USFS looking for high-tech aerial supervision aircraft

The U.S. Forest Service intends to contract for 7 and later up to 15 aircraft outfitted with high-tech sensors to serve as platforms for aerial supervision on wildfires. Today the agency issued a Request for Information to find out what is available and which companies may be interested. The aircraft would not only be able to conduct aerial supervision of other firefighting assets, but would also provide a platform for training of aerial supervision personnel. This will require an aft crew station that provides the capability to manage aerial supervision operations in its entirety. The airplanes would be able to carry one pilot, an aerial supervisor, a trainee aerial supervisor, and an instructor.

Two of the seven aircraft would be able to support day and night operations and would be located at Lancaster, California, and McCall Idaho.

Some of the hardware the aircraft must have would include:

  • Infrared/Electro-Optical sensing systems with color camera and FLIR systems. The ability to manually “select” an area of interest upon which the system will autonomously (without user input) remain pointed at that area as the aircraft maneuvers.
  • The ability of the system to provide and display target location (latitude, longitude, altitude). If laser is used, it must be eye safe. The ability to provide a visible (within the visible light spectrum, with and without the aid of NVG’s) marking capability of a target that can be viewed by other aircraft within 1 mile and at off-axis viewing angles at night.
  • The ability to auto-detect non-participant aircraft.
  • Data link dissemination for near or near real-time video image viewing and analysis.
  • Track ground force and air force position location. Data entry to assign naming/labeling/text convention to ground and air forces engaged on the fire.

The Forest Service might be looking for aircraft similar to the Aero Commander 690A that is being used with their night flying helicopter.

The Request for Information has a response due date of September 13, 2013. They expect to publish the solicitation by October, 2013 for an anticipated contract award in February 2014.

USFS issues solicitation for a scooper air tanker

CL-415
CL-415, LA County photo

The U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation on August 5 for one “amphibious water scooper aircraft”. It has a quick turnaround, with a response due date of August 19, 2013. Like some of the previous solicitations for air tankers, this one holds open the possibility of adding one additional aircraft during the contract period. The USFS expects to have the air tanker begin this calendar year, but the agency’s recent aircraft contracting history shows that may be a very optimistic goal. It took over 500 days to award the “next-gen” contracts.

The solicitation requires the following: amphibious and scooping capability, turbine engines, 180-knot cruise speed, 1,600-gallon capacity, and 7 days a week coverage. It also has to have previous approval by the Interagency Airtanker Board. The specs appear to limit the qualifying aircraft to only the CL-415. The BE-200 could possibly meet the operational specs, but does not have FAA or IAB approvals.

We are glad to see the requirement for 7 day a week coverage, instead of shutting down a firefighting resource one day a week like in some other air tanker contracts.

 

Thanks go out to John

Seven things to know about fire aviation

There is a lot going on in wildfire aviation, but it seems like that is always the case. Here are updates on seven topics that are currently on our minds:

1.  MAFFS activated again

Four Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers have been activated. A couple of days ago the two at Channel Islands in California were activated by the state to be used on fires currently burning, primarily to assist with the 24,000-acre Mountain Fire in southern California between Idyllwild and Palm Springs. That fire seems to be trying to take out most of the San Jacinto Mountains. Two more MAFFS, one each from Wyoming and North Carolina, are also being activated with orders to report to Boise by July 21. Earlier this month four MAFFS, two each from Wyoming and North Carolina, had been deployed but they ended their assignment on July 12.

2. Nose gear problem on CV-580

One of the two CV-580 air tankers on loan from Saskatchewan had a malfunction with a nose gear and is out of service until it can be replaced or repaired.

3. Availability of next-generation air tankers

Six of the seven aircraft that received next generation air tanker contracts are still being built and have yet to begin grid tests of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. The mandatory availability period was to begin in August. We recently talked with someone who is familiar with the progress of the four companies that are working on the six air tankers.

  • Minden’s BAe-146 and Erickson Aero Tanker’s (aka Aero Air) two MD87s may be certified around the first part of September.
  • At least one of Aero Flite/Conair’s two RJ85s may be ready to go by the end of August.
  • Coulson’s C-130Q could be ready by the first or second week of August. They will begin static testing next week.

10 Tanker’s DC-10 that received an exclusive use next-gen contract was already fully certified and began work almost immediately upon receipt of the contract.

4. Neptune to test new design

Neptune has made some changes to their tanks that are being installed on their third and fourth BAe-146s, hoping to correct the inconsistent flow rates which results in the last 500 to 600 gallons trailing off, exiting the aircraft at a slower rate than the first 2,400 gallons. They will begin grid testing the new design next week in Missoula.

