Most of us have seen videos of the DC-10 air tankers dropping massive loads of retardant stretched out over thousands of feet of fireline, as seen in this excellent video by Tim Walton, or this one on the Lost Fire, but the video below is very different. It shows Tanker 911 dropping a very small fraction of its 11,600-gallon load on a seven-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It was uploaded to YouTube April 22, 2013 by ir7kbpf.
(Originally published at 10:20 a.m. MT, June 7, 2013; updated at 12:53 p.m. MT, June 7, 2013)
Neptune Aviation has withdrawn their protest of the contract awards for next generation air tankers.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We have learned that Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., of Missoula, Mont., has withdrawn their protest of the Forest Service exclusive use contract award for Next Generation large airtankers.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.
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.
On Wednesday Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill, Senate Bill 245, that created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps. The Corps is organized within the Department of Public Safety in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. There was no money associated with the passage of the bill, so until funds are appropriated, it will apparently exist in name only.
If the state does come up with some funding, according to the legislation:
The Division may purchase, acquire, lease, or contract for the provision of firefighting aircraft, facilities, equipment, and supplies for aerial firefighting; and retrofit, maintain, staff, operate, and support the firefighting aircraft or contract for the provision of those services.
You may remember that one of the sponsors of the Colorado bill, State Senator Steve King, had an idea to help defray some of the costs of the program:
Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on the tail of slurry bomber?
So we sponsored a competition for designs showing potential advertising and asked our readers to vote on their preferred choice. The one below by Jerome Laval is the leader in the poll, which is still open.
The news footage above indicates some of the people in the Phoenix area are pleased to have one of the DC-10 air tankers temporarily working out of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Some Snake River Hotshots crewmembers detailed there out of Idaho are also interviewed in the piece.
After flying 10 missions on the Powerhouse Fire in southern California over two days, the air tanker flew two missions Tuesday on the Thompson Ridge fire which is spreading rapidly west of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today they are back on the Thompson Ridge Fire again, reloading out of Roswell, New Mexico.
Those who say the DC-10 can’t be used in the mountains should take a look at this.
It was uploaded to YouTube by Kevin Osborne. From the description there:
In this video, tanker 910 is dropping on the west flank of the Goff Fire (part of the Fort Complex) in late summer of 2012. The video was taken from Tim’s Peak, north of Hwy 96 on the Happy Camp/Oak Knoll District of the Klamath National Forest.
Also, check out these very impressive photos taken by Michael Meadows of the DC-10 dropping on the Powerhouse fire north of Los Angeles June 2, 2013.
The Santa Maria Times ran an article with photos that featured one of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers when the aircraft was working out of the Santa Maria Air Attack Base while the White Fire was burning north of Santa Barbara, California. The interesting thing about the article is that it includes a photo of the interior of the BAe-146. It is the first photo I have seen of the interior.
In a video report Thursday about Tanker 41, “the latest weapon in the firefighting arsenal”, Neptune’s BAe-146 air tanker is described by the news reader and text on the screen (above) as having a “31,000 gallon tank”. That figure is off by a factor of 10 — they missed it by over 28,000 gallons. T41 can carry just under 3,000 gallons, maximum, and usually carries less due to density altitude limitations. If the 31,000 number was meant to be pounds instead of gallons, at 9 pounds per gallon for retardant it would still overstate the capacity by at least 400 gallons.
The air tankers that come closest to carrying 31,000 gallons are the 747 with 20,000 gallons, and the DC-10 at 11,600 gallons. All of the others flying today have a capacity of 3,000 gallons or less. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000. Coulson’s C-130Q that was awarded a contract this week will always carry 3,500 gallons when it begins dropping on fires in a few months.
The video shows T41 dropping on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. The second time they show the drop near the end of the video, the news reader did not mention how the volume of the retardant trailed off at the end. The two BAe-146s have been criticized for having a consistent drop pattern for only the first 2,400 to 2,500 gallons, while the remaining 500 to 600 gallons dribbles out. Neptune has said they are outfitting their third and fourth BAe-146s this summer with an improved tank design which will fix some of the bugs with the tanking system. Then next winter they will modify the tanks in the first two BAe-146s, T40 and T41.
I watched some of the aerial firefighting Thursday while it was being streamed live, and saw an air tanker drop unlike any I have seen before. The same air tanker, T41, made two separate drops on the same pass. The ridgetop target was not straight. It had two straight sections but had an oxbow in the middle. The ridge was too crooked for the aircraft to make two sharp turns and treat the entire ridge in one long drop, so it flew a straight line and dropped maybe 1,000 gallons on the first straight section, stopped dropping while it passed by the crooked section of ridgetop, then when it was over the second straight section, opened the doors again and dropped another 1,000 gallons or so. Either T41 or another air tanker probably came back later and treated the oxbow section skipped before.
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.