Neptune air tankers shut down Monday

After the U.S. Forest Service announced on Monday morning their intention to award contracts for next-generation air tankers to five companies, the pilots of all five Neptune Aviation air tankers that were currently working and available for fire assignments walked away from their aircraft in California and New Mexico at about 12:30 p.m MT. The aircraft were unstaffed until Tuesday morning. Neptune did not receive one of the next-gen contracts even though they supplied all but one of the large air tankers on exclusive use contracts for the last one and a half years. The company did, however, receive contracts a few weeks ago for one BAe-146 and six  P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract.

One person who contacted Fire Aviation assumed that the pilots walking off the job was a protest about the fact that the company did not receive a next-gen contract.

We contacted Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, who told us the following:

Neptune decided, for safety reasons, to stand-down our contract fleet (plus flight training in MSO) due to the number of questions and concerns that were flooding into Missoula from the crews in the field. The decision was made with the USFS’s full knowledge and done in accordance with the current “Legacy Contract”. We were notified of the contract awards at the same time of the USFS press release. The timing of the two messages did not give us enough time to send out a notice to our employees of the USFS decision and what it meant to the company and employees. We did not want our crews worried about the company’s future, their jobs, BAe program, etc, instead of being 100% mission focused. We took the opportunity to get clear and concise information to them and allow for questions and concerns to be addressed.

Bottom line, no one was told to walk off the job in protest and to my knowledge no one did it independently.

The first attempt to award the next-gen contracts on June 13, 2012 was overturned after protests by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson Aviation, who did not receive awards, were upheld by the Government Accountability Office. We asked Mr. Snyder if they planned to protest this latest contracting process, and he told Fire Aviation that their company would make a decision about that after a debriefing from the U.S. Forest Service contracting officer.

In their news release, the USFS said the five successful bidders were 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. A person who is familiar with the air tanker contracting process told Fire Aviation that the reasons for not selecting Neptune for this latest next-gen award were most likely based on price and their accident history.

If Neptune submitted the same bid structure on this latest next-gen solicitation as they did the first time, their price, based on the total cost estimate for the 5-year base period, would have been higher than all of the successful bidders in round two, except for the proposal for the DC-10 from 10 Tanker, who based their bid on delivering 5,000 gallons, compared to Neptune’s BAe-146 with a maximum capacity of around 3,000 gallons. The DC-10’s bid allowed for options for the additional 6,600 gallons in their 11,600-gallon tank. The solicitation’s specification was for tankers delivering between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. 10 Tanker shrewdly configured their bid to work within the constraints of the solicitation.

USFS announces contracts for next-generation air tankers

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87
Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service announced today they intend to award contracts to five companies for what the agency is calling “next-generation” air tankers, used for dropping water or fire retardant on wildfires.

The U.S. Forest Service expects to award exclusive use contracts to:

Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, 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. (See below for more information on the “legacy” aircraft contract).

The new next-gen contracts are for a base period of five years with five one-year options (a total of 10 years if all contract options are exercised).

In a press release the USFS said the contracts allow the companies to provide additional next generation air tankers in future years, contingent on funding and other circumstances…

…to reach the total of 18 to 28 recommended in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy that the Forest Service submitted to Congress in February 2012.

These new contracts for next-gen air tankers require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least  3,000 gallons.

The USFS said the five were 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.

The USFS said they plan to bring the seven next-gen air tankers into service over the next year. Most of these aircraft, except for the DC-10, are not ready to drop retardant on fires. Some are still being converted from airliners into air tankers, have not passed the drop tests required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, or they do not have an FAA Type Certificate. Even if the progress on some of these air tankers goes as the companies optimistically hope, it could be months before they are seen dropping retardant over a fire.

The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers 523 days ago on November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012.

These next-generation air tankers can fly faster, should be more reliable, and can carry more retardant than the “legacy” P2V air tankers that were designed in the 1940s for maritime patrol. The Korean War vintage P2Vs have two 18-cylinder radial piston engines with many moving parts, requiring more maintenance than the turbine or turbofan engines of these newer aircraft. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000 gallons of retardant and can cruise at 225 mph.

On March 28, 2013 the USFS announced that contracts were awarded to Neptune Aviation and Minden Air, for what the agency called “legacy” air tankers. Exclusive use contracts were awarded to Minden for one P2V and to Neptune for six P2Vs and one BAe-146. These contracts are for six to eight aircraft over the next five years, when optional years for various line items are considered.

The USFS expects legacy air tankers to continue to be part of the fleet until there are adequate numbers of next generation large air tankers.

With the 7 contracts for next-gen air tankers announced today, plus the 8 legacy contracts, this will make 15 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts if and when the 7 next-gen aircraft are converted and obtain approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and the FAA. In addition, the government can call up 8 military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers.

The USFS still has not announced new contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10 or 747, which expired December 31, 2012. However, and surprisingly, one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s received a contract on this new next-gen solicitation. The agency had extended the call-when-needed contract for the DC-10 while they struggled with issuing new contracts. There have been no contracts for the 747 “Supertanker” operated by Evergreen in recent years.

