Senator suggests possibility of ignoring air tanker protests, 10 Tanker issues statement

10 Tanker Air Carrier issued a statement Monday on their Facebook page about the bid protests that they, along with Coulson, filed over the contracts for next generation air tankers that the U.S. Forest Service announced that they were going to award last summer. The company has two DC-10 air tankers that carry 11,600 gallons of retardant, about six times more than a P2V, but they were not going to receive exclusive use contracts for the aircraft. The USFS had to cancel the process just before the contracts were signed. Four months later the solicitation was reissued with 31 changes, requiring responses by November 1, 2012.

The DC-10 air tankers have received excellent reviews from firefighters and aviation managers, but the USFS has in the past only offered them call when needed contracts, meaning they may or may not be used at all, and if they were, it would be intermittently.

10 Tanker’s statement appears to be partially in response to Colorado Senator Mark Udall’s remarks on the issue Thursday, in which he suggests that the protests may be ignored (emphasis added):

Mark Udall, who serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged private contractors to respect the U.S. Forest Service’s upcoming decision to award contracts to several U.S. companies to supply next-generation air tankers. Protests and challenges of past contract awards have already delayed the Forest Service’s acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers — which Udall championed last year. Additional protests could leave Colorado and the West without these tanker resources for the 2013 wildfire season.

“Air tankers are critical firefighting resources that can save lives and prevent small blazes from becoming catastrophic wildfires,” Udall said. “When I met with Northern Colorado firefighting and emergency-management officials this week, they all agreed that we need to ensure that Colorado and the Forest Service have the resources they need to fight fires now. If contractors continue to challenge agency decisions, I will urge the Forest Service to use its emergency authorities to override the challenges and finalize the tanker contracts as soon as possible. Colorado cannot wait.

Below is the text from 10 Tanker’s statement:

A widely published Associated Press article recently related the story of the long-term decline in the U.S. Forest Service’s aerial tanker fleet to the Next Generation Air Tanker solicitation bid protest last year by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and another bidder. Some members of Congress have expressed support for Forest Service to use emergency authorities to work around the bid protest. What the article omits and members of Congress may not realize is that it was the General Accountability Office (GAO) that found the 10 Tanker bid protest to be valid. That caused the US Forest Service to withdraw from the bid protest process, to amend the solicitation to correct its discriminatory issues, and to reissue the solicitation.

As you may know, GAO is the investigative arm of Congress “charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and payment of public funds.” As a part of that responsibility, GAO is also charged with handling bid protests, but they do not undertake that role unless there is obvious discrimination in an agency’s contract decisions. In this case, they found that the Forest Service used a decision process that discriminated against 10 Tanker Air Carrier. The issues involved cost basis in which 10 Tanker clearly offered the lowest cost per gallon of retardant delivered on fires, and also involved the USFS use of outdated, third party input that, had the well-known facts been used, would have been in 10 Tanker’s favor.

Had 10 Tanker’s bid been awarded, we could have provided the same protection to the public with four aircraft this 2013 wildfire season that is the equivalent of 15 – 16 competing aircraft that will not be available for use for several years.

10 Tanker wholeheartedly agrees that responsible leaders, including the Chief of the USFS, should use emergency procedures and resources to protect the public in an emergency. However, we discourage the declaration of an emergency as a means of providing a long-term solution to this on-going issue. We are confident it will be resolved within the next several months and thank you all for your support as we move closer to the upcoming fire season.

****

It has has been 1 year, 2 months, and 25 days since the USFS first issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.

Almost half of requests for air tankers were not filled in 2012

Requests for large air tankersNew data that the National Interagency Fire Center released about the 2012 wildfire season reveals that almost half, or 48 percent, of the requests for large air tankers could not be filled. Of the 914 requests, 438 were rejected as “unable to fill” (UTF), meaning no air tankers were available to respond to the fire; 67 were cancelled for various reasons. The requests that were filled included 346 for civilian contracted air tankers and 63 for military Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130s.

For additional perspective, consider that the number of requests for air tankers during the 2000 fire season was higher than the 13-year average between 2000 and 2012 — 548 requests vs. the average of 434, but in 2000 only 7 percent of them were UTF. In 2000 there were 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts compared to between 9 and 11 in 2012.

More acres burned in the United States in 2012 than average. At 9.3 million, it was the most since 2007. But the number of fires was surprisingly small, only 67,774 which is the lowest number since 2005.

The average number of fires in the lower 49 states each year is gradually decreasing, but the average size is increasing rapidly. This could be due to a number of factors, including climate, increased fuel loading (vegetation), reduced budgets, fewer firefighters, and not as many air tankers.

