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:

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“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.

USFS to issue contracts for 3 next-gen air tankers

Tanker 910, a DC-10
Tanker 910, a DC-10, landing at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(Originally published at 11:15 a.m. MT, May 31, 2013; updated at 8:30 p.m., May 31, 2013)

The attorneys and U.S. Forest Service officials dealing with the contract protest that Neptune Aviation lodged when they were passed over for a next-generation air tanker contract have have decided that three of the seven line items on the solicitation are exempt from Neptune’s protest because the company did not bid on those line items. As a result, three companies were notified Thursday that they definitely will be issued five-year exclusive use contracts:

  • 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

The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.

The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.

The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.

The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.

The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.

It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.

Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.

USFS Chief Tidwell testifies about next-gen air tankers

USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, 5-22-2013In addition to talking about the C-27J in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell discussed at length the air tanker program, especially the contracting process for the next-generation air tankers.

During the hearing, which was primarily about the USFS budget, Senators Jack Reed (Rhode Island) and Jon Tester (Montana) asked many questions about the air tanker program. The entire hearing lasted almost two hours; you can watch a video of it HERE. You will see that there were three people in the audience, and only about five or six senators were present, out of the 30 that are members of the committee.

Chief Tidwell said he has the authority to override the protest filed by Neptune for being passed over for the next-gen air tanker contracts. If he does, it would be within the next couple of weeks and would be based on an “emergency” — a shortage of air tankers. On May 17 Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake.

In reading between the lines of Senator Testor’s statements and questions, he appeared to be chiding Chief Tidwell for not awarding any next-generation air tanker contracts to a particular business in his state, Neptune Aviation. Neptune has two BAe-146s with at least interim approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board, and two more that the company expects to have ready to go later this summer. Neptune did, however, receive contracts on the “legacy” air tanker solicitation for some of their P2Vs and one BAe-146. [UPDATE May 23, 3013; Neptune was recently able to add a second BAe-146 to the contract as “additional equipment”.]

I transcribed some sections of the dialog:

At 43:28, Tidwell: “We will have an adequate air tanker fleet this year. We are anticipating between 24 and 26 planes to be available. We currently have nine aircraft under what we call a legacy aircraft which is seven P2s plus two BAe-146As that are currently on contract. We are in the process of awarding contracts for seven more aircraft which we call our next generation which are the faster planes we are trying to move forward to, that carry larger payloads. In addition to that we continue to work with the Air Force and Air Force Reserve to make sure the MAFFS units, the C-130Js and Hs are available again this year as a backup. We’ve also taken steps to be able to work with Alaska and Canada to bring down their [Convair] 580 planes if we need those aircraft.

So based on everything we’re moving forward with this year I feel confident that we will have a set of aircraft that we can respond.

In addition to that we are anxious to see what the Air Force, the decision that they make, if the C-27s are surplus and they become available, and we would definitely like to have seven more of those aircraft to be part of our overall fleet. They would be government owned but contractor operated. We are moving forward to actually look at what it would take to take our MAFFS units and modify those to fit into the C-27s so if those planes become available that we will be able to move as quick as we can to build those MAFFS units for those C-27s. ”

Senator Jack Reed
Senator Jack Reed

(Senator Reed asked a question about next gen contracts. Are you confident that you will have those next-gen aircraft under contract and useful this fire season?)

Tidwell: “Mr. Chairman, we are working through the process of the contract for the next generation and we have received a protest, that we will work through that protest. I do have the authority to override that protest and as we go through the process I’ll make that determination to ensure that we have the aircraft we need to be able to respond to fires this year.

We estimate that with the C-27s it would cost about $3 million per aircraft to build the MAFFS units and then to make some changes on the aircraft to make them usable for our mission and take some of the military equipment and armor off those aircraft that is no longer needed for our mission.”

Senator Jon Tester
Senator Jon Tester

(At 1:03 Senator Tester asked about the status of the aircraft on the next-generation contracts:)

Tidwell: “Once we work through the protest and actually award the contracts it is our expectation that those contractors that have the new contract awards will have their planes ready to go withn 60 days for testing.”