Below are the specifications for air tankers that we compiled, including some aircraft being considered for conversion into air tankers. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Air Tanker Specifications

 

Aviation briefing, March 31, 2013

Coulson’s C-130 conversion in San Bernardino

Coulson's C-130 Taxiing
Archive photo of Coulson’s C-130 taxiing before the conversion. Coulson photo.

The Press-Enterprise has an article about the air tanker conversion that Coulson is working on at the San Bernardino, California airport, converting into an air tanker what the article identifies as a C-130Q. According to the article test flights are scheduled to begin in April. Coulson is hoping to receive a next-generation air tanker contract for the aircraft.

Wildfire Today first wrote about Coulson’s C-130 April 9, 2012.

Santa Maria reduces air tanker landing fees

The Santa Maria Public Airport 55 miles north of Santa Barbara, California has reduced the landing fees charged to air tankers using the airport. An article in the Santa Maria Times says the fees will be reduced from $1 per 1,000 pounds to 50 cents per 1,000 pounds. In addition to this fee, firefighting aircraft have to pay ramp handling fees and fuel flowage fees.

After being downgraded to a call-when-needed air tanker base for three years, the Los Padres National Forest in October, 2011 restored it to full-time status during the fire season.

Contracts for next-generation air tankers

Late in the day last Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for eight “legacy” air tankers, which included seven P2Vs and one BAe-146. Some people within the agency thought contracts for next-generation air tankers would also be announced last week, but that did not happen. The USFS is probably bending over backwards this time in an attempt to minimize the chances of the awards being protested again. Last summer after the awards were announced but not yet finalized, two companies that were not slated to receive contracts filed protests, which sent the agency back to the drawing board, starting the process over again after making dozens of changes in the solicitation.

It has been 487 days since the USFS began the solicitation process for next-generation air tankers.

Forest Service announces contracts for legacy air tankers

(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MT, March 28, 2013; updated at 2:15 p.m. March 28, 2013)

On Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service awarded contracts to two companies for what they are calling “legacy” air tankers, for a total of eight aircraft in 2013. Minden will receive a contract worth $17.1 million and Neptune’s contract will total $180 million.

Minden will have their Tanker 48, a P2V, working under this new contract for one year, with options for four additional years, according to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the USFS in Boise.

Dan Snyder, President of Neptune Aviation, told Fire Aviation today that their company will have five P2Vs on contract for five years. Two other Neptune aircraft, one P2V and one BAe-146, will have a one-year fixed contract, with options for four additional years.  The optional years will be totally up to the USFS — if they have the need, desire, and the funds, they could activate the additional years, one at a time.

These awards mean that the USFS will have eight air tankers working this year under this “legacy” contract. Beginning in 2014 if the optional years are not activated, there will be six, if the information we have been provided is correct.

Mr. Snyder said they expect to have their signed contract in their hands within the next two days.

We attempted to talk to Tim Christy, Director of Flight Operations for Minden, but he was unavailable. Minden had one P2V on contract last year after their other one, Tanker 55, was damaged June 3 while landing on disabled landing gear, the same day that Neptune’s Tanker 11 crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots. For the last two or three years Minden has been working on converting a BAe-146 into an air tanker.

We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contract awards for next-generation air tankers powered by turbine, turbofan, or jet engines. That solicitation was first issued 484 days ago. Recently U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers.

Also pending are contract awards for very large air tankers, such as a DC-10 or 747, which can carry 11,600 and 20,000 gallons, respectively. The P2Vs usually hold about 2,000 gallons while the BAe-146 has a 3,000 gallon capacity. The P2V cruises at about 225 mph. The BAe-146 more than doubles that speed, at 498 mph.

While it may seem surprising that a jet-powered BAe-146 received a contract through a solicitation for “legacy” air tankers, Mr. Snyder of Neptune said they were allowed to put any air tanker they wanted on their proposal as long as it met the specs in the solicitation. He said the USFS was looking more at cost than technical specifications, and wanted “best value”.

Neptune still has the two fully operational BAe-146 next-generation air tankers that worked on fires in 2012, Tankers 40 and 41. They will operate them for one more season, Mr. Snyder said. After they they may be modified. The company is also finishing the conversions of two more BAe-146s that will have a much improved tanking system that Mr. Snyder said will fix some of the issues uncovered in their first two converted aircraft, including trail-off of retardant, consistency, and constant flow. The new systems will still hold approximately 3,000 gallons, but the exact capacity has not been determined. The tanks will be internal, and from the outside will look very similar to Tankers 40 and 41. But the redesign is so different that the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) is requiring that they go through the expensive grid tests, in which retardant is dropped over a grid of hundreds of containers to determine the consistency and volume of the retardant when it reaches the ground. Neptune is negotiating with the IATB on the date and location of the test. If the IATB certifies the new tank design, Mr. Snyder expects that Neptune’s third and fourth BAe-146s could be available in the Spring or early Summer.