Average size of fires lower 49 states through 2012

One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service has allowed the air tanker fleet to atrophy may be a misguided attempt to save money. Fast, aggressive, initial attack on new fires can reduce the number of megafires that may burn hundreds of homes while costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in suppression costs alone. The 2002 Federal Aerial Firefighting Report, usually known as the “Blue Ribbon Panel Report”, addressed this issue:

While cost-saving is an essential contracting criterion, it appears to have displaced other, less-quantifiable criteria that call for more judgment and experience, such as value, safety records, and past performance. Pilots have sarcastically referred to this cost-focus philosophy as “budget protection” rather than “fire protection.” In contrast, a Canadian philosophy states, “We can’t spend too much the first day [of a fire],” seems to justify spending money on early containment of a fire, and doing so in an operationally effective way that minimizes the number of escaped fires. In the long run, the Canadians believe that they spend far less for a quick-response capability designed to contain small fires than they do to fight fires after they grow large.

It has has been 1 year, 2 months, and 24 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.

An unusual air safety briefing

I may be the only person who had not seen this video before today because it’s had a ton of views on YouTube. It appears to be an actual video safety briefing for Air New Zealand passengers on a Boeing 777. I have a feeling that it will be more meaningful to those who have seen the Hobbit movies.

USFS Chief Tidwell: new contracts for air tankers within 2 months

Tanker 41
A next-generation air tanker, a BAe-146, at Neptune’s facility in Missoula, August 11, 2012. Wildfire Today photo.

UPDATE Feb. 25, 2013: The Associated Press reporter, Mead Gruver, who wrote the article referred to below, has expanded on his original fairly brief version. You can read the more complete article at the Billings Gazette.

****

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, called a reporter for the Associated Press Friday afternoon primarily to talk about air tankers. It has been 1 year, 2 months, and 22 days since the USFS issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers, but Chief Tidwell said he expects the agency to award the contracts in two months.

A representative of one of the companies that bid on the contracts was recently told by the USFS that the contracts would be awarded by the end of February.

After announcing on June 13, 2012 that the contracts would be awarded to four companies for a total of seven next-generation air tankers, the USFS had to cancel the process just before the contracts were signed due to protests by two companies that did not receive awards. The aircraft that almost received contracts were four BAe-146s, an AVRO RJ85 (a variant of a BAE-146), and two MD87s, operated by Minden, Neptune, Aero Air, and Aero Flite. Four months later the solicitation was reissued with 31 changes. It required responses by November 1, 2012.

All federal contracts for large and very large air tankers expired December 31, 2012 and none were on contract until this week when the USFS extended last year’s contracts. Neptune’s contract was extended through March 5 and Minden’s will expire again on April 22, according to Jennifer Jones of the agency’s office in Boise.

In addition to the new contracts for next-generation air tankers, the USFS still needs to make decisions about new contracts for the existing Korean War vintage “legacy” air tankers and very large air tankers. Bids on legacy tankers were due December 14, 2012. A pre-solicitation for call-when-needed (CWN) very large air tankers was issued February 19, 2013.

The 2012 wildfire season began with 11 large air tankers on federal exclusive use contracts. After two 50+ year old tankers crashed on June 3 killing two pilots, we were left with only 9, down from 44 in 2002. For a few months Neptune was able to get two airliners that had recently been converted to air tankers hired on temporarily. They were BAe-146s, designated as T-40 and T-41, bringing the total for a while back to 11.

Concept for UAV air tanker

In December, 2009, Wildfire Today covered a patent application filed by John A. Hoffman for an air tanker, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground, and after dropping retardant on the fire, would land to reload, or might be a single use aircraft and would be “destroyed in the release step”. In the latter case the UAV would be “possibly constructed of frangible material so as to crash into the fire area”.

NitrofirexThanks to a comment by Jerome on a recent article here about FAA approvals for the use of UAVs, we are now aware of a similar concept, this time by Nitrofirex, which appears to be based in Spain. Much more information is available about the Nitrofirex system than Mr. Hoffman’s idea.

Multiple Nitrofirex UAVs would be transported in a large mother ship and released through the rear cargo door. The folded wings would deploy and the aircraft would glide autonomously to the target then “automatically and with great precision” release the water or retardant. The small engine which had been idling would power the ship back to the tanker base where it would be reloaded and inserted back into a mother ship.

According to the company the system could also be used:

  • “To combat a nuclear, biological or chemical emergency
  • To act on meteorological phenomena.
  • To combat pests or to spray crops in remote or inaccessible areas.
  • For night time fumigation of drug plantations.”

We were not able to find any specifications about the aircraft regarding retardant capacity, speed, range, or cost.