(Senator Tester asked, after the tests, when will they “be ready to fly?”)

Tidwell: “It’s our expectation that when they complete the tests they will be ready to fly. The aircraft that are being considered they are all FAA certified already so there isn’t that problem, they don’t have to deal with that. So they have to get their tanking systems to be able to use our performance tests.”

Senator Tester asked if they took into consideration when evaluating the potential contractors if they would be ready to fly this summer. Tidwell said, yes, they were expected to be able to be ready in 60 days. The contingency plan, he said, is to bring down the [Convair] 580s from Canada and to use the MAFFS.)

Tidwell: “We’ve been asking for the C-27s so that we at least have part of our fleet that is government owned so there is a guarantee that we will have some aircraft. So this has been an ongoing problem with these contracted aircraft.”

Tester: “My problem is not with the contracted aircraft per se, and I’m not for privatizing government, but my problem is that there were better options on the table that could be taken up by the Forest Service from my perspective and they didn’t do it. And you know exactly what I’m saying and all that.”

Tidwell: “We have a set of procedures that we follow when we award contracts. I can guarantee that there has been a high level of oversight provided and the process of being able to protest and have another level of review, that’s the process that we have to follow. And because of that our folks go to great lengths to be able to make sure that we are making right decisions based on what the contractors provided us and we have to make our best decisions.”

Tester: “The bottom line is we need to get the biggest bang for the buck and I’m not sure that because of the fact that we don’t know if these planes are going to be operational or not, whether we got the best bang for the buck.”

Tidwell said that “within the next week or so” he will make a decision about overriding the protest or not.)

At 1:39, Tester questioned again whether the seven next gen aircraft have FAA certification. Tidwell said it is his understanding that six do, and one made some air frame modifications, so it may not have the FAA certification. Tester asked Tidwell to confirm and get back to him.

Tester asked about the status of the C-27 transfer. Tidwell said it is his understanding that the Air Force is doing a study to determine if they want to do the transfer or not. The study could be done by September.

Tidwell anticipates the payload of the C-27 to be 1,800 gallons. Maintenance would be contracted. He said it would cost between $21 and $26 million to convert seven C-27s into air tankers.

Colorado Senator calls for the government to override Neptune’s protest of air tanker contracts

Coulson's C-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q undergoing tank installation and inspections earlier this month in San Bernardino, California. Coulson photo.

A Colorado Senator wants the federal government to override a protest that could delay the acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers this fire season.

Following the May 6 announcement by the U.S. Forest Service of their intention to award exclusive use contracts to five companies for the use of seven air tankers over a five to ten year period, one of the companies that failed to receive an award, Neptune Aviation, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. Unless the GAO grants emergency authority, Neptune’s action could delay by up to 100 days, until August 26, the date by which the new contracts could take effect.

Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the GAO protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake:

…”Wildfire season is coming, and I refuse to force Colorado communities to watch as preventable and containable wildfires are allowed to threaten lives and homes simply because of contractors’ squabbles. Make no mistake about it: This is an emergency, and this shortsighted protest will leave the U.S. Forest Service with outdated, Korean War-era air tankers to fight modern mega-fires,” Udall said. “That’s why I am calling on the U.S. Forest Service to override the protest filed this week and move forward with its next-generation air tankers contracts. Lives and homes are at stake, and I refuse to stand idly by as red tape suffocates any chance of the U.S. Forest Service finally acquiring these much-needed air tankers.”

Following the contract awards earlier this month, Udall cautioned private contractors that “Needless and costly delays will leave the Forest Service to fight modern mega-fires in the coming months with Korean War-era planes.”

Neptune’s protest is the second time awards for next-gen air tankers have been protested. The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers 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 Carrierprotested 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. And on May 6, 2013 the USFS announced, again, their intention to award contracts.

