told us that the BLM said the reason was a lack of funds. (UPDATE May 31: Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokesperson, responded today to an earlier mail from us, explaining that the funds allocated in that 2014 contract had been spent, therefore they had to start over again with a new contract.)

In August, 2016 the agency began the solicitation process for a new EU contract. After it was awarded four vendors filed a total of six protests with the Government Accountability Office. As of today, May 30, 2017, four of those have been dismissed and two are still undecided.

Currently the only BLM SEAT contract in effect is a Call When Needed, or On Call contract that was awarded several weeks ago. A couple of days ago there were seven SEATs actively working in the Southwest Geographic Area on an On Call basis.

An aircraft vendor that operates SEATs told us that one of the issues his company is concerned about is the evaluation process for rating and selecting which vendors receive contract awards. He said the BLM places far too much emphasis on the empty weight of the aircraft while not considering enhancements that may add weight, but contribute to effectiveness and safety. The lightest SEAT is automatically favored, he said, while those with a backup radio, single point fueling behind the wing, GPS, a better performing Trotter retardant gate, ADS-B, larger engine, or a larger prop are penalized.

He said, “I just want to see a fair and impartial evaluation”.

One of the factors that almost destroyed the large air tanker industry around the turn of the century was the U.S. Forest Service’s over emphasis on the lowest bid price. This forced potential tanker vendors to resort to discarded aircraft designed for World War II and the Korean War and gave them little incentive to perform routine but expensive inspections and maintenance. In 2002 when the wings literally fell off two large air tankers in mid-air killing five crew members, the USFS started to re-think their lowest cost policy. Over the next 10 years the number of large air tankers on EU contracts declined from 44 to 9. Following that lost decade the USFS contracting process and the vendors’ fleets were reinvented.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the BLM said, “The BLM will ensure that we have adequate SEATs/wildland firefighting resources for the 2017 fire season, regardless of how we contract our aircraft. The BLM will provide an adequate response to all wildfire activity, whether it’s an extreme, normal, or below-normal fire season this year.”

Forest Service to conduct aviation workload analysis

Aero-Flite air tanker T-260, CL-415,
Aero-Flite’s T-260, a water-scooping CL-415, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a solicitation for a contractor to conduct an “Aviation workload analysis to analyze current and future workload requirements and staffing”. Their goal is to identify a mixture of government and commercial best practices that could be adopted to create a more effective and efficient organization.

The solicitation listed focus areas that have been added or have shown significant growth since a baseline organization chart from 2010:

  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems
  • Large Airtanker Modernization (Next Gen)
  • Large Airtanker Modernization (Aircraft Acquisition)
  • C-130H program
  • C-23B/SD3/60 program
  • Ram-Air parachute system transition
  • Emergency Medical Short-Haul
  • Water Scooping/Amphibious aircraft
  • Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFs) improvement program
  • Airtanker Bases and other aviation facilities
  • Night Aerial Firefighting
  • Aerial Supervision
  • Safety Management System

The list fails to mention the introduction and growth of the Very Large Air Tanker program. But perhaps the author was lumping all large and VLATs into one group. There are three DC-10’s under contract and the 747 has received approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and may show up on the new CWN contract that should be awarded later this year.

Responses are due to the solicitation by March 30 and the contractor will have 150 days to produce the final report. Assuming it will take, generously, two months to make the award, the report will be due around October 27, 2017.

It will be interesting to see the results from this taxpayer-funded enterprise. A “more effective and efficient organization” is a laudable goal.

Historically the Forest Service has been very reluctant to release reports like this. When it becomes available we will add it to the list of 16 other air tanker-related studies that U.S. citizens have paid for since 1995.

Watch this space.

20 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contracts this year

We also have updates on the MD-87’s, as well as the HC-130H aircraft the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.

The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.

air tankers contract wildfire 2017
This does not include Call When Needed, Single Engine, or scooper air tankers.

In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)

2016 call when needed wildfire air tankers

There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.

Future contracts

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.

The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.

Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.

MD-87’s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.

Coast Guard HC-130H’s

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.

The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.

500 nautical mile radius
500 nautical mile radius from Sacramento, California. Fire Aviation graphic.

None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.

Tanker 116 Mather California
Tanker 116, an HC-130H, landing at Mather Airport east of Sacramento, February 28, 2017. Photo by Jon Wright.

None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.

The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.