Update on single engine air tankers, fire season 2017

Above: SEATs 802 and 824 at Boise, July 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

When we discovered that the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts has been reduced this year by 18 percent, from 34 to 28, we started looking into the numbers of fixed wing air tankers.

The solicitation for EU Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) has closed and the award decision is in progress. According to Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land management, the agency that handles contracting for SEATs, the number of these aircraft on EU contracts is expected to be the same as in 2016 — 33 aircraft. Firm numbers will be available after the contracts are issued.

The Call When Needed (CWN) contracts for SEATs have already been awarded for 80 aircraft from 16 vendors, which is up from 67 aircraft in 2016. Mr. Eardley explained, “The increase in CWN aircraft available is due to increased capacity through new and existing vendors.”

We expect to have in the next few days information about large and very large air tankers on contract this year.

 

Forest Service to reduce the number of Type 1 helicopters on fire contracts

Above: Columbia BV-107 at Custer, SD July 31, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 7:12 p.m. MST March 3, 2017; updated with more details at 10:43 a.m. MST March 4, 2017)

The U.S. Forest Service is reducing from 34 to 28 the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

On February 26, 2016 the USFS issued exclusive use contracts to 13 companies for a total of 34 Type 1 firefighting helicopters. The contracts were initially effective for one year, through April 30, 2017, with the possibility of three one-year renewal option periods.

Six of those helicopters are not being renewed. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said those six ships are two K-MAX BK-1200’s, two Boeing Vertol 107’s, and two CH-54A’s (Air-Crane type helicopters).

Siller Helicopters CH-54A H-781 fire
A Siller Helicopters CH-54A (H-781); a Type 1 helicopter. Photo by Siller.

This list shows the helicopters that are being cut along with the administrative base and operator for each aircraft.

  1. Prineville, Oregon (BK-1200) Swanson Group Aviation
  2. Helena, Montana (BK-1200) Central Helicopters
  3. Hamilton, Montana (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  4. Custer, South Dakota (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  5. Lancaster, California (CH-54A) Siller Helicopters
  6. Minden, Nevada (CH-54A) Helicopter Transport Services

Type 1 helicopters are frequently moved around depending on fire danger and incident activity and are often not at their home base.

Type 1 helicopters are the largest that are used for firefighting and can carry from 700 to 2,500 gallons of water. They can be extremely effective in assisting firefighters on the ground if they are prepositioned in order to be quickly available on initial attack. They are also very helpful in support of fire crews on extended attack when building line with hose lays or hand tools, allowing ground personnel to work closer to the fire’s edge. Reducing this capability could allow fires to grow larger or escape initial attack.

Continue reading “Forest Service to reduce the number of Type 1 helicopters on fire contracts”

Contract possibilities for U.S. air tankers in the southern hemisphere

Above: Neptune’s Tanker 03 parked near several portable water tanks at Concepción, Chile February 4, 2017. Neptune Aviation photo.

Air tankers in the United States and Canada usually spend four to seven months each year parked, not turning a wheel, prop, or turbine. While they sit idle, there can be wildfires raging in South America and Australia, where their fire seasons are opposite of the those in the northern hemisphere. Of course the air tanker operators know this and in some cases are pursuing those opportunities.

Three companies have a total of four air tankers on the second year of a two-year “trial” contract in Australia — Conair, 10 Tanker, and Coulson. Word on the street ramp is that Victoria and New South Wales will issue more contracts for large air tankers before the 2017-2018 summer fire season arrives in September or October.

The first time use of large and very large air tankers in Chile over the last 30 days may have opened another market, as the 747, BAe-146, and a Russian IL-76 all demonstrated that they can be effective even without a supporting air tanker infrastructure in the country.

When we saw an article on a Chilean website inferring that their government had reached an agreement with Global Supertanker to facilitate the use of the 747 Supertanker in the country, it got our attention. Wondering if it was fake news, we checked with Jim Wheeler the CEO and President of the company, who told us that while they have been in talks with government officials, nothing yet is final or signed, and used the term “pending contract”. One of the objectives of an agreement, if reached, would be to ensure a fairly fast arrival after being mobilized. Following wheels up at Colorado Springs, the home base of the aircraft, it can fly non-stop to Santiago in 10 hours.

Clouding the issue in Chile is the contracting and political climate. In recent weeks high-ranking government officials there have issued conflicting statements about the effectiveness of the air tankers, at times saying they are valuable and at other times the opposite. All of this has to be analyzed knowing some background information about aerial firefighting in Chile.

Most of the firefighting aircraft that have been used for years in Chile, the single engine air tankers (SEATs) and helicopters, have been made available through contracts with private companies based in Europe. Officials from two of the companies were accused in Spain of contract collusion and international bribery among other crimes, according to a report by Ahora Noticias, a Chilean publication. In light of those problems, there has been pressure in Chile to investigate their contracting procedures for aircraft.