Nitrofirex screen grab
Nitrofirex UAV air tankers. Screen grab from the video.

Assuming that the cost, firefighter safety, and design issues are solvable, the only portion of the concept that troubles me is the assumption that an air tanker could, without a pilot either on-board or at a remote location, effectively drop retardant in the exact location where it was needed and at an appropriate height above ground. In flat terrain over a slow-moving fire this might be possible, but in mountainous areas it would be a challenge. Especially if a “squadron” of them were released at the same time.

What if…. an orbiting aircraft or a ground-based firefighter a safe distance away had a laser designator which the UAV could use as a target? Much like the military does for smart bombs and missiles. Terrain-following radar such as that used in the F-111C could make the drops more accurate and effective.

The company has developed a video which explores the UAV air tanker concept.

Caylym continues to develop containers for dropping retardant

Caylym system
Caylym system dispersing a liquid after exiting an aircraft. Screen grab from Caylym video.

Since Wildfire Today last covered their disposable container for delivering retardant over wildfires,the Caylym company has continued to develop and promote their concept. The system consists of containers constructed of cardboard, plywood, a plastic bladder, and dozens of yards of straps. They hold 264 gallons each and are designed to be carried in military aircraft such as the C-130 or C-27 using the standard cargo system. The containers when empty weigh 100 pounds.

Caylym system exiting an aircraft
Caylym system containers exiting an aircraft. Screen grab from Caylym video.

After they leave the aircraft the container lids, attached by four straps, separate, and act like a parachute. The straps then put pressure on the plastic bladders, ripping them open, allowing the liquid to be dispersed. The 100 pounds of the other components, the plywood, and cardboard, fall to the ground tethered by the nylon straps. The plastic bladder, hopefully empty, falls separately.

The company says 16 units fit inside a C-130. We estimate that each one weighs 2,212 pounds, and 16 of them would hold 4,224 gallons for a total weight of 35,392 pounds. They claim a C-27J can carry 6 units, which would be 1,584 gallons with an estimated weight of 13,272 pounds. A C-130 with a Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) usually carries 2,200 to 3,000 gallons of retardant, depending on the density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. Last summer the MAFFS were dropping an average of 2,394 gallons per flight.

In November the Romanian Air Force tested the Caylym system using a C-27J Spartan to drop the containers. According to the company:

…Expectations from testing were surpassed — all aspects of safety, handling and deployment of the Guardian System by the C-27J are anticipated to achieve certification from the Alenia test and evaluation team. Follow-up training is planned for the spring of 2013 in Romania.

The C-27J Spartan is an ideal aircraft for the aerial firefighting mission,” said Rick Goddard, managing director of Caylym. “The versatility and responsiveness of the C-27J in a firefighting mission, using the Guardian System gives the Romanian Air Force the ability to drop more than 1,500 gallons (6000 L) per mission, from a safe altitude over all types of terrain, day and night.”

We talked with Rick Goddard, the Managing Director of Caylym, who told us that in their tests the system could deliver six to eight gallons per 100 square feet and even more if the containers were loaded in two rows so that they would exit the aircraft two at a time. Mr. Goddard said they do not expect to spend $100,000 to conduct a standard cup test to determine the exact uniformity and quantity of the retardant coverage until the U.S. Forest Service expresses more of an interest in using the system.

Below is a video that was uploaded by Caylym on January 22, 2013. It shows their containers being assembled, filled, and then dropping from an aircraft.

Caylym has rebranded their system. Formerly called a “precision container aerial delivery system” (PCAD), they have renamed it “Guardian Deployment System”.

If these were ever actually used on a wildfire, there would have to be an even greater emphasis than usual on removing firefighters and other personnel from the target area than there is now when only liquids fall from the sky. In addition, the owner of the land would either have to be OK with leaving the debris from the containers in place after the drop in perpetuity, or crews would have to search the area and carry it out for disposal in a landfill. Debris removal would have to be included in the estimated costs of using a system like this, which could be difficult or even impossible in some areas, complicated by topography and vegetation. Depending on the climate, it could take many years or decades for the plastic bladder, plywood, cardboard, and straps to decompose if it were not removed.

TBM photos

TBM dropping on a fire

Seeing Walt Darran’s photo of him cranking a TBM at Hemet reminded me of some photos I took of some TBM’s dropping on fires in southern California in 1972. In those days there was not much of an effort to get firefighters out of the area when air tankers were dropping. Of course today, instead of carrying 300 gallons, air tankers are dropping 600 to 20,000 gallons.

TBM dropping on a fire

TBM dropping on a fire

 

Air tanker drop

Cleaning retardant off a 35mm camera while you’re fighting fire is not the easiest thing in the world.