Almost half of requests for air tankers were not filled in 2012

Requests for large air tankersNew data that the National Interagency Fire Center released about the 2012 wildfire season reveals that almost half, or 48 percent, of the requests for large air tankers could not be filled. Of the 914 requests, 438 were rejected as “unable to fill” (UTF), meaning no air tankers were available to respond to the fire; 67 were cancelled for various reasons. The requests that were filled included 346 for civilian contracted air tankers and 63 for military Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130s.

For additional perspective, consider that the number of requests for air tankers during the 2000 fire season was higher than the 13-year average between 2000 and 2012 — 548 requests vs. the average of 434, but in 2000 only 7 percent of them were UTF. In 2000 there were 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts compared to between 9 and 11 in 2012.

More acres burned in the United States in 2012 than average. At 9.3 million, it was the most since 2007. But the number of fires was surprisingly small, only 67,774 which is the lowest number since 2005.

The average number of fires in the lower 49 states each year is gradually decreasing, but the average size is increasing rapidly. This could be due to a number of factors, including climate, increased fuel loading (vegetation), reduced budgets, fewer firefighters, and not as many air tankers.

Average size of fires lower 49 states through 2012

One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service has allowed the air tanker fleet to atrophy may be a misguided attempt to save money. Fast, aggressive, initial attack on new fires can reduce the number of megafires that may burn hundreds of homes while costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in suppression costs alone. The 2002 Federal Aerial Firefighting Report, usually known as the “Blue Ribbon Panel Report”, addressed this issue:

While cost-saving is an essential contracting criterion, it appears to have displaced other, less-quantifiable criteria that call for more judgment and experience, such as value, safety records, and past performance. Pilots have sarcastically referred to this cost-focus philosophy as “budget protection” rather than “fire protection.” In contrast, a Canadian philosophy states, “We can’t spend too much the first day [of a fire],” seems to justify spending money on early containment of a fire, and doing so in an operationally effective way that minimizes the number of escaped fires. In the long run, the Canadians believe that they spend far less for a quick-response capability designed to contain small fires than they do to fight fires after they grow large.

It has has been 1 year, 2 months, and 24 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.

USFS Chief Tidwell: new contracts for air tankers within 2 months

Tanker 41
A next-generation air tanker, a BAe-146, at Neptune’s facility in Missoula, August 11, 2012. Wildfire Today photo.

UPDATE Feb. 25, 2013: The Associated Press reporter, Mead Gruver, who wrote the article referred to below, has expanded on his original fairly brief version. You can read the more complete article at the Billings Gazette.

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The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, called a reporter for the Associated Press Friday afternoon primarily to talk about air tankers. It has been 1 year, 2 months, and 22 days since the USFS issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers, but Chief Tidwell said he expects the agency to award the contracts in two months.

A representative of one of the companies that bid on the contracts was recently told by the USFS that the contracts would be awarded by the end of February.

After announcing on June 13, 2012 that the contracts would be awarded to four companies for a total of seven next-generation air tankers, the USFS had to cancel the process just before the contracts were signed due to protests by two companies that did not receive awards. The aircraft that almost received contracts were four BAe-146s, an AVRO RJ85 (a variant of a BAE-146), and two MD87s, operated by Minden, Neptune, Aero Air, and Aero Flite. Four months later the solicitation was reissued with 31 changes. It required responses by November 1, 2012.

All federal contracts for large and very large air tankers expired December 31, 2012 and none were on contract until this week when the USFS extended last year’s contracts. Neptune’s contract was extended through March 5 and Minden’s will expire again on April 22, according to Jennifer Jones of the agency’s office in Boise.

In addition to the new contracts for next-generation air tankers, the USFS still needs to make decisions about new contracts for the existing Korean War vintage “legacy” air tankers and very large air tankers. Bids on legacy tankers were due December 14, 2012. A pre-solicitation for call-when-needed (CWN) very large air tankers was issued February 19, 2013.

The 2012 wildfire season began with 11 large air tankers on federal exclusive use contracts. After two 50+ year old tankers crashed on June 3 killing two pilots, we were left with only 9, down from 44 in 2002. For a few months Neptune was able to get two airliners that had recently been converted to air tankers hired on temporarily. They were BAe-146s, designated as T-40 and T-41, bringing the total for a while back to 11.