The protest process worked during Round 2 for Coulson and 10 Tanker; they lost out in Round 1 and their protests led them to awards in Round 2. Neptune no doubt figures they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by their protest. The company has invested heavily in converting BAe-146s; conversions on two are complete and were used on fires in 2012. They have two others that they hoped to convert this year.

Neptune knows the contract protest backwards and forwards, since Ron Hooper, their CEO, as recently as November, 2010 worked for the U.S. Forest Service as the Director of Acquisition Management for the agency. His name is also mentioned in a summary of the 1987 U.S. Forest Service “airtanker scandal”. When qualified as a contracting officer, he reportedly made a determination after the transfer of the 28 aircraft to private companies that the transfer was void and they should be returned to the government. At the time Mr. Hooper was the staff assistant to the Forest Service Deputy Chief for Business Operations. (More information about a GAO bid protest.)

Neptune will have five P2Vs and one BAe-146 working this year under a new “legacy” air tanker contract announced in March.

Of the five companies that are slated to receive the new contracts for the faster, more dependable, and higher retardant capacity next-gen air tankers, only one has aircraft that are close to being ready to drop retardant on fires. 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers which carry 11,600 gallons have been used on fires for years and should be ready to go. The other vendors are still in the process of physically converting their aircraft into air tankers and then have several hurdles to overcome.

After the contracts are actually signed and awarded, the companies have 60-90 days to complete the process of outfitting their aircraft with a tank design; prove the tank design in a controlled environment (dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground); be issued a Federal Aviation Administration Type Certificate; develop a maintenance and inspection program (Structural Integrity Program) for use of the aircraft as an airtanker and receive approval of it from the FAA; and be approved for a field trial (dropping retardant on real fires) by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB).

It would be surprising if all seven of the aircraft can meet these requirements in the time allotted. Coulson Aircrane, which is slated to receive a contract for a C-130Q, appears to be the closest other than 10 Tanker’s DC-10. Coulson is installing a retardant tank designed by Aero Union that previously had been approved by the IAB, however Coulson made some modifications. And various models of C-130s have been used as air tankers for decades.

The other companies, Minden Air, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, are converting, respectively, a BAe-146, two MD87s, and two AVRO RJ85s, all of which may be using new tanking systems that have not been tested until this year, at least on those models of aircraft.

For example Aero Air, also known as Erickson Aerotanker, may have problems with retardant being ingested into the MD87 jet engines mounted behind the wings. Designing and installing new tank systems on aircraft that have never before been used as an air tanker, such as the MD87 and AVRO RJ85 can expose some challenges that have to be overcome.

The Colorado Springs Gazette also has an article about this issue.

 

Thanks go out to Matt & Kelly.

Retardant tank for the C-27J. And, is the Air Force buying more C-27s?

Retardant tank for Coulson C-130Q
Retardant tank, freshly painted, for Coulson Aviation’s C-130Q. Coulson photo

Coulson’s tank for their C-130Q

Coulson Aviation is putting the finishing touches on the 3,500-gallon retardant tank for their C-130Q, and they expect to roll it into the aircraft soon. Yes, it has wheels. Britt Coulson told Wildfire Today that they can install or remove it within 30 minutes. With or without the tank the air tanker can be pressurized. Without the tank, the C-130Q could be used for hauling cargo, or even smokejumpers, I suppose, if it were approved as a jumper platform.

Last week we posted an article, with photos, about the work the company is performing on the aircraft in a hangar in San Bernardino, California.

According to Mr. Coulson, the company bought from Aero Union “all the rights, engineering, and the drawings. We re-drew everything in Solidworks and re-designed the tank then manufactured it.” They are working with the USFS on the requirements for tests that involve dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground.

Use a similar tank for the C-27J?

Mr. Coulson said they are very interested in building tanks for the C-27J (an aircraft that the USFS may inherit from the Air Force) based on the same design, but scaled down to hold less retardant. He said the company responded to the U.S. Forest Service’s Request for Information posted in August to provide tanks for the aircraft, but the agency has not solicited for actual contract proposals yet. He believes the C-27J could carry somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 gallons in an internal gravity-fed tank. Not all knowledgeable aviation folks we have talked with are optimistic that it could carry that much of a load. We have heard 1,800 gallons mentioned, and my own estimate is 1,800 to 2,300, but I am no expert.

