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.

Status of air tankers, March 13, 2013

Minden's T-48
Minden’s T-48 at Rapid City air tanker base during the Myrtle Fire, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

When all of the U.S. Forest Service air tanker contracts expired on December 31, 2012, that left the agency without any when the new year rolled around.

To temporarily fill the gap, the USFS has extended the expired contracts for Minden and Neptune through April 22. Today there are three P2V’s working. Minden’s T-48 is at Porterville, CA, Neptune’s T-07 is at Lake City, FL and Neptune’s T-44 is at Alamogordo, NM.

It has been 469 days since the agency issued the solicitation for next-generation air tankers but no contracts have been awarded. Also pending are solicitations for legacy and very large air tankers.

The USFS has told at least one air tanker vendor that they expect some of the new contracts to be announced either this week or next. We are checking to see if a 30-day waiting period will be required after the announcement while Congress is notified. The last time the USFS announced their intention to award contracts, last summer, Congress passed a bill that eliminated the waiting period for those contracts because of the shortage of air tankers. And then later the USFS had to cancel the almost-signed contracts after unsuccessful bidders lodged protests. There is a good chance there will be more protests the next time contracts are awarded.

Senator suggests possibility of ignoring air tanker protests, 10 Tanker issues statement

10 Tanker Air Carrier issued a statement Monday on their Facebook page about the bid protests that they, along with Coulson, filed over the contracts for next generation air tankers that the U.S. Forest Service announced that they were going to award last summer. The company has two DC-10 air tankers that carry 11,600 gallons of retardant, about six times more than a P2V, but they were not going to receive exclusive use contracts for the aircraft. The USFS had to cancel the process just before the contracts were signed. Four months later the solicitation was reissued with 31 changes, requiring responses by November 1, 2012.

The DC-10 air tankers have received excellent reviews from firefighters and aviation managers, but the USFS has in the past only offered them call when needed contracts, meaning they may or may not be used at all, and if they were, it would be intermittently.

10 Tanker’s statement appears to be partially in response to Colorado Senator Mark Udall’s remarks on the issue Thursday, in which he suggests that the protests may be ignored (emphasis added):

Mark Udall, who serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged private contractors to respect the U.S. Forest Service’s upcoming decision to award contracts to several U.S. companies to supply next-generation air tankers. Protests and challenges of past contract awards have already delayed the Forest Service’s acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers — which Udall championed last year. Additional protests could leave Colorado and the West without these tanker resources for the 2013 wildfire season.

“Air tankers are critical firefighting resources that can save lives and prevent small blazes from becoming catastrophic wildfires,” Udall said. “When I met with Northern Colorado firefighting and emergency-management officials this week, they all agreed that we need to ensure that Colorado and the Forest Service have the resources they need to fight fires now. If contractors continue to challenge agency decisions, I will urge the Forest Service to use its emergency authorities to override the challenges and finalize the tanker contracts as soon as possible. Colorado cannot wait.

Below is the text from 10 Tanker’s statement:

A widely published Associated Press article recently related the story of the long-term decline in the U.S. Forest Service’s aerial tanker fleet to the Next Generation Air Tanker solicitation bid protest last year by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and another bidder. Some members of Congress have expressed support for Forest Service to use emergency authorities to work around the bid protest. What the article omits and members of Congress may not realize is that it was the General Accountability Office (GAO) that found the 10 Tanker bid protest to be valid. That caused the US Forest Service to withdraw from the bid protest process, to amend the solicitation to correct its discriminatory issues, and to reissue the solicitation.

As you may know, GAO is the investigative arm of Congress “charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and payment of public funds.” As a part of that responsibility, GAO is also charged with handling bid protests, but they do not undertake that role unless there is obvious discrimination in an agency’s contract decisions. In this case, they found that the Forest Service used a decision process that discriminated against 10 Tanker Air Carrier. The issues involved cost basis in which 10 Tanker clearly offered the lowest cost per gallon of retardant delivered on fires, and also involved the USFS use of outdated, third party input that, had the well-known facts been used, would have been in 10 Tanker’s favor.

Had 10 Tanker’s bid been awarded, we could have provided the same protection to the public with four aircraft this 2013 wildfire season that is the equivalent of 15 – 16 competing aircraft that will not be available for use for several years.

10 Tanker wholeheartedly agrees that responsible leaders, including the Chief of the USFS, should use emergency procedures and resources to protect the public in an emergency. However, we discourage the declaration of an emergency as a means of providing a long-term solution to this on-going issue. We are confident it will be resolved within the next several months and thank you all for your support as we move closer to the upcoming fire season.

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It has has been 1 year, 2 months, and 25 days since the USFS first issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.