Minnesota to contract for 3 helicopters

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has posted solicitations for firefighting helicopters at their bases in Cloquet, Princeton and Roseau. Here is an excerpt from their web site:

Service of a helicopter that is fully operated by qualified personnel, and equipped to meet specifications for use in administration, management and protection of lands from wildfire in Minnesota. The types of services which aircraft would generally be required to perform, but not restricted to are: Transportation of personnel, Equipment and supplies, Reconnaissance flights, Fire detection flights, Photography work involving, prolonged slow flight, Helicopter–bucket and fire missions, Administrative flying, Incident Support. Project Technical information contact: Bill Schuster at 218-327-4573.

 

Aero Air buys Butler, intends to convert 7 MD-87s into air tankers

Butler DC-7
Butler DC-7. Photo: Butler Aviation

Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, has purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick. Aero Air acquired Butler’s three DC-7 air tankers, support equipment, and spare parts in Madras, Oregon. They will take over the lease of Butler’s new city-owned hangar at the Madras Municipal Airport (map) as well as the contracts with the state of Oregon for the three air tankers. The company did not have a contract with the US Forest Service for the DC-7s.

Kevin McCullough, now the President of Aero Air, and Jack Erickson, founder and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, became co-owners of Aero Air in 1998 and since then have been growing the company. After Mr. Erickson sold Erickson Air-Crane to ZM Private Equity Fund in 2007, they began talking about getting into the air tanker business. A couple of years ago they decided to go with MD-87s and pulled together teams to develop a tank design and to handle obtaining the supplemental type certificate (STC)  from the FAA.

Erickson Aero Tanker's new Tanker 105
Erickson Aero Tanker’s Tanker 105. November 15, 2012 at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona. Photo by John Oram. (click to enlarge)

They have purchased seven MD-87s, most of them from SAS airlines, and the conversion process is 99 percent complete on one of them, Mr. McCullough told Wildfire Today on Tuesday. The parts for the others are being fabricated in Hillsboro where all of the conversion work will be done. The other six MD-87s are at Hillsboro, Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona (map), and Madras. Some of them have already been painted at Phoenix Goodyear prior to beginning the other modifications.

After the conversions are complete, Aero Air will conduct all of their air tanker operations out of the facilities in Madras that were formerly owned or leased by Butler. That branch of the company will be known as Erickson Aero Tanker, and that is what is being painted in large letters on the MD-87s, similar to the style of the lettering on the DC-10 and 747 very large air tankers.

The 4,000-gallon internal tanks will rely on gravity, rather than pressurized air, to force the retardant out of the tank. An MD-87 can cruise at 504 mph and is powered by two rear-mounted jet, or turbofan engines. The company has secured a block of air tanker numbers from the USFS, 101 through 112 — which is more than seven, you’re thinking. Right. Mr. McCullough told us that their long term plans are to operate 12 to 15 MD-87s.

Technicians from the USFS’ San Dimas Technology and Development Center have been at Aero Air this week checking the design of the tank system to determine if it is in compliance with the very extensive and complex requirements for federally-contracted air tankers. Aero Air has already done a static test, expelling water from the tank while the aircraft is on the ground, but more are scheduled. In the Spring they hope to pass the airborne retardant drop tests where the retardant is captured in hundreds of cups arranged in a grid pattern on the ground. If the STC and the approvals from the Interagency Air Tanker Board have positive results, there may be at least one MD-87 dropping on fires next summer.

Assuming… that the U.S. Forest Service completes the evaluation of the proposals from air tanker companies for “next generation air tankers” and awards a contract to Aero Air. The company, along with three others, was notified last Fall that they were going to receive contracts, but before the contracts were actually awarded and signed, two companies that were not slated to get contracts, 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson, protested, and the USFS halted the process. Months later they started over, amending the request for proposal which then closed again in November. If the contracts had actually been awarded, Aero Air would have been expected to provide two MD-87s beginning in 2013. The other companies that almost got contracts were Neptune for BAe-146s, Minden for BAe-146s, and Aero-Flite for an Avro RJ85, a derivative of the BAe-146.

 

Thanks go out to Scott and Jeff

Two air tankers still on active duty

Tanker 48 at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21
Tanker 48 at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(Revised at 7:37 a.m. MT, December 4, 2012)

The mandatory availability periods for the nine large air tankers on national contracts ended in August, September, and October, but two P2Vs are still working today due the warm, dry weather that some areas of the country are experiencing. Tanker 48, operated by Minden, and Neptune’s Tanker 43 are the two that are working on a day by day basis through “optional use” provisions in their contracts, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise.

