This year will likely be the farewell tour for P2V air tankers

Above: A P2V air tanker on final approach at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Updated at 8:50 a.m. MST January 12, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service expects to issue a new round of Exclusive Use and Call When Needed air tanker contracts in the “near future”. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the agency, said they plan to solicit proposals for Next Generation 3.0 Exclusive Use and 2.0 Call When Needed air tankers. Next Generation 3.0 is intended for operations in 2018 and Call When Needed 2.0 is for this fire season.

It is very unusual for the USFS to begin a contracting process more than a year before the expected mandatory availability period (MAP). In recent years they have attempted to award the contracts only a few months before the aircraft are needed to begin work. The first Next Gen contract, V1.0, was awarded 550 days after being advertised.

In 2015 we wrote:

The USFS should get their [stuff] together and advertise the solicitation, not the Request for Information, at least one year before the mandatory availability period. Top quality air tankers, crews, and maintenance personnel can’t be magically produced out of thin air.

So this Next Gen 3.0 being advertised about 14 months before the expected MAP is a huge step in the right direction — but only if it takes much less than 550 days to make the awards.

The current “Legacy” Exclusive Use contract issued in March, 2013 under which seven air tankers operated by Neptune Aviation are working includes six P2Vs and one BAe-146. It expires at the end of this year. Dan Snyder, President of the company, told us that as far as he knows there are no plans for the USFS to issue any more contracts for which the Korean War vintage aircraft could qualify — the P2Vs can’t meet the specifications for Next Gen air tankers.

So this year will likely be the farewell tour for the P2Vs. Take pictures while you still can.

The last CWN and Exclusive Use contracts allowed very large air tankers such as the DC-10 to qualify. If that continues to be the case in this next round of contracts there could be a 747 and possibly more DC-10s in the sky. Currently two DC-10s are on Exclusive Use contracts and third on CWN worked for much of the 2016 fire season. Last week the 747 SuperTanker received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board.

And speaking of Neptune, Mr. Snyder said that by the time the Next Gen 3.0 contract is in effect next year they will have a total of nine BAe-146s fully converted and available. The ninth one arrived at their facility in Missoula on November 20, 2016.

In addition to their air tanker business, Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the C-23B Sherpas the USFS received from the U.S. Army which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.

Neptune has completed the work on three Sherpas and has started on a fourth. They “woke up” or serviced an additional seven that were in long term storage to make them flyable again.  A timetable for converting those seven will be determined by the USFS, who expects to use the Sherpas to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

Air Force awards contract to install retardant systems on USFS HC-130H air tankers

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design that will be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard.

After a solicitation process that dragged on for almost two years, the U.S. Air Force has awarded the contract to build and install retardant delivery systems for up to seven of the seven HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. 

The Coulson Group announced today that they received the contract. In one sense this is not unexpected because the company has installed and successfully operated two similar systems in C-130s — Tanker 131 and Tanker 132. In another sense, it is a surprise after the Government Accountability Office denied the company’s protest of the terms of the request for proposals in August of 2015.

C-130 retardant tank unload
Coulson’s retardant tank being removed or installed in one of their air tankers, T-131, in 2013. Coulson photo.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to work with the United States Air Force to provide them with state of the art retardant aerial delivery systems (RADS) for their fleet of C-130s,” says Wayne Coulson, CEO and President of Coulson Aviation.

The 3,800-gallon (3,500 gallons dispensable payload) retardant system will be gravity-based with retardant tanks that can be quickly removed, making it possible for the air tankers to also haul cargo or passengers.

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft began working out of McClellan Air Field near Sacramento last summer. Since it did not have a permanent retardant tank it borrowed one of the Forest Service’s eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that can be inserted into the cargo hold of a military C-130 to provide a surge capacity of air tankers during a time of heavy wildfire activity. The MAFFS pump the 3,000 gallons of retardant out of a pipe through the door using compressed air, rather than letting it drop out of the belly with the assistance of gravity as is done with conventional air tankers.

The Air Force is responsible for the retrofitting and performing the heavy maintenance that must be completed before the seven HC-130Hs are finally turned over to the USFS over the next three years. This contract is for the installation of one trial “kit”, one verification kit, and three production kits. There is an option for the installation of two additional production kits.

