Forest Service cancels procurement of new air tanker

The U.S. Forest Service has canceled the solicitation issued on November 18, 2016 for the acquisition of one to seven new multi-engine air tankers. It was thought by some that this procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.

The specifications appeared, after a brief perusal, to fit a C-130-type aircraft, including Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million.

Lockheed's LM-100J
Lockheed Martin’s LM-100J. An artist’s conception of it using a slip-in MAFFS to dispense fire retardant. Lockheed image.

When we inquired about the reasons for the cancellation and the plans for spending the appropriated $65 million, USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones said the only information available was:

The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing its requirements for the airtanker.

With the reports in the national news since January 20 about massive budget cuts for federal agencies, it is not surprising that this aircraft would be axed. The fact that the official word from the USFS is they are “reviewing [their] requirements” looks like they are hesitant to own an action that would reduce planned spending for homeland security, in the form of support for firefighters.

Interesting assortment of emergency equipment at Whitehorse

Above: Tanker 47 (a Convair 340-31), Tanker 49 (a Convair 440-580), an F-18, and a couple of fire engines at Whitehouse International Airport, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada June 6, 2017. Photo by Doug Cote.

Doug Cote sent us this photo and said the annual migration of air tankers to Alaska is ongoing. He shot this photo today of an assortment of emergency equipment at Whitehorse.

Vendors with SEAT contracts

Single Engine Air Tankers

Above: Tanker 466 operated by New Frontier Aviation reloads while working a wildfire south of Angostura Reservoir in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota (and other states) typically have SEATs on contract during the summer. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Here is a list of the companies that currently have Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) under U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management contracts. This list does not include SEATs working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or other federal or state agencies.

USFS, exclusive use:

  • Air Spray USA, Inc.

BLM, call when needed (or “on call”). There are no SEATs under BLM exclusive use contract at this time:

  • Aerial Timber
  • Aero Seat
  • Aero Spray
  • Air Spray
  • CO Fire Aviation
  • Columbia Basin Helicopters
  • Evergreen Flying Services
  • Fletcher Flying Services
  • GB Aerial Applications
  • Henry’s Aerial Service
  • M&M Air Service
  • Minutemen Aerial
  • New Frontier Aviation
  • Queen Bee Air Specialties
  • Western Pilot

BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract

Above: Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

For the previous three years the Bureau of Land Management had 33 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. As we enter the 2017 wildfire season there are none.

In 2014 the agency awarded EU contracts for 33 SEATs that guaranteed one year with a 100-day Mandatory Availability Period and four additional optional years. In 2016 the vendors were notified that two optional years, 2017 and 2018, would not be activated. One of the affected aircraft companies told us that the BLM said the reason was a lack of funds. (UPDATE May 31: Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokesperson, responded today to an earlier mail from us, explaining that the funds allocated in that 2014 contract had been spent, therefore they had to start over again with a new contract.)

In August, 2016 the agency began the solicitation process for a new EU contract. After it was awarded four vendors filed a total of six protests with the Government Accountability Office. As of today, May 30, 2017, four of those have been dismissed and two are still undecided.

Currently the only BLM SEAT contract in effect is a Call When Needed, or On Call contract that was awarded several weeks ago. There were seven SEATs actively working in the Southwest Geographic Area on an On Call basis.

An aircraft vendor that operates SEATs told us that one of the issues his company is concerned about is the evaluation process for rating and selecting which vendors receive contract awards. He said the BLM places far too much emphasis on the empty weight of the aircraft while not considering enhancements that may add weight, but contribute to effectiveness and safety. The lightest SEAT is automatically favored, he said, while those with a backup radio, single point fueling behind the wing, GPS, a better performing Trotter retardant gate, ADS-B, larger engine, or a larger prop are penalized.

He said, “I just want to see a fair and impartial evaluation”.

One of the factors that almost destroyed the large air tanker industry around the turn of the century was the U.S. Forest Service’s over emphasis on the lowest bid price. This forced potential tanker vendors to resort to discarded aircraft designed for World War II and the Korean War and gave them little incentive to perform routine but expensive inspections and maintenance. In 2002 when the wings literally fell off two large air tankers in mid-air killing five crew members, the USFS started to re-think their lowest cost policy. Over the next 10 years the number of large air tankers on EU contracts declined from 44 to 9. Following that lost decade the USFS contracting process and the vendors’ fleets were reinvented.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the BLM said, “The BLM will ensure that we have adequate SEATs/wildland firefighting resources for the 2017 fire season, regardless of how we contract our aircraft. The BLM will provide an adequate response to all wildfire activity, whether it’s an extreme, normal, or below-normal fire season this year.”

The future Tanker 134 on the move

These are photos of an air tanker that you don’t see every day. The C-130Q that Coulson recently acquired, was being moved from Tucson to another facility in Mesa, Arizona where it will be transformed into Coulson’s fourth C-130 air tanker, Tanker #134. Obviously it needs a little work.

It is the second C-130Q that they have acquired. The first was Tanker 131 that entered service about four years ago. The company also has two L-382G’s, which is the civilian version of the C-130.

Britt Coulson, who sent us these pictures, said they expect to have the conversion complete by the end of this summer.

air tanker 134 C-130Q

The photo below shows the aircraft before it was dismantled.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q which will become Tanker 134 later this year.

Photos of Coulson’s 737-300 air tanker

The company expects to have the conversion complete by the end of this year.

On May 21 we told you about Coulson Aviation branching out into a new line of air tankers to add to their three C-130s and a fourth C-130 that is being converted now. The company has purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines and intends to convert at least some of them into air tankers.

The first conversion has started, with a freshly painted 737 rolling out of the paint shop in Spokane today.

The next step is to add a gravity-based tank which will have the same technology used on their C-130’s.

Coulson 737 air tanker

The air tanker is being designed as a multi-use aircraft with the ability to haul passengers. Britt Coulson said, “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

Coulson 737 air tanker

 

The photos were provided by Coulson Aviation.

Neptune’s newest air tanker begins service

Above: File photo of Neptune’s eighth BAe-146 arriving for the first time at Missoula, September 29, 2016. Photo by Bill Moss.

We first wrote about the aircraft that was to become Tanker 15 when it arrived at Missoula in October of last year. It began its Mandatory Availability Period today.