USFS awards sole source air tanker contract to Neptune

Tanker_41
One of Neptune’s BAe-146s, Tanker 41, at Missoula, a next-generation air tanker. Photo August 11, 2012 by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.

Today the U.S. Forest Service awarded a sole source contract to Neptune Aviation to supply two next-generation air tankers for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014. The estimated value of the contract is $141,000,000 and has a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. The hourly rate begins at about $8,000 and increases to about $12,000 by the end of nine years.

For the contract, Neptune is expected to use two BAe-146 airliners that are being converted to 3,000-gallon next-generation air tankers. Some of the requirements to qualify as next-gen are that they are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Those two Neptune aircraft would be in addition to the first two BAe-146s they converted which have been active on a “legacy” air tanker contract this year.

Issuing a sole source contract is much more unusual than allowing multiple companies to submit bids. To only consider one source, the federal government has to provide justification, and in this case they used the “industrial mobilization exception”, which includes 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”.

On May 6, 2013 the U.S. Forest Service announced their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven next-gen air tankers. Neptune was not selected, and the company filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. The reasons Neptune was left out of that contract, according to information Fire Aviation has received, could have been their problems providing consistent retardant drop patterns with their new BAe-146 tank, and, one of the considerations in awarding the contract was crash history. This year Neptune has been working to improve the tanks and said that by 2014 their BAe-146s would all have modified versions of the tank system.

The protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30 when actual signed contracts were finally issued to three companies for three air tankers, which the contracting officers felt were not affected by the protest:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

Then suddenly on June 7 Neptune withdrew their protest which allowed the contracts for the remaining four aircraft to be awarded to:

  • Aero Air, for two MD87s
  • Aero Flite, for two Avro RJ85s

The awarding of the final next-gen contracts came 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for the aircraft.

Only two of those seven air tankers have been constructed and have passed the certification requirements of the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board — the DC-10 and the C-130Q. The other five missed their contractual start dates. In September the USFS issued “cure notices” to the three companies. They responded to the USFS indicating the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014.

In the sole source justification for the new Neptune contract the USFS wrote they are “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014”.

When Neptune suddenly dropped their protest of the next-gen contract in June neither the company nor the USFS would disclose the reason. There was speculation Neptune felt confident at that time there would be a development later in their favor.

Airbus completes second round of tests of C295 airtanker

Airbus C295 water drop test
C295 water drop test. Airbus photo.

As Fire Aviation told you on October 22, Airbus is experimenting with a C295 that has been converted into an air tanker. The first tests were designed to monitor the performance of the aircraft as the water was released. In the second phase the company conducted seven water drops at a range near Cordoba, Spain where water was dropped into a grid of cups which measured the amount of water. After the engineers analyze the data they will know the volume and consistency of the drop pattern across the grid. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires similar tests before issuing federal certification for air tankers in the United States.

C295 924-gallon tank
One of the two 924-gallon tanks that would be used to hold water or retardant in the C-295. Airbus photo.

During the tests the C295 was outfitted with one tank in the cabin which held 924 gallons (3,500 liters). The water was gravity-ejected through two doors installed in the belly of the aircraft. Airbus plans to use two of the roll-on/roll-off tanks, raising the capacity to 1,848 gallons (7,000 liters). This is about the same number of gallons the C-27J is expected to carry if it were converted into an air tanker.

The concept is similar to the system used on Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q which carries 3,500 gallons in what Coulson has named the Coulson RADS-XL Tank after they bought the rights package for the RADS tank from Aero Union. Britt Coulson told us that if anyone wants to outfit an air tanker with that tank they will need to talk to his company.

C-130 retardant tank unload
Removing the 3,500-gallon retardant tank from Coulson’s C-130Q. Coulson photo.

Marine One pilot flies for CAL FIRE

In this first video you will meet a CAL FIRE helicopter pilot whose previous job was flying the President around in Marine One.

The bonus video below shows a very skilled pilot in Oregon quickly, very quickly, ferrying external loads of Christmas trees from the farm to trucks. It is Pilot Dan Clark flying a Northwest Helicopters, LLC 206B3 Jetranger in November of 2008.

The videos can also be seen on YouTube here and here.