The publication interviewed a consultant in disaster management, Rodrigo Reveco, who implied that a cozy relationship between the companies and the Chilean non-profit organization that has a hand in managing emergency operations, may help explain why there was a reluctance to bring in aerial firefighting assets from other companies evan as the disastrous wildfire conditions worsened in December.

With this issue fermenting in the background, it can be difficult to predict the future of large, expensive firefighting aircraft in the country.

 

Companies providing aerial firefighting resources in Chile accused of collusion in Spain

At least two companies that have received contracts for providing firefighting air tankers and helicopters in Chile have been accused in Spain of collusion and international bribery among other crimes, according to a report by Ahora Noticias. Below is an excerpt from their article; it is very roughly automatically translated by Google:

Collusion, influence peddling, bribery and international bribery, among other crimes, have led to the investigation of the companies of Faasa, Inaer and Martínez Vidau in order to discover how they managed to win several public competitions.

The publication interviewed a consultant in disaster management, Rodrigo Reveco, who implied that a cozy relationship between the companies and the Chilean non-profit organization that has a hand in managing emergency operations, may help explain why there was a reluctance to bring in other aerial firefighting assets as the disastrous wildfire conditions worsened in December.

Chile has wildland fire suppression organizations and procedures that are very different from those in, for instance, the United States. There is no one governmental agency that has the authority, responsibility, and resources to manage wildfires. Recently the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, said via Twitter that she would recommend legislation to create a national forest agency.

The organization that deals most closely with fires in Chile is CONAF.

From Wikipedia:

The National Forest Corporation or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal) is a Chilean private, non-profit organization, through which the Chilean state contributes to the development and sustainable management of the country’s forest resources. CONAF is overseen and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture of Chile.

It administers the forest policies of Chile and promotes the development of the sector with sustainable forest management.

CONAF and ONEMI, the National Office of Emergency of the Interior Ministry, according to Ahora Noticias have awarded contracts to the private companies for helicopters and Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) used on fires in Chile. From Ahora Noticias (again, a very rough auto-translation by Google):

These companies have been operating in Chile for years and have won millions of tenders from Conaf, Onemi and major national private companies. In Spain and after a long investigation of justice, its managers were arrested and the modus operandis of these firms were established, which, according to the judicial investigation, were coordinated among themselves to distribute the state tenders, agree prices and conditions Of presentation and also mechanisms of bribery to public officials to adjudicate the licitations, by means of payments, gifts and favors.

Among the antecedents seized, the Spanish justice system found a series of e-mails that report similar practices on the part of these companies, in Spain, as well as in Italy, Portugal and Chile. Correos between executives who speak of agreeing prices, sharing the market and conditions of presentation to the tenders, among others.

Neither the government or CONAF committed any funds for the use of the 747 SuperTanker. Up to now it has been completely funded by private organizations, Ben Walton and his wife Lucy Ana (of WalMart) and Luksic, a Chilean business consortium.

A Chilean Senator, Manuel Jose Ossandón, called for the resignation of the director of CONAF. From Ahora Noticias (translated):

Asked about his expectations after the news broadcast in Ahora Noticias, the former RN said that ” I hope that a deep investigation is made of what is happening and that it is clarified because we are already accustomed to acts of corruption.”

In that sense, he deepened that “the director of the Conaf has to step aside and also the previous director, Mr. (Eduardo) Vial, has to explain in this regard, ” referring to the first contracts between the State and These companies that date of the year 2011, that is to say, during the government of Sebastián Piñera.

ISSUU has an article about FAASA, a Spain-based company that provides under contract firefighting helicopters and SEATs to Chile. The company employs over 300 personnel including 100 pilots and operates 65 aircraft. During the South American summer they move five AT-802s and 21 helicopters to Chile.

One of FAASA’s SEATs crashed in Chile on December 28, 2016 killing the pilot, Ricardo García-Verde Osuna, 47.

This year will likely be the farewell tour for P2V air tankers

Above: A P2V air tanker on final approach at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Updated at 8:50 a.m. MST January 12, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service expects to issue a new round of Exclusive Use and Call When Needed air tanker contracts in the “near future”. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the agency, said they plan to solicit proposals for Next Generation 3.0 Exclusive Use and 2.0 Call When Needed air tankers. Next Generation 3.0 is intended for operations in 2018 and Call When Needed 2.0 is for this fire season.

It is very unusual for the USFS to begin a contracting process more than a year before the expected mandatory availability period (MAP). In recent years they have attempted to award the contracts only a few months before the aircraft are needed to begin work. The first Next Gen contract, V1.0, was awarded 550 days after being advertised.

In 2015 we wrote:

The USFS should get their [stuff] together and advertise the solicitation, not the Request for Information, at least one year before the mandatory availability period. Top quality air tankers, crews, and maintenance personnel can’t be magically produced out of thin air.

So this Next Gen 3.0 being advertised about 14 months before the expected MAP is a huge step in the right direction — but only if it takes much less than 550 days to make the awards.