Coulson Aviation has 25 years of experience in aerial fire suppression and they operate both Type 1 helicopters and large fixed wing air tankers. Coulson is one of the few companies to hold multi-country aerial firefighting contracts, including Canada, the United States, and Australia.

Douglas County, Colorado renews contracts for firefighting aircraft

Douglas County, just south of Denver (map), recently renewed contracts with four fire aviation companies. The agreements are Call When Needed (CWN) and will only be activated when the aircraft are specifically needed.

Three of the contracts are for helicopters, with Rampart Helicopter ServicesHeliQwest International and Trans Aero Ltd. The other is for the 11,600-gallon DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

“Due to the strong possibility of continued dry conditions in and around Douglas County, coupled with the limited air resource availability in the region for the purpose of fighting wildland fire, it is imperative that we have every resource possible available to us,” said the County’s Director of Emergency Management Tim Johnson.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

Alberta cuts wildfire suppression budget by $15 million

The cuts mean air tanker contracts end on August 16.

Air Spray executives
Ravi Saip and Paul Lane in front of one of their Electras at Chico, California, on March 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Below is an excerpt from an article at CBCnews:

With wildfires already spreading in Alberta, one air tanker company is raising the alarm on cuts to the province’s fire suppression budget.
Paul Lane, the vice president of Air Spray, said the company’s contract was cut by 25 per cent in the recent budget.

“The province has reduced the operating contracts, for not just us but the other air tanker operator, from 123 days to 93 days,” he said.

“Effectively that will mean that all the air tanker assets in Alberta will come up contract by August 16. The province has no guarantee of availability after that period of those air tanker assets.”

The province reduced the overall wildfire suppression budget by about $15 million.

Premier Rachel Notley said the budget reflects base levels of funding and that emergency funds will kick in if needed for more fire suppression.

“All that happened is a high level of expenditure engaged last year because of the high level of fires was reduced back to the normal amount,” she said. ..

U.S. Forest Service awards contract for two water scoopers

Aero-Flite will supply two CL-415 air tankers for one to five years.

Above: Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260, a CL-415, at McClellan Air Field, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The daily availability rate for the two Aero-Flite CL-415 air tankers will be $42,285 with an hourly rate of $13,299. That daily rate is higher than all of the 21 large air tankers on contract. And only two large air tankers have a higher hourly rate — one of the DC-10s and the USFS/Coast Guard C-130.

The maximum five-year value of the contract is $142,524,440 for the two aircraft.

It is our understanding that the contract used last year expired. This new solicitation specified that the USFS would hire “up to two” aircraft for a period of time “not to exceed five years”. Obviously the agency made a decision and settled on two scoopers. We checked with Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, who told us that it is definitely a five-year contract.

One Aero-Flite CL-415 was on USFS contract in 2015, Tanker 260 (N389AC). The two this year are N386AC and N392AC. We don’t yet have their tanker numbers.

In past years the Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted for one or two twin engine water scoopers, CL-215s I believe, but no longer. This year they will have at least one amphibious water-scooping Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT), an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more, Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA, told us earlier this month.

There will also be a large number of non-water-scooping SEATs, perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out.

We updated the 2016 tanker list originally published March 2, 2016

The twin engine CL-415 can carry up to 1,600 gallons of water, refilling the tank by skimming along the surface of a lake as water enters the scoop that is lowered from the belly of the aircraft.

tanker 260 scoop
The scoop on the bottom of Tanker 260 used to fill the tank as the aircraft skims along the surface of a lake. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

 

Air Tankers at Dryden
Air Tankers, mostly water scoopers, at Dryden (Ontario) Regional Airport in June, 2015 before they were dispersed around the province of Ontario, Canada to deal with the rising number of wildfires. Photo by Chris Sherwin.

Large air tanker lineup for 2016

21 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contract in 2016.

Above: Air tanker 43, a P2V, fires up an engine at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(UPDATED May 24, 2016)

The number of large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts for fighting wildland fires will be about the same as the way the fire season ended in 2015, with 21 signed up, counting the HC-130H operated by the U.S. Forest Service.

