Four air tanker companies protest Neptune’s new contract

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
Neptune’s BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McClure.

Four air tanker companies are protesting the non-competitive contract that the U.S. Forest Service gave to Neptune Aviation for two BAe-146 air tankers on December 12. As we reported that day, the contract, with a potential value of at least $141 million over four to nine years, justified the refusal to allow competition because of a necessity to “keep vital facilities or suppliers in business or make them available in the event of a national emergency, or prevent the loss of a supplier’s ability and employees’ skills”.

The Missoulian reported the information late on Tuesday. Below is an excerpt from their article:

Four aerial firefighting companies have protested the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to award two next-generation air tanker contracts to Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.

Neptune received the $8.7 million annual contract for two BAe-146 jet fire bombers on Dec. 13. The challengers, Coulson Aviation USA, Minden Air Corp. and 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC, each filed a protest on Dec. 23 with the Government Accountability Office.

GAO attorney Gary Allen said he could not discuss the protest claims Tuesday, because they contained “protected information” that couldn’t be disclosed until after a decision was rendered. That decision is due by March 28, but Allen said he expected a resolution would be reached before then.

An earlier version of the Missoulian article incorrectly reported that we had written at Fire Aviation that the Coulson gravity-assisted RADS retardant tank was going to be installed in the seven C-130H aircraft being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service, to convert them into air tankers. We had only said that “It would not surprise us if the U.S. Air Force will be calling [Coulson] for a quote” for the tank system. We thank reporter Rob Chaney for making the correction.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Scott and Dick

Robins Air Force Base supports MAFFS aircraft

 

MAFFS Cheyenne
A MAFFS unit inside a MAFFS 8, a Charlotte, North Carolina Air National Guard C-130 at Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 5, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We ran across the following article in an Air Force newsletter published June 21, 2013 at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

****

Robins supports fire suppression capabilities

BY JENNY GORDON
jenny.gordon at robins.af.mil

While the Black Forest, Colo., fire was small when it started June 11, it eventually scorched more than 14,000 acres and took the work of more than 600 people to get it under control.

The Air Force was among those listed to help.

It’s efforts included the use of the U.S. Forest Service-owned program known as MAFFS, or Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System.

MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system that fits inside special C-130 aircraft without requiring structural modification, which allows them to be loaded quickly.

At the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, one of its missions is programmed depot maintenance of C-130s. In all, four Air Force units have aircraft equipped with the firefighting system, including the 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

The MAFFS program is supported in another way at Robins by way of engineering support and troubleshooting.

“Our responsibility is to ensure the air-worthiness and safety of the C-130s using the MAFFS system,” said Barry Bunn, Tactical Airlift Division chief engineer.

That responsibility includes making sure the equipment is safe and in proper working condition, including its tubing and tanks.

A small team of engineers here can go out to an aircraft to test the equipment, but most of the oversight is done through up-front design reviews and testing which ensures the system can operate safely and is properly secured within the plane.

A recent example of a project was the addition of grounding wires to the MAFFS-equipped C-130s. When fire retardant is discharged out of the system, a nozzle extends. To err on the safe side, previous restrictions had been placed on how close a plane could fly to a thunderstorm. This is important because there are times when a plane may have to fly near a storm in order to quickly get to a fire.

The new grounding wires now provide additional safety measures which allow the aircraft to safely fly closer to storms as needed.

Robins also successfully performed a permanent modification to radios that are used on the aircraft when communicating with emergency personnel and Forest Service.

The project involves 32 aircraft, and provides a standardized installation, according to Robert Siperko, C-130 Modification program manager.

Aircraft that use MAFFS will soon be equipped with the same layout for all radios; all the wiring will be the same and radios will be installed in the same location.

Two Air Force Reserve Command C-130s and air crews from the 302nd Airlift Wing supported the Colorado firefighting efforts out of Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., earlier this month.

Aero Air to begin grid testing their MD-87

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87
Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop in early 2013. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

Aero Air, also known as Erickson Aero Tanker, has scheduled retardant drop grid tests at Fox Field in southern California for one of their MD-87 aircraft that they are converting into air tankers. Last month Aero Flite’s Tanker 160, an RJ85 which is similar to a BAe-146, went through the same procedure.

Aero Air’s tests of their 4,000-gallon MD-87 are expected to begin January 13, weather permitting, and will last four or five days. The aircraft will start dropping at about 7:30 a.m. each day and will continue until either the wind increases to over 10 knots or until one hour before sunset if there is no wind.

The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds or thousands of cups intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires. For the RJ85 tests, both paid and inmate fire crews were on hand at Fox Field last month to assist with the set-up of the grid and the collection of the cups after each drop. Firefighters have been asked again to assist with the MD-87 tests.

Kevin McCullough, the President of Aero Air, told Wildfire Today in December, 2012 that they had purchased seven MD-87s and intended to convert them into air tankers.