The current “Legacy” Exclusive Use contract issued in March, 2013 under which seven air tankers operated by Neptune Aviation are working includes six P2Vs and one BAe-146. It expires at the end of this year. Dan Snyder, President of the company, told us that as far as he knows there are no plans for the USFS to issue any more contracts for which the Korean War vintage aircraft could qualify — the P2Vs can’t meet the specifications for Next Gen air tankers.

So this year will likely be the farewell tour for the P2Vs. Take pictures while you still can.

The last CWN and Exclusive Use contracts allowed very large air tankers such as the DC-10 to qualify. If that continues to be the case in this next round of contracts there could be a 747 and possibly more DC-10s in the sky. Currently two DC-10s are on Exclusive Use contracts and third on CWN worked for much of the 2016 fire season. Last week the 747 SuperTanker received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board.

And speaking of Neptune, Mr. Snyder said that by the time the Next Gen 3.0 contract is in effect next year they will have a total of nine BAe-146s fully converted and available. The ninth one arrived at their facility in Missoula on November 20, 2016.

In addition to their air tanker business, Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the C-23B Sherpas the USFS received from the U.S. Army which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.

Neptune has completed the work on three Sherpas and has started on a fourth. They “woke up” or serviced an additional seven that were in long term storage to make them flyable again.  A timetable for converting those seven will be determined by the USFS, who expects to use the Sherpas to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

Air Force awards contract to install retardant systems on USFS HC-130H air tankers

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design that will be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard.

After a solicitation process that dragged on for almost two years, the U.S. Air Force has awarded the contract to build and install retardant delivery systems for up to seven of the seven HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. 

The Coulson Group announced today that they received the contract. In one sense this is not unexpected because the company has installed and successfully operated two similar systems in C-130s — Tanker 131 and Tanker 132. In another sense, it is a surprise after the Government Accountability Office denied the company’s protest of the terms of the request for proposals in August of 2015.

C-130 retardant tank unload
Coulson’s retardant tank being removed or installed in one of their air tankers, T-131, in 2013. Coulson photo.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to work with the United States Air Force to provide them with state of the art retardant aerial delivery systems (RADS) for their fleet of C-130s,” says Wayne Coulson, CEO and President of Coulson Aviation.

The 3,800-gallon (3,500 gallons dispensable payload) retardant system will be gravity-based with retardant tanks that can be quickly removed, making it possible for the air tankers to also haul cargo or passengers.

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft began working out of McClellan Air Field near Sacramento last summer. Since it did not have a permanent retardant tank it borrowed one of the Forest Service’s eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that can be inserted into the cargo hold of a military C-130 to provide a surge capacity of air tankers during a time of heavy wildfire activity. The MAFFS pump the 3,000 gallons of retardant out of a pipe through the door using compressed air, rather than letting it drop out of the belly with the assistance of gravity as is done with conventional air tankers.

The Air Force is responsible for the retrofitting and performing the heavy maintenance that must be completed before the seven HC-130Hs are finally turned over to the USFS over the next three years. This contract is for the installation of one trial “kit”, one verification kit, and three production kits. There is an option for the installation of two additional production kits.

Coulson Aviation has 25 years of experience in aerial fire suppression and they operate both Type 1 helicopters and large fixed wing air tankers. Coulson is one of the few companies to hold multi-country aerial firefighting contracts, including Canada, the United States, and Australia.

Douglas County, Colorado renews contracts for firefighting aircraft

Douglas County, just south of Denver (map), recently renewed contracts with four fire aviation companies. The agreements are Call When Needed (CWN) and will only be activated when the aircraft are specifically needed.

Three of the contracts are for helicopters, with Rampart Helicopter ServicesHeliQwest International and Trans Aero Ltd. The other is for the 11,600-gallon DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

“Due to the strong possibility of continued dry conditions in and around Douglas County, coupled with the limited air resource availability in the region for the purpose of fighting wildland fire, it is imperative that we have every resource possible available to us,” said the County’s Director of Emergency Management Tim Johnson.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

Alberta cuts wildfire suppression budget by $15 million

The cuts mean air tanker contracts end on August 16.

Air Spray executives
Ravi Saip and Paul Lane in front of one of their Electras at Chico, California, on March 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Below is an excerpt from an article at CBCnews:

With wildfires already spreading in Alberta, one air tanker company is raising the alarm on cuts to the province’s fire suppression budget.
Paul Lane, the vice president of Air Spray, said the company’s contract was cut by 25 per cent in the recent budget.

“The province has reduced the operating contracts, for not just us but the other air tanker operator, from 123 days to 93 days,” he said.

“Effectively that will mean that all the air tanker assets in Alberta will come up contract by August 16. The province has no guarantee of availability after that period of those air tanker assets.”

The province reduced the overall wildfire suppression budget by about $15 million.

Premier Rachel Notley said the budget reflects base levels of funding and that emergency funds will kick in if needed for more fire suppression.

“All that happened is a high level of expenditure engaged last year because of the high level of fires was reduced back to the normal amount,” she said. ..