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.
“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.
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. ..
Aero-Flite will supply two CL-415 air tankers for one to five years.
Above: Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260, a CL-415, at McClellan Air Field, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The daily availability rate for the two Aero-Flite CL-415 air tankers will be $42,285 with an hourly rate of $13,299. That daily rate is higher than all of the 21 large air tankers on contract. And only two large air tankers have a higher hourly rate — one of the DC-10s and the USFS/Coast Guard C-130.
The maximum five-year value of the contract is $142,524,440 for the two aircraft.
It is our understanding that the contract used last year expired. This new solicitation specified that the USFS would hire “up to two” aircraft for a period of time “not to exceed five years”. Obviously the agency made a decision and settled on two scoopers. We checked with Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, who told us that it is definitely a five-year contract.
One Aero-Flite CL-415 was on USFS contract in 2015, Tanker 260 (N389AC). The two this year are N386AC and N392AC. We don’t yet have their tanker numbers.
In past years the Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted for one or two twin engine water scoopers, CL-215s I believe, but no longer. This year they will have at least one amphibious water-scooping Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT), an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more, Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA, told us earlier this month.
There will also be a large number of non-water-scooping SEATs, perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out.
21 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contract in 2016.
Above: Air tanker 43, a P2V, fires up an engine at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
(UPDATED May 24, 2016)
The number of large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts for fighting wildland fires will be about the same as the way the fire season ended in 2015, with 21 signed up, counting the HC-130H operated by the U.S. Forest Service.
Here is the breakdown by type of aircraft, and then by company:
The numbers above only include the large and very large air tankers that are on exclusive use contract. In addition the USFS will have between two and three water scooping amphibious twin engine CL-415 air tankers. One is on contract now and they have a solicitation out now that will add one or two more to the fleet.
The plans, which could change, are for three of the P2Vs to begin work in March, on the 3rd, 18th, and 28th. Most of the other large air tankers will start in April, but six will come on duty in May and June. All of the next-generation large air tankers are contracted for a minimum of 160 days while the “legacy” aircraft are signed up for 140 to 180 days.
There will also be a large number of single engine air tankers (SEATs), perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out. The USFS has a solicitation out for one SEAT and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will have at least one amphibious water-scooping SEAT, an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more in the next few weeks, according to Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA.
Randy Eardley of the BLM told us they will have four AT 802Fs on 75-day contracts working out of Fairbanks this year. He said there are two each from Air Spray and Aero Spray.
(The chart below was revised May 24, 2016. Some costs were updated and there was some swapping of aircraft from one Next Gen contract to another.)
If you want to print the list, this .pdf document will probably turn out better than the image above.
There will also be at least five or six large air tankers available on Call When Needed contracts. Several companies are in the process of converting more airliners into air tankers and when those are finished and carded might be added to the CWN list.
If the wildfire season turns into more than what these 27 air tankers can handle, the military can activate up to eight C-130s equipped with the pressurized slip-in 3,000-gallon Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS. However a MAFFS unit is being used by one of the HC-130H aircraft that is in the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. That leaves just seven MAFFS units available. In a few years all seven of the former Coast Guard HC-130Hs will be de-militarized, will have gone through heavy maintenance, and will be equipped with a removable gravity-powered retardant delivery system, again freeing up all of the MAFFS equipment.
Another source for air tankers are the eight CV580s available through agreements with the state of Alaska and Canada.
The specifications of the contract list a number of tasks that will be performed, including inspection, maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, and alteration of the Sherpas. Individual orders may include inspection, repair, painting, overhaul, rebuilding, testing, and servicing of airframes, engines, rotors, appliances, or component parts.
The work will be done primarily at Ogden, Utah, but may also be required at Missoula, Montana; Redmond, Oregon; Redding, California; and Tucson, Arizona.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris and Jared.
We don’t yet have the tanker and tail numbers for the seven “new” aircraft. Although, one person in the air tanker industry told us that those numbers should not really matter, saying a company should be able to trade out an air tanker for an identical one for maintenance or other reasons. If, of course, the company has the luxury of having a duplicate air tanker sitting around.
On October 4, 2015 we updated the list above to reflect that Neptune replaced T-06 with T-14.
Today the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for seven additional large and very large air tankers. The aircraft being added to the exclusive use contracted fleet are four BAe-146s operated by Neptune Aviation, two RJ85s flown by Aero-FLite, and one DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.
The contract solicitation, issued November 26, 2015, is for what the USFS calls “next generation” air tankers, which must be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons, while the others can hold up to about 3,000 gallons.
