GAO decides against Forest Service in Global SuperTanker’s contract protest

The Government Accountability Office said the FS failed to provide a reasonable justification for limiting the maximum size of the retardant tank.

Above:  The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission.

(Originally published at 3:48 p.m. MST November 10, 2017)

The Government Accountability Office has upheld a protest by Global SuperTanker (GST) who contended the Forest Service’s (FS) contract restriction on the maximum size of a retardant tank was unduly restrictive of competition.

The FS issued a solicitation for Call When Needed air tanker services May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the GST 747 carries up to 19,200.

10 Tanker Air Carrier, which operates three DC-10’s,  attempted to support GST’s protest, but the GAO denied their request to submit an amicus curiae or friend of the court pleading, concluding that the company did not meet the definition of either a protester or an intervenor under the GAO’s Bid Protest Regulations.

The GAO decided that the FS…

…failed to provide reasonable justifications for the challenged specification, such that we are unable to conclude that the challenged specification is reasonably necessary for the agency to meet its needs.

We recommend that the agency make a documented determination of its needs. Once the agency identifies its needs, the agency should revise its solicitation to include specifications that are reasonably necessary to meet those needs. We also recommend that the protester be reimbursed the costs of filing and pursuing the protest, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

We asked Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the FS, for their reaction to the GAO decision, if GST would be reimbursed for their attorney fees, if GST would be considered for a contract, and if there was any bias in the FS against any VLATs. Here is the response:

In accordance with regulations, the U.S. Forest Service is complying with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision for the Call When Needed (CWN) protest. We are reviewing our documentation. After the review is completed, the agency will determine the most appropriate ways to continue to procure Large and Very Large Next Generation Airtankers.

Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of GST, said:

We are pleased that the GAO sustained our case. We really look forward to working with the Forest Service in the future and hopefully these issues around the [Requests for Proposals] will work themselves out to everybody’s satisfaction.

In 2016 and 2017 the 747 deployed to fires in Israel and Chile and the company currently has a CWN contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression. The aircraft was used for several weeks in California in the last part of the summer supporting CAL FIRE, but the FS has not allowed the company to submit a bid to acquire a contract.

In the 22-page decision, the GAO addressed numerous issues introduced by the FS that attempted to justify the agency’s new policy of restricting the maximum size of a retardant tank in a contract solicitation. In each case the GAO argued that the FS was wrong, unreasonable, illogical, or, it did not apply to the issue.

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

The FS claimed that the solicitation was intended to procure services to support initial attack operations for which VLATs are not suitable. The GAO responded that the solicitation sought to procure aerial firefighting services to support both initial and extended attack operations. And, since it was a CWN contract, the FS could choose whether or not to use the VLAT on initial or extended attack.

The GAO wrote…

…there is also no support for the agency’s contention that VLATs are not suited for performing initial attack operations.

The GAO noted that 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s  had completed a total of 700 missions in 2017 at the time of the decision and routinely performs initial attack operations.

They also found that…

Indeed, the record is completely silent regarding who, if anyone, at the agency made the decision to include the [maximum tank size] restriction, when the decision was made, and why the decision was made. Notably, none of the pre-solicitation documents contain any reference to a 5,000-gallon maximum restriction.

The FS cited air tanker studies from 1995, 1996, and 2005 as a basis for its restriction, but it did not identify any language in the studies to support the restriction.

From the GAO decision:

The cited pages do not lend support to the agency’s position. As an example, the page in the 2005 study merely indicates that the agency prefers larger aircraft over smaller aircraft, not that VLATs are somehow less desirable for initial attack operations.

The [2012] study recommends that the wildland firefighting aircraft fleet be composed of a mix of aircraft, including “Very Large Airtankers (>8000 gallons).” In discussing tank sizes, the study recommends a minimum capacity, not a maximum capacity, and reflects a preference for larger retardant tank capacities.

The Forest Service has not identified any study or analysis, upon which it relied to develop the RFP requirements, that has considered the question presented here: whether VLATs are unsuited for initial attack operations. In sum, the studies relied upon by the agency do not provide a reasonable basis to restrict competition.

Although the agency has reached conclusions regarding the technical limitations of VLATs, and is excluding VLATs from competition based upon such conclusions, the record does not demonstrate that the offered studies support the agency’s conclusions. For this reason, we are unable to find that the agency’s asserted justification for the exclusion of VLATs is reasonable.

The FS pointed out that on two occasions a VLAT struck objects on the ground while taxiing. The GAO said both incidents occurred while FS ground personnel were directing the aircraft. Reviews determined that one was 100 percent the fault of the ground guides and the other was 75 percent the fault of the ground guides.

The FS also listed several other reasons that they contend are significant problems related to the use of VLATs, including, the number of personnel needed on the ground, the amount of fuel and retardant needed, the number of suitable bases, and the need for lead planes.

In their written decision the GAO addressed these and other issues brought up by the FS, and similar to the examples above, shot them all down, saying the FS was simply wrong or the issue was not applicable to the protest. The GAO noted that economies of scale, with the VLATs carrying four to seven times more retardant than a conventional large air tanker, can mitigate some of these issues.

We asked Bean Barrett, a former Naval aviator and frequent contributor to this website, for his take on this issue:

It seems to me that their main contracting focus should be the gallons of retardant required to be delivered per hour or per day and the total cost per gallon delivered and the ability to meet various delivery rates/ coverage levels.

Platform type shouldn’t have any bearing on the issue at all unless there is some performance limitation that impacts its ability to meet delivery requirements.

If they ever get around to defining what constitutes acceptable IA in terms of how much retardant, how far away from base, and how fast, then there may be some platform considerations.

Bean recommends a book by Stephen Budiansky titled Blackett’s War: The Men Who defeated Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. It tells the story of how efforts led by Winston Churchill before and during World War II to utilize science and careful analysis resulted in innovations that made the British much more successful in warfare. Bean said, “The parallels you can draw with the USFS and fire aviation’s problems are amazing. It’s a very good interesting book and an easy read.”

One reviewer of the book on Amazon wrote that the Churchill-led efforts “…showed how careful quantitative analysis could provide far better guidance for decision makers than tradition, prejudice, and gut feeling.”

Our opinion

It appears from the GAO report that their decision to sustain the protest was not even close to going the other way. The FS seemed to be grasping at straws trying a shotgun approach, throwing out everything they could think of off the top of their head, with little serious thought, in their ill-considered attempt to prevent GST from being allowed to submit a bid on the contract. They came off looking like an inept, bumbling, incompetent, leaderless organization.

This should be an embarrassment for Jeffery Power, the new Assistant Director of Aviation for the FS, and Shawna Legarza, the National Fire Director for the FS.

Fire aviation is very expensive and based on the fatality records, is very dangerous. The Forest Service should consider reorganizing their aviation assets, removing the aviation autonomy from the individual regions and using a more centralized approach led by a Chief Pilot with actual pilot credentials and experience. It is our understanding that only one of the Regional Aviation Officers, who have far too much responsibility and power, is actually a pilot.

For anyone who closely follows FS aviation contracting it is obvious that for the last five years it has been a quagmire, with bad strategic decisions being implemented poorly, resulting in numerous protests. (It must be contagious, because the condition spread to the BLM this year.) It took 555 days for the FS to award the first “Next Generation” air tanker contract in 2012. Perhaps a Chief Pilot and an improved contracting section would better serve their customers, including aviators and our citizens.

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.