5. C-27Js

The U.S. Forest Service expects to hear formally very soon, or by the end of this fiscal year at the latest, that the Air Force will transfer to them at least seven C-27Js. When we saw him July 2 at the dedication of the memorial for the four crew members of MAFFS 7 that were killed in the crash on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota a year earlier, the USFS Assistant Director of Aviation, Art Hingman told us that instead of a slip-in MAFFS-type pressurized tank system, the C-27s would likely have a conventional gravity-powered tank that would require cutting a hole in the bottom of the aircraft. The tank would be removable so that the aircraft could be used for hauling cargo.

He said that while some would be used as air tankers, he seemed even more enthusiastic that others could be assigned to smokejumpers. He was not sure how many gallons of retardant they would hold because it is unknown exactly how much weight can be removed from the aircraft during the conversion process. He estimated that they could hold as little as 1,800 gallons. Another source told us that it could take two to three years to convert the aircraft into air tankers, which would be operated as Government Owned/Contractor Operated, much like the CAL Fire air tankers.

6. Lead planes

A lead plane preceding a big, lumbering air tanker flying low and slow through turbulent air, is not required for the air tanker pilots that are qualified for Initial Attack (IA), but many of them will tell you that they prefer it, since it adds another level of safety. There is discussion going on about the future of lead planes, much of it motivated by saving money. Today there are only 14 lead planes and 14 qualified pilots, but more “are in the pipeline”, according to Art Hingman.

Not all of those 14 qualified pilots are always available because the federal agencies sometimes reassign them to other functions, including Forest Health, management studies, and smokejumper operations.

This shortage has created real problems in using Very Large Air Tankers and MAFFS, since those pilots are not IA qualified and require lead planes. At times dispatchers would like to split up the VLATs and send them to different fires in different geographic areas, but occasionally that has not been possible due to the lead plane shortage. And when the six additional next-gen air tankers begin flying, the shortage will be even worse.

7. 747 Very Large Air Tanker

Fire Aviation told you on June 14 that Evergreen received a 3-year call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service for their 20,000-gallon 747 “Supertanker”. Since it last had a contract with them two years ago, it has been sitting in the desert at Marana, Arizona. Bob Soelberg, Evergreen’s Vice President of Supertanker Service and Program Management, told us today that to protect the engines while in storage, all four of them were removed and replaced with two “slugs”, which are basically weights hanging on the wings to provide stability for the aircraft. He said the 747 is scheduled to begin maintenance and a C-check In Marana August 2 which will take at least 45 days, depending on what the check finds. So possibly by mid- to late September, when the western fire season begins winding down, it could be available to drop retardant on fires. Evergreen also recently signed a 3-year CWN contract with CAL FIRE.

Evergreen did not renew their last CWN contract because the aircraft was not used enough to cover the maintenance of the air tanker and the salaries of the crews. The C-check and maintenance next month will cost several million dollars.

Mr. Soelberg was interviewed by Lars Larson on 101KXL Radio recently. The audio recording is below.

USFS may contract for scooper air tankers

CL-415
CL-415 in Los Angeles County

The U.S. Forest Service may contract for one or more amphibious water-scooping air tankers. Tuesday the agency issued a Request for Information which can be a first step before a solicitation for proposals. From the specifications below, it appears that they are looking for CL-415s which have a maximum capacity of about 1,600 gallons.

  • One (1) aircraft with a tank capacity of 1,600 U.S. gallons.
  • Cruise airspeed of at least 180 knots true airspeed at 10,000 feet pressure altitude and ISA, empty tank.
  • Endurance of four (4) hours at maximum cruise power, optimum altitude, standard temperature with a 45-minute reserve.
  • Sufficient flight crews to provide seven day coverage while in use.
  • Capable of landing and takeoff on a 5,000 ft gravel runway.
  • Multiple Turbine Engines.

The RFI has a response due date of July 23, and it says the aircraft would be used 2013 through 2017. Knowing how long it takes the USFS to award a contract for air tankers, many scoopable lakes will be iced over by the time any contracts are signed. [I wish I had a Photoshopped image of a CL-415 trying to scoop on an iced-over lake.]

It will be interesting to see if anyone puts up a fight or lodges a protest to try to get a contract for the Russian-built BE-200, a jet-powered water scooper that carries about 3,000 gallons. That aircraft has several obstacles to overcome, including certification from the FAA. Contract protests have worked out well recently for the companies that used the process. But we are still waiting to see what Neptune is going to receive for dropping the one they lodged during the last next-gen air tanker contract process. Do they have some scoopers hidden in their hangar in Missoula? Maybe we’ll start a rumor: they are installing floats on one of their BAe-146s.   😉  [Another Photoshop opportunity.]

The Department of the Interior contracts for at least a couple of water scoopers, but the USFS has not had any in their air tanker fleet in recent years. The conventional wisdom is that the USFS has a bias against scoopers.