A new study looks at four possible air tankers for Colorado

Colorado Air tanker study cover

In case the 11 air tanker studies since 1995 are not enough, there is now a twelfth. As you can see on the cover above, it is named Analysis of Aircraft for the Fire Fighting Mission in Colorado. It compares four different aircraft, two of which have received certification from the Interagency AirTanker Board, and two that have never been converted into air tankers:

  1. BAe-146
  2. C-130H/Q
  3. C-27J
  4. S-3B

The study is Colorado-specific in that it looks at the retardant capacities if the aircraft were to fly out of four air tanker bases in the state: Denver, Durango, Grand Junction, and Pueblo, with elevations ranging from 4,726 to 6,685 feet, and runway lengths from 9,000 to 10,502 feet.

The study primarily considered four characteristics of the aircraft:

  • Retardant tank volume (certificated or estimated)
  • Mission payload capability from USFS air tanker bases in Colorado
  • Sustainability and after sales product support
  • Mission effectiveness expressed as gallons transported per hour and per day

The C-130J/Q led the field in all four categories.

Assuming the data compiled by Conklin & de Decker Aviation Information is correct, the retardant capacities at the Colorado air tanker bases “during typical summer temperatures (ISA + 30 degrees C)” for the C-27J and S-3B are stunningly low, averaging 184 and 181 gallons, respectively. The BAe-146 would have to download from the maximum of 3,000 gallons to 1,884, while the C-130Q/H would always, according to the report, carry their maximum load of 3,500 gallons.

The tables below are from the study on page 33.

Colorado Retardant delivery by four types of aircraftWe are curious to know who paid for the study, which was “prepared for [Colorado state] Senator Steve King”. A phone call to Conklin & de Decker Aviation Information was not immediately returned. Senator King has been very interested and vocal about the possible acquisition of firefighting aircraft for his state.

Earlier this year legislation passed in Colorado that allowed for the creation of a “Colorado Firefighting Air Corps”, but it did not authorize any funding for the agency. The bill was introduced by Senators Steve King and Cheri Jahn

 

Forest Service not using $100,000 worth of drones

Sky Seer drone
Victor Torres of Chang Industry holds a Sky Seer drone used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department. It may be similar to those purchased by the USFS. Photo by Xeni Jardin April 6, 2006.

The U.S. Forest Service spent $100,000 in 2007 to buy two Sky Seer drone aircraft that they have not figured out how to use. The story was reported at Environment & Energy and was featured at a web site about forest planning. Apparently the agency purchased the drones seven years ago initially to be used for law enforcement, but FAA regulations and other problems have presented obstacles to the very expensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) taking to the skies.

The information came to light after the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a Freedom of Information Act Request which revealed a little about how the USFS may use the drones. In 2012 the agency created an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Group within their Fire and Aviation Management division which may indicate a desire to use them to gather intelligence over fires.

An article in the Missoulian published May 26, 2013 was titled “U.S. Forest Service drops plans to use drones in Montana, north Idaho”. The reporter was told the agency had no drones. Below is an excerpt:

MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service says it has no drone aircraft, but plenty of other people have little UFOs buzzing over the trees in Western Montana.

Last week, Forest Service officials said they’ve dropped plans to use unmanned aerial systems — commonly known as drones — to survey forest fires because of clashes with Federal Aviation Administration rules. While some national forest firefighters in Alaska touted the remote-control planes’ ability to map forest fires in thick smoke, their legality proved a limitation.

“Getting FAA approval to fly one is a lengthy process,” Forest Service Northern Region spokesman Phil Sammon said Friday. “It takes too long to make it practical for a two- or three-week occurrence.”

FAA rules require a drone in U.S. airspace to be in visual range of its pilot at all times. That sets up a Catch-22 problem where if you want to remote-control fly a drone into a smoke column too thick for human pilots to see through, you must still send up a human pilot to keep an eye on the drone.

More information about the USFS drone program is at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility website:

Photos of classic air tankers

S2, Tanker 70, at Hemet
Tanker 70 an S-2, at Hemet. Photo by Steve Whitby.

Steve Whitby was kind enough to send us another batch of photos that he took of air tankers. (These first five photos are his; the other five were taken by Bill Gabbert.) This time Steve’s are from 1979 and 1980 at Hemet in southern California. Earlier we posted some photos he took last summer at the Mountain Fire in southern California. Thanks again Steve!

S-2s at Hemet
S-2s at Hemet. Photo by Steve Whitby.
T-86, a C-119, makes a drop in 1979
T-86, a C-119, makes a drop in 1979. Photo