Here is the breakdown by type of aircraft, and then by company:

P2V: 6
BAe-146: 5
RJ85: 4
DC-10: 2
C-130: 2
MD87: 2
CL-415: 2

Neptune: 11
Aero Flite: 6
Aero Air: 2
10 Tanker: 2
Coulson: 1
U.S. Forest Service: 1

The numbers above only include the large and very large air tankers that are on exclusive use contract. In addition the USFS will have between two and three water scooping amphibious twin engine CL-415 air tankers. One is on contract now and they have a solicitation out now that will add one or two more to the fleet.

The plans, which could change, are for three of the P2Vs to begin work in March, on the 3rd, 18th, and 28th. Most of the other large air tankers will start in April, but six will come on duty in May and June. All of the next-generation large air tankers are contracted for a minimum of 160 days while the “legacy” aircraft are signed up for 140 to 180 days.

There will also be a large number of single engine air tankers (SEATs), perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out. The USFS has a solicitation out for one SEAT and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will have at least one amphibious water-scooping SEAT, an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more in the next few weeks, according to Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA.

Randy Eardley of the BLM told us they will have four AT 802Fs on 75-day contracts working out of Fairbanks this year. He said there are two each from Air Spray and Aero Spray.

(The chart below was revised May 24, 2016. Some costs were updated and there was some swapping of aircraft from one Next Gen contract to another.)

Air_Tankers_Contracted_5-24-2016

 

If you want to print the list, this .pdf document will probably turn out better than the image above.

There will also be at least five or six large air tankers available on Call When Needed contracts. Several companies are in the process of converting more airliners into air tankers and when those are finished and carded might be added to the CWN list.

If the wildfire season turns into more than what these 27 air tankers can handle, the military can activate up to eight C-130s equipped with the pressurized slip-in 3,000-gallon Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS. However a MAFFS unit is being used by one of the HC-130H aircraft that is in the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. That leaves just seven MAFFS units available. In a few years all seven of the former Coast Guard HC-130Hs will be de-militarized, will have gone through heavy maintenance, and will be equipped with a removable gravity-powered retardant delivery system, again freeing up all of the MAFFS equipment.

loading retardant P2V
Loading retardant into a P2V at Redding, California August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Another source for air tankers are the eight CV580s available through agreements with the state of Alaska and Canada.

On March 1 we wrote about the recently awarded exclusive use contracts for 34 large Type 1 helicopters. The USFS contracts issued three years ago for 31 exclusive use Type 2 helicopters are still in effect.

Jennifer Jones, spokesperson for the USFS, told us there are “approximately 200 helicopters of all types [that] may be available through Call When Needed Contracts”.

Later we will have more details about the status of the seven HC-130H aircraft being transferred to the USFS from the Coast Guard and converted to air tankers.

More details about Neptune’s Sherpa maintenance contract

KGVO radio, in the video above, interviewed Kevin Condit of Neptune Aviation about the contract the company received June 30, 2015 for maintenance on the C-23B Sherpa aircraft the U.S. Forest Service recently acquired. Up to 15 Sherpas were authorized to be transferred from the U.S. Army the the USFS by legislation signed in December of 2013. The agency expects to use them to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

The specifications of the contract list a number of tasks that will be performed, including inspection, maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, and alteration of the Sherpas. Individual orders may include inspection, repair, painting, overhaul, rebuilding, testing, and servicing of airframes, engines, rotors, appliances, or component parts.

The work will be done primarily at Ogden, Utah, but may also be required at Missoula, Montana; Redmond, Oregon; Redding, California; and Tucson, Arizona.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris and Jared.

Current list of large air tankers on USFS contracts

Large air tankers contract 10-4-2015Now that the U.S. Forest service has awarded exclusive use contracts to seven additional “next generation” large air tankers, we have updated our list — which has now expanded to 21. That’s the most since 2008. The USFS is slowly rebuilding the fleet which had atrophied, declining to 9 in 2013 after having 44 in 2002.

We don’t yet have the tanker and tail numbers for the seven “new” aircraft. Although, one person in the air tanker industry told us that those numbers should not really matter, saying a company should be able to trade out an air tanker for an identical one for maintenance or other reasons. If, of course, the company has the luxury of having a duplicate air tanker sitting around.

On October 4, 2015 we updated the list above to reflect that Neptune replaced T-06 with T-14.