The USFS aviation program is not known for taking large, bold steps, decisive steps, so it would be surprising if they contracted for more than two or three scoopers. If they want more than that, and a vendor was hoping to purchase a new one from Bombardier, they better move quickly because the company has only one outstanding order for a CL-415 after which they are expected to shut down production.

Progress check on next-generation air tankers

We attempted to contact all four of the vendors that received contracts for next-generation air tankers that are still working to convert their aircraft into air tankers. We wanted to get updates on how close they are to being ready drop retardant over fires. Minden and Coulson returned our phone calls. 10 Tanker had their two DC-10s ready to go and fully certified when the contracts were announced, so their status is obvious.

As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that exclusive use contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The activation of the contracts was held up by a protest from Neptune Aviation, but the awards finally went to.

Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.

The other four companies are finishing the tank installations and still have to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the FAA and have to pass a static test, dropping while parked on the tarmac; then, finally a grid test during which they drop actual retardant from the air into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground which will determine the volume and consistency of the drop pattern. As far as I know none of the four remaining companies have scheduled a grid test yet with the Interagency AirTanker Board, which must certify all air tankers under contract with the federal government.

Minden Air Corporation

We talked with Len Parker, the CEO of Minden, who told us that they are making good progress on their BAe-146, Tanker 46, and that they expect to make the deadline for full certification, which is in the first part of August. Their tank design is very different from Neptune’s design for their BAe-146 which uses cabin air pressure to assist in forcing the retardant out of the tank. Mr. Parker told us their tank totally relies on gravity, having more than 10 feet of vertical head pressure. When asked if the door system was constant flow, he said yes and no, explaining that it is more advanced than a typical constant flow system, and uses advanced technology.

The tank holds about 3,100 gallons, he said, and when empty weighs about 2,000 pounds less than other tanks that may be used on BAe-146s, meaning they would not have to carry reduced loads of retardant as often when density altitude is an issue on hot days at high altitude.

Tanker 46 has passed the static test and meets the required flow rates, Mr. Parker told us. They are still working on the STC, but expect to select a date for the grid test by July 12.

Minden has purchased a second BAe-146 and has already started converting it.

Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.

Coulson's T 131

Britt Coulson sent us these photos that were taken June 28, 2013. He told us the aircraft, which holds 3,500 gallons, has been painted and they will apply the wrap, which we ran a photo of earlier, later this month. He said on July 2:

…most of the tank is now installed, gear and all flight controls are checked, tank doors are going on this week, hydraulics are being finished this week as is the floor to complete the tank install.

The tank in Coulson's T 131

As you can see in the photo, there are wheels attached to the tank. Mr. Coulson told us they can remove or reinstall the tank in about 30 minutes.

They still have to obtain the STC and the other certifications.

The other two companies

We called and left messages at Aero Flite and Aero Air, but the calls and emails were not returned.

Aero Flite photos?

We received the two following photos from someone who told us that they show Aero Flite’s RJ85 (Tanker 160) external retardant tank being attached to the belly and sides of an aircraft last week. We can’t independently verify they are genuine, so for now we’ll just call them an artist’s conception of what their RJ85 may look like.

AeroFlite RJ85 side AeroFlite RJ85

Evergreen to get CWN contract for 747

We will classify this as Breaking News. Evergreen has not had a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for their 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker for a while, but they will get a new three-year CWN contract beginning July 1, 2013.

When the company had a CWN contract before, the aircraft was very rarely used, making it difficult for the company to justify maintaining the ship and the flight crew in a ready to go state. It will be interesting to see if it sits, or actually drops retardant on fires.

Maybe the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that awarded the contract, is looking for a stop-gap, to fill the void until the all seven “next generation” air tankers that recently received exclusive use contracts become fully certified. Only one of the seven is, the DC-10.

The CWN contract for 10 Tanker’s second DC-10, Tanker 910, will also be renewed for three years on July 1. It was activated Friday morning and flew to Albuquerque.

The other DC-10, Tanker 911, recently got a five-year exclusive use contract. It has been busy for the last two weeks dropping on fires in California, New Mexico, and Colorado

(UPDATE June 15, 2013)

Thanks to John, we have the numbers in the contracts:

  • Evergreen 747 – Daily Rate $75,000 + Flight Rate $12,000
  • 10 Tanker DC-10 – Daily Rate $51,522 + Flight Rate $7,668

More details about the prices in the contract awards.

(UPDATE at 2:25 p.m. MT, June 17, 2013)

I was wondering why the contract for the 747 does not start until July 1. Today I found on an aircraft forum what might be the answer — in February, 2012, the Supertanker was photographed in the desert missing two engines.

(UPDATED info HERE, August 22, 2013)

 

Should very large air tankers be used on 7-acre fires?