Availability of air tankers

Air Tanker contract dates-2012
Mandatory availability periods for large exclusive use air tankers in 2012. Data from NIFC, chart by Wildfire Today. (Click to enlarge)

We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contracts for air tankers this year. Above is a chart showing the mandatory availability periods for large air tankers in 2012. We made it last year after the two aircraft crashed on June 3.

It was 483 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded. The USFS is also considering contracts for legacy and very large air tankers.

 

Update on air tanker contracting process

 

It was 482 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded in spite of the fact that all previous contracts for federal large and very large air tankers expired in December. The old contracts for a few air tankers were temporarily extended early in 2013 to provide some coverage.

Obviously the Forest Service is long overdue in awarding the contracts for legacy, next-generation, and very large air tankers. Fire season has been going on for several weeks in the south and the southwest, and Red Flag Warnings for enhanced fire danger have been common. Usually the tankers start coming on duty in mid-February.

There have been some indications that the Forest Service will announce contract awards this week for legacy air tankers, perhaps as early as Wednesday. But don’t hold your breath.

The privately owned air tanker companies, in order to remain alive in this industry, have to have nerves of steel and balls of titanium. They have to invest millions in the aircraft, deal with the FAA, pass a very expensive certification process required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, hope that Congress and the President appropriate enough money to fund a viable air tanker program, and then maybe, MAYBE receive a contract. And the contracting process is very daunting. Here is an example of a question from a potential bidder for a legacy contract, and an “answer” from the U.S. Forest Service:

Question: The response to question 44 in Response to Questions to the Draft Solicitation is confusing …. Please confirm that this RFP is only for legacy airtankers as defined by the “large Airtanker Modernization Strategy’.

Answer: The “Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” states that Legacy Airtankers are airtankers such as P-2V Neptunes, P-3 Orions, and Convair CV-580s. However, the strategy provides no formal definition of a Legacy Airtanker. This solicitation was developed around the specifications of the Legacy type airtankers as identified above. There is no specifically defined criterion that specifically defines a Legacy airtanker. Next generation type (again no formal definition) aircraft or any type of aircraft may be offered and may be awarded under this solicitation as long as they meet the specifications identified in the solicitation.

 

Report: contracts to be awarded for 7 next-gen air tankers

Tanker_41
A next-generation air tanker — one of Neptune’s BAe-146s, Tanker 41, at Missoula, August 11, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.

According to a report in Friday’s Durango Herald, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers. Secretary Vilsack was responding to a letter Senator Udall sent to the Secretary in January requesting an update on the modernization of the federal air tanker fleet.

The U.S. Forest Service first issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers 479 days ago but no contracts have been signed. The contracts were almost awarded last summer but were held up by protests that two unsuccessful bidders filed. The solicitation was reissued in October of 2012 but no results have been announced. It is possible that even after the USFS makes their decision about potential awards, there will be an additional 30-day delay while Congress is notified. The USFS is also overdue in announcing awards for “legacy air tankers”, the old P2Vs, the contracts for which expired December 31, 2012. Since there were no large air tankers on contract when this new year began, the agency temporarily extended the contracts for a few of the P2Vs. The call when needed contracts for very large air tankers, such as the DC-10, also expired last year and has not been renewed.

In 2012 the USFS only had 9 to 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This is in contrast to the 44 on contract in 2002. The agency has paid for eight studies about the use of air tankers since 1995, some of which recommended that 30, 40, or more are needed.

Next-generation air tankers will eventually replace the Korean War vintage P2V aircraft currently being used. They will be turbine-powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and preferably have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant.

Colorado lawmakers push for the state to develop aerial firefighting fleet

A few hours before the 800-acre Galena Fire started on Friday west of Fort Collins, Colorado, two state lawmakers were quoted as saying they were going to introduce a bill in the legislature directing the state to develop their own aerial firefighting fleet. According to the Coloradoan, soon after the fire started before noon on March 15 firefighters requested air tankers but none were available.

Senators Steve King and Cheri Jahn plan to introduce a bill this week that would create a program similar to those in the states of California and Oregon which have their own fleets of aerial firefighting assets.

“We are pushing our luck when we think that the federal government will come flying in to save Colorado when it’s burning,” Senator King told 7NEWS.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Denver’s CBS4 which was published at 9:54 a.m. on March 15 just before the Galena Fire started:

“People have said ‘Oh my gosh, how in world will you ever pay for that? Oh my gosh, how can you make this?’ You know what, we can either keep saying that for the years to come or we can take hold of it and say ‘This incredible idea and we need to figure out how to make it work,’ ” Jahn said.

One idea is to make it a public-private partnership.

“Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on tail of slurry bomber?” King said.
If the state were unrestrained by federal rules, pilots of state air tankers might be able to do night drops sometimes, which federal pilots don’t do now.

“We have night vision goggles. We have GPS. We have all sorts of technology that the federal government does not even recognize or allow their firefighters to use,” King said.

When the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted in Colorado Springs last year there were 29 other large fires burning throughout the country and nine large air tankers to fight them all. With 4 million acres of dead trees in Colorado, the danger of another waldo canyon isn’t going away.

UPDATE: We started a contest for Photoshopped images of aircraft with advertising.