(UPDATE, May 20, 2013: It was pointed out to us that converting the military version of the C-27J into a civilian air tanker would result in thousands of pounds of hardware being removed, perhaps with 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of weight savings. This could increase the retardant capacity by as much as 450 gallons, raising our estimate of the tank size to 2,000 to 2,650 gallons. This assumes an internal, gravity-fed tank system. A pressurized design, like the military MAFFS, would have a much lower capacity, requiring tanks for compressed air, additional valves and piping, and an air compressor.)

The Air Force has decided they don’t want any of their five-year-old C-27Js. You have to wonder why an agency would want to give away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of almost-new aircraft.

Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, was quoted in the Missoulian Tuesday on the subject of the C-27J:

“We are still working with the Department of Defense to see if we can get up to seven C-27J Spartans,” Harbour said. “If we acquire those platforms, we would modify them so we could use them as a medium air tanker. They’re not the size that is going to be able to carry type 1, large air tanker-capacity tanks, but we think they’re a very capable platform.” The Spartan is an Italian-made turboprop-powered cargo plane. The U.S. Air Force has offered to transfer up to 14 of the planes free to the Forest Service. Harbour said the plane is capable of carrying smokejumpers, but has only had preliminary testing as a retardant bomber.

If the USFS does procure and convert the C-27Js into air tankers, they may choose to pay contractors to fly and maintain them, similar to the CAL FIRE model for their 23 S-2T air tankers. CAL FIRE’s current support contractors are DynCorp and Logistics Specialties Incorporated. DynCorp provides air tanker and airtactical plane pilot services, and all aircraft maintenance services. (All CAL FIRE helicopters are flown by CAL FIRE pilots, but maintained by DynCorp.) LSI provides procurement and parts management services.

Fire Aviation has learned that some USFS aviation personnel have talked informally with DynCorp about a government-owned, contractor-operated program. According to the Missoulian article, Neptune would also be interested in bidding on a contract to provide these services.

Is the Air Force buying more C-27Js?

And just to confuse the issue further, when I was searching FedBizOpps.gov for the USFS Request for Information about the C-27J retardant tanks, the search results included a Sources Sought Synopsis survey placed there by the Air Force May 10, 2013. The agency is looking for companies that can manufacture more C-27Js. While the military says they don’t want the ones they have, and are giving those away and saying good riddance, they are considering buying more. Their reasoning is, they are….

…contemplating procurement of C-27J aircraft, in accordance with Congressional language that states “The secretary of the Air Force shall obligate and expend funds previously appropriated for the procurement of C-27J Spartan aircraft for the purposes for which such funds were originally appropriated.”

Here’s an idea.

Instead of buying more C-27Js at $53 million each, contemplate instead, if it is economically feasible, designing and building some purpose-built air tankers to enhance our homeland security.

10 Tanker Air Carrier moving to Casper, Wyoming

Air Tanker 910, Rapid City
Air Tanker 910 at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The operator of the two DC-10 air tankers, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, will be moving their base of operations from Victorville, California, to Casper, Wyoming Rick Hatton, the CEO of the company announced today. The company’s headquarters will be at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport in central Wyoming. Mr. Hatton said, “This fantastic operational environment and its central location will allow improved response times to fires in the mountain west region.”

They expect to have both Tanker 910 and 911 available this year, one on an exclusive use contract and the second on a call when needed contract.