Landing gear of Air Tanker 910
Landing gear of Air Tanker 910, a DC-10, at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A video we embedded in an article on June 7 shows one of the DC-10 very large air tankers making a precision drop using what appeared to be a small fraction of it’s 11,600 gallon capacity, on what was described as a 7-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It generated a fair amount of discussion in the comments, mostly positive, except for one from “Don” who called it “overkill”. “DiggerT” provided a thoughtful response to Don, and I also added my two cents in a comment.

We don’t know why the DC-10 was selected to drop on the fire near Pinal Peak. Maybe it had been dropping on another fire in the area, or perhaps it was the only air tanker available. At any rate, in the video the radio traffic from the lead or air attack plane indicated that he was extremely pleased with the results of the drop.

I am pasting below what I wrote in the comment because it includes a few details about the pricing structure for the seven next generation air tankers that we have not previously covered:

****

“Don, are you aware that the hourly flight rate for the DC-10 on this new exclusive use contract is by far lower than the other six aircraft that were selected for contracts? The nearest competitor is $2,054 per hour more expensive than the DC-10, and the DC-10 is a little more than half the hourly rate for Minden’s BAe-146.

But keep in mind the contract is complex, and the DC-10’s pricing structure, in order to compare apples to apples, is based on delivering 3,000 gallons, approximately the same as the other six aircraft — according to information I received from someone who is very familiar with the contracting process for next generation air tankers. There are additional specifics to cover the DC-10 dropping more than 3,000 gallons.

But as you can see in the bid details, the Total Cost Estimate for the first year, which apparently takes this into account, has the DC-10’s total cost approximately in the same ball park as the others, which are, in millions, $36.4, $36.4, $38.9, $39.5, and $41.3. The DC-10’s was $43.2. But keep in mind that the DC-10 delivers about three to four times more retardant than the maximum capacity of the other next gen air tankers , and six times more than Tanker 40, a BAe-146, if T40 is reloading at Silver City Airtanker Base on a 90 degree day.

And, I have to agree with DiggerT. If there is any potential for a wildland fire to become large it should be attacked with overwhelming force, rather than attempting to fire fire on the cheap. This can save money, property, and lives.

A year ago I wrote my “Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires“:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”

Neptune drops their protest of awards for air tanker contracts

(Originally published at 10:20 a.m. MT, June 7, 2013; updated at 12:53 p.m. MT, June 7, 2013)

Neptune Tanker 431
Neptune’s Air Tanker 41, a BAe-146. The company would like to have four of these on federal contracts this year. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Neptune Aviation has withdrawn their protest of the contract awards for next generation air tankers. The protest delayed for 24 days the award of contracts for three air tankers, and delayed for a month the award of the remaining four that were first tentatively announced on May 6.

Fire Aviation obtained confirmation from Ron Hooper, Neptune’s CEO, that the company dropped the protest after it was first announced by Colorado Senator Mark Udall. When asked if Neptune had received any additional contracts after withdrawing their protest, Mr. Hooper told Fire Aviation that he was not able to provide any further information.

Later in the day the U.S. Forest Service issued this statement from Chief Tom Tidwell:

We have learned that Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., of Missoula, Mont., has withdrawn their protest of the Forest Service exclusive use contract award for Next Generation large airtankers. The agency is now moving forward with awarding the remaining four Next Generation contracts, previously announced on May 6, 2013, thereby modernizing our fleet in the quickest manner possible as we face the prospect of a challenging wildfire season.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on May 6, 2013 their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven air tankers that are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Neptune was not selected, and filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office.

The protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30 when actual signed contracts were finally issued to three companies for three air tankers:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

Neptune dropping the protest means contracts will be awarded for the other four air tankers that were left in limbo.

This announcement that contracts will be actually issued for the remaining four air tankers comes 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for these “next generation” air tankers. In the quote above, the USFS describes this as “modernizing our fleet in the quickest manner possible as we face the prospect of a challenging wildfire season”.

If all seven of these air tankers actually become certified, it will bring the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts up to 16, which is 28 fewer than in 2002.

However only one of the seven aircraft selected on May 6 is fully approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) to drop retardant on wildfires. That one is 10 Tanker’s DC-10, which has been busy for the last week working on fires in California and New Mexico. The contracts specify that the aircraft be fully certified within 90 days, but there is no guarantee that the other six air tankers can have their tank installations complete and pass the FAA and IATB tests within that time frame.

The original intent on May 6 before Neptune’s protest was to issue contracts to:

Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, and has operated air tankers for decades, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. A second Neptune BAe-146 was added a few weeks later.

The USFS said the five companies were originally selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.

We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.

We will be looking into this further to determine the motive for Neptune to withdraw their protest.

The first report of Neptune dropping the protest came from a reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette, Ryan Handy, based on Senator Udall’s information.