Aero Air received a contract from the U.S. Forest Service on June 7, 2013 for two MD-87 air tankers. The aircraft were not ready and missed the contractual start date a couple of months later. The U.S. Forest Service then issued “cure notices” to Aero Air and two other companies that received the next generation contracts for five air tankers, none of which met the required start date. Aero Air responded saying the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014. Later in a justification for awarding a sole source contract to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers, the USFS wrote they were “not confident that [the] five … contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014″.

Below is a video about Aero Air’s MD-87 air tanker making their first test drop early in 2013.

Report: two Coast Guard C-130s to be transferred to USFS will not need major maintenance

Coast Guard C-130H No 1719
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1719, one of the aircraft to be transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo taken October, 2008 by Rico Leffanta.

A reporter for Gannett newspapers in D.C. interviewed me yesterday for an article he later wrote about the transfer of the seven C-130Hs and up to 15 C-23B Sherpas from the Coast Guard and the military to the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting division. To the regular readers of Fire Aviation there is little new information in the piece. However, he told me that a spokesperson for Senator John McCain, who wrote the amendment that requires the transfer, said two of the seven C-130Hs will not require major maintenance and could be available as air tankers this year after they are converted to air tankers.

The reporter also interviewed Florida State Forester Jim Karels, who led the 54-person team that investigated the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The article looks to be pretty factual, except that he misquoted me saying the C-130H maintenance at the Depot “may be placed ahead of the line”. I told him there was no indication, in spite of the fact that the maintenance is required to be promptly scheduled, that they would be placed at the head of the line. Scheduling the work and performing it are two different things. The reporter also said the Pfeiffer Fire continues to burn, however according to InciWeb 100 percent containment was expected on December 20, 2013.

More information about the transfer of Coast Guard and military aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service.

Link to the legislation authorizing the transfer.

Tanker 160 goes through retardant drop grid tests

T160 dropping

On December 11 Aero Flite’s Tanker 160 began a series of retardant drop tests for their Avro RJ85 at Fox Field in southern California. The aircraft, converted into an air tanker by Conair, was expected to perform 20 to 25 drops over a two or three day period. The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of thousands of cups, intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires. Both paid and inmate fire crews were on hand at Fox Field to assist with the set-up of the grid and the collection of the cups after each drop.

Randy Johnson uploaded this video:

T160 dropping

The grid. Thousands of cups.
The grid. Thousands of cups. Click to enlarge.

Tanker 160, an RJ85 which is similar to a BAe-146, is being converted by Conair for Aero Flite, which received a contract June 7 for two RJ85s. The aircraft were not ready and missed the contractual start date a couple of months later. The U.S. Forest Service then issued “cure notices” to Aero Flite and two other companies that received the next generation contracts for five air tankers, none of which met the required start date. Aero Flite responded saying the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014. Later in a justification for awarding a sole source contract to Neptune for two BAe-146 air tankers, the USFS wrote they were “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014″.

Thanks go out to the Los Angeles County Fire Department which took these photos.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to John

Coulson demonstrates their C-130 tank system

Coulson Aviation USA has produced a video that demonstrates some of the capabilities of their 3,500-gallon Coulson RADS-XL Tank and the C-130Q which began flying under contract this fall, designated as Tanker 131. They shot the video at and near the San Bernardino air tanker base using cameras in their Sikorsky S76 helicopter, Firewatch 76. It shows the air tanker making down hill drops, which not every modern air tanker can accomplish very well.

The company bought the intellectual property for the RADS tank from Aero Union and in the last few months has been asked for price quotes for the tank system from a number of potential customers.

Britt Coulson told us:

Our plan is to manufacture and assemble the upper hopper and sell lower hopper subassembly kits where either we can complete the airframe install or another Lockheed Service Center can do the work.

Mr. Coulson said they have not finalized a price yet but it will be somewhere around $3.5 million installed. It would not surprise us if the U.S. Air Force will be calling for a quote, since they will be putting gravity tanks in the seven C-130Hs which will be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service after new wing boxes and fire retardant tanks are installed. The tank’s previous approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board will eliminate one very costly and time-consuming step in the process of converting an aircraft into an air tanker.

Defense bill passes, clearing way for C-130H transfers to the USFS

Late Thursday night the Senate passed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 84-15, which passed the House last week. President Obama has already said he will sign it which clears the way for the aircraft transfers we have written about previously. (UPDATE, December 27, 2013: the President signed the bill December 26, 2013.)

The bill contained provisions for the U.S. Forest Service to receive seven C-130H Coast Guard aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, in lieu of the C-27Js they had been expecting. It requires the Air Force to “promptly schedule” the “center and outer wing-box replacement modifications, programmed depot-level maintenance, and modifications necessary to procure and integrate a gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system in each such HC–130H aircraft”.

The Air Force will spend a maximum of $130 million of for all of the maintenance and modification work on the seven aircraft. The bill also specifies that no more than $5 million shall be spent on each HC–130H aircraft for the “gravity-drop aerial fire retardant dispersal system”. If the modifications exceed these limits, the additional funds will have to be provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service will also receive up to 15 C-23B+ S Sherpa aircraft which are expected to be used as smokejumper platforms. Earlier this week representatives from the USFS were in Oklahoma evaluating the Sherpas they were expecting to receive.