Tanker 911 spent some time last summer working out of Casper. One of the fires it worked on was just five miles from the airport. The remarkable photo below was taken on that fire, the Sheep Herder Hill Complex.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, drops on the Sheep Herder Hill Complex near Casper September 10, 2012. Photo by Alan Rogers, Casper Star-Tribune. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)
Tanker 911, a DC-10, drops on the Sheep Herder Hill Complex near Casper September 10, 2012. Photo by Alan Rogers, Casper Star-Tribune. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)

The status of 10 Tanker’s contract for a next-generation air tanker that was announced last week is uncertain, in light of the protest that is being lodged by Neptune Aviation. The company does not have a signed contract in hand yet, but if there are no problems, Mr. Hatton expects to have it in a matter of days. If the protest does delay the date when the DC-10 is allowed to begin work, or if the USFS has to start the contracting process over again for the third time, it could be many months before any of the seven next-generation air tankers are seen over fires.

This relocation of the company’s headquarters does not have anything to do with the U.S. Forest Service contracts. Regardless of where the agency decides to base the DC-10 on the exclusive use next-gen contract, the new home of the company will be Casper instead of Victorville.

Casper Air Tanker Base
Casper Air Tanker Base, showing two SEATs and a helicopter, August 17, 2012. Google Earth

There are at least eight tanker bases that can accommodate the DC-10 in the western United States with the existing layout of the reloading facilities, according to Pam Baltimore, an Acting Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington D.C. we talked with last year:

  • SBD – San Bernardino, CA
  • MCC – McClellen – CA (Sacramento)
  • MWH – Moses Lake, WA
  • BOI – Boise, ID
  • IWA – Mesa-Gateway, AZ (Phoenix)
  • HIF – Hill AFB, UT
  • HLN – Helena, MT
  • CPR – Casper, WY

Some other bases, such as Rapid City, can accommodate the DC-10 if a portable retardant base is set up. The existing ramp at the Rapid City Tanker Base is too cramped for a Very Large Air Tanker, but there is room on the west side of the terminal for it to be reloaded if a temporary base were set up at that location.

If the DC-10 has to travel farther between a reload base and a fire, that travel distance can be offset to a degree by the 564 mph cruising speed and the 11,600-gallon capacity, equal to about six loads in a P2V.

Neptune to protest next-generation air tanker contract awards

Neptune Aviation has announced that the company will lodge a protest with the Government Accountability Office over the contracts that the U.S. Forest Service intends to award for next-generation air tankers. On May 6 the USFS said they intended to give contracts to five companies for a total of seven air tankers to provide turbine or jet powered aircraft that can carry more retardant and fly faster than the Korean War vintage “legacy” air tankers such as the P2V that the federal wildfire agencies have been relying on for decades. Neptune did not receive one of the awards even though they have been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last several years.

When the next-gen contracts were announced May 6, the pilots of all five Neptune Aviation air tankers that were working and available for fire assignments walked away from their aircraft in California and New Mexico a little after noon. The aircraft were unstaffed until Tuesday morning. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, said it was done for safety reasons:

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.

This is not the first time contract awards for next-generation air tankers have been contested. The USFS began the contracting process for the newer air tankers November 30, 2011. Almost seven months later on June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, to provide a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrierprotested 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 for four months. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012. The second time the awards were announced last week was seven months after the second solicitation was issued and 523 days after the process first began. If the USFS has to go through a third round of solicitation due to this latest protest, the appearance of next-gen air tankers over wildfires will be delayed for many more months.

The two companies that filed protests following round 1, Coulson and 10 Tanker, both received awards after round 2, which may have given confidence to Neptune to try the same tactic and perhaps force a third round.

Neptune has invested heavily in four BAe-146 aircraft, retired airliners with more than 20 years of service. Two have been converted to air tankers, Tankers 40 and 41, and have interim approval from the Interagency Air Tanker board. But their retardant delivery performance has been criticized, since the last several hundred gallons of retardant does not exit the tanks quickly enough. Neptune thinks they have a fix for the problem and the next two BAe-146s being converted now, Tankers 10 and 01, will have an improved tanking system. They expect to begin drop tests with Tanker 10 no later than June 10 of this year, Ron Hooper, their Chief Executive Officer said. The company will retrofit the tanks in Tankers 40 and 41 with the new variant of the tank next winter. One of them is currently on the USFS legacy contract for this year.