Air tankers were requested early Saturday morning, December 1, for the rapidly spreading Fern Lake Fire that was moving toward structures west of Estes Park, Colorado. Fire managers were told that the only large air tankers sill working were in California but were unavailable due to weather in the Bay Area, according to David Eaker, a spokesperson for the Fern Lake Fire.

Today two large air tankers were supposed to be parked on the ramp at JEFFCO air tanker base northwest of Denver after being ferried in from California, but only one made it, Tanker 48. The other one, Tanker 43 had to stop in Durango, Colorado, unable to climb over the continental divide due to weather. We’re thinking the old P2V does not have de-icing equipment.

If the USFS is going to keep air tankers working into the winter, maybe a better choice of which ones to keep on would be a couple of the BAe-146s, which I assume have de-icing equipment.

The one tanker at JEFFCO, 48, has not been used on the Fern Lake Fire yet due to strong winds over the fire. Mr. Eaker told Wildfire Today that they may be used very soon to pretreat some areas where large burnouts are planned, thanks to improving weather forecasts indicating decreasing winds.

Tanker 43 was responsible for closing the Rapid City Airport for 40 minutes on June 20 when an engine failure on takeoff resulted in the crew jettisoning the 2,000-gallon load of retardant on two runways and a taxiway.

Tanker 43 landing at Rapid City Air Tanker Base
Tanker 43 landing at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

 

(This article was edited to reflect the fact that one of the air tankers was delayed ferrying to JEFFCO. Thanks Rob.)

Petition drive organized to hire the DC-10 air tankers

DC-10 departing McClellan
DC-10, Tanker 911, departing McClellan. Photo by Nate Allen

The managers of the Facebook page for the DC-10 air tankers have organized a petition drive designed to convince the US Forest Service to award a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that owns the aircraft.

We checked, and the way the petition works is that you complete a form at the site, submitting your name, address, and email address. You can edit the text if you want, part of which includes this:

…For the health of our forests and the safety of our citizens, I urge you to offer a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier….

Then it is converted to an email that is sent to Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS at his publicly listed email address. Your name and address will appear in the signature of the message.

10 Tanker Air Carrier will retain your name and email address and may use it, according to the company, to “send an e-blast no more than once/month with news, updates etc. Supporters can unsubscribe at any time. Contact information is kept strictly confidential and will NOT under any circumstances be shared or sold to any other party.”

The most recent request for proposal (RFP) for exclusive use contracts for next-generation air tankers had a response due date of November 1, 2012 and awards based on the submissions could be announced within the next few months. So while the USFS is pouring over the submissions from the air tanker companies, 10 Tanker Air Carrier hopes to influence the decisions that are being made by the federal government either on that RFP or those that may be issued in the future.

It does not appear that the USFS will award any contracts for very large air tankers (VLAT) like the DC-10 on this most recent RFP and will most likely limit the awards to smaller “next-generation” air tankers that have a capacity of 2,400 to 5,000 gallons. However the agency has issued a “request for comments” on a draft VLAT RFP for call when needed aircraft only. The two DC-10s operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier carry 11,600 gallons.

The US Forest Service has not been interested in offering long-term exclusive use contracts for very large air tankers like the DC-10 or 747, and have only made call when needed contracts available.

Australia to contract for aerial resources

NAFCThe National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia intends to award new contracts for helicopters and fixed wing aircraft for fighting wildfires. Over the next few months they will be accepting tenders or requests for proposals for:

  • Type 1 (High Volume) rotary wing firebombing services
  • Type 1, 2, and 3 rotary wing services
  • Type 4 fixed wing firebombing services
  • A number of other specialist aircraft services, including intelligence gathering
  • A small number of conventional light fixed wing aircraft services for reconnaissance
  • Very Large airtankers
  • Type 1 and 2 multi-engine airtankers
  • Scooping or self-filling fixed-wing aircraft
  • Proposals to supply data integration services for AFAMS – the national aircraft tracking and event logging system

The request for proposals for very large air tankers is a little surprising after their experiment during the 2009-2010 fire season. After that trial the Aussies were not entirely pleased with the overall performance of a DC-10, however most of the problems were a result of insufficient skill on the part of the crew, rather than the aircraft — for example dropping far too low or completely missing a target. The first pilots who flew the DC-10 very large air tankers had little or no previous experience flying air tankers when that program began. In the last two to three years they have gained a quite a bit more experience flying low and slow over mountainous terrain and have a good reputation in the United States. The two DC-10s have proven to be a reliable and valuable aviation asset.

Erickson Elvis in Victoria
File photo of Elvis in Victoria. Erickson photo.