This brings the total number of next-gen air tankers on exclusive use contracts to 14. There are also seven “legacy” air tankers on exclusive use contracts, all operated by Neptune. Six are Korean War vintage P2Vs which usually carry about 2,100 gallons and are powered by two 18-cylinder radial engines. There is also one BAe-146 on the legacy contract.
These new next-gen awards, which begin this year, are for a five-year period with options for five additional years, with at least 160 days of mandatory availability every year.
The daily rates for Neptune’s BAe-146s, which is paid even if the aircraft is not used that day, varies during the possible 10-year period from $29,000 to $32,640 each day, while the hourly flight rate is from $8,000 to $9,274.
The daily rate for Aero-Flite’s Rj85 are from $28,581 to $35,546, and their flight rate is $7,559 to $9,862 per hour. The daily rate for the DC-10, a Very Large Air Tanker, are from $34,000 to $35,000, and the hourly rate is $13,600.
These rates do not include the cost of fuel, which will be paid by the government.
Most of the contracts the U.S. Forest Service has attempted to issue in recent years for large and very large air tankers have been protested, which suspends the activation of the contract until the Government Accountability Office adjudicates the dispute. This contract has already been protested by Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker even before the closing date of the solicitation. However, the GAO decided in July to deny the protests. But that does not mean that there will not be additional protests now that the contracts have been awarded.
After the Governor of Montana wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Agriculture complaining about what he called “nonsensical restrictions” that prohibit the use of the state’s five UH-1H helicopters on U.S. Forest Service protected lands, we started looking into the root of the problem. The former military helicopters are actually owned by the USFS, and are leased to the state under the provisions of the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program which require that the helicopters be maintained in full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. But the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) apparently does not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates for the helicopters.
However, the USFS does not maintain all of their government owned aircraft in strict compliance with FAA regulations.
When we asked the USFS why the agency does not allow the non-certificated Montana aircraft to be used on USFS lands, Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones, told us:
The Forest Service and the State of Montana Department have different standards and regulations to which each must adhere. Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety.
The USFS and the rules governing the loan of FEEP aircraft require the Montana helicopters to be maintained and modified according to FAA standards. Since these requirements are not met, the helicopters can’t be used on USFS fires.
Even though the USFS requires compliance with FAA procedures for their contracted air tankers and helicopters — and the state of Montana’s aircraft — the following USFS aircraft are not FAA certified, nor will they be:
Tanker 118, the HC-130H acquired from the Coast Guard that has been dropping retardant on fires this summer using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Neither the aircraft or the MAFFS have ever been certificated by the FAA.
The other six HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.
Four C-23A Sherpas used for smokejumping and hauling cargo.
Two AH-1 Cobra helicopters.
The eight MAFFS units used in military C-130s for fighting wildfires, and the modifications made to the C-130s so that they can use the MAFFS.
After the seven HC-130H aircraft are finished with their heavy maintenance and air tanker retrofitting, they will be owned by the USFS and maintained and operated by contractors. But they will not be brought under the FAA umbrella, according to Mrs. Jones:
The U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting mission is a Public Use mission in government owned aircraft. The Forest Service maintains airworthiness on Tanker 118 in accordance with Coast Guard maintenance standards, and the Coast Guard maintains engineering authority.
The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130s used to drop retardant with the MAFFS are maintained, modified, and operated according to military procedures.
Aircraft shall conform to an approved type design, be maintained and operated in accordance with Type Certificate (TC) requirements and applicable Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs). The aircraft shall be maintained in accordance with an FAA approved inspection program and must include an FAA approved Supplemental Structural Inspection Document (SSID), Structural Inspection Document (SID), or Instruction for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) for the airframe structure, as applicable with an ICA and Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS) approved by the manufacturer (or equivalent) and the FAA for the airtanker role.
The USFS is not the only federal agency operating former military aircraft that bypasses the FAA. Others include the Coast Guard, NASA, and NOAA.
We asked a person in the commercial air tanker industry (who did not want their name disclosed) about the USFS not following FAA procedures:
The FAA governs the largest fleet of commercial aircraft in the world and are looked upon by foreign agencies as the golden standard. They can certify an A380 to pack 700 people but cannot certify a restricted category airtanker? The USFS is hiring a ton of ex-military people who all stick together with their other Air Force buddies and think the military is the be-all-end-all.
I think it would be fair to argue that the FAA knows much more about airtankers than the Air Force or the Coast Guard. The USCG maintenance program is not setup for an airtanker mission profile, nor is the USAF. I talked to the FAA guy who was on all the calls with the USFS about this program and he was in disbelief when they finally made the decision not to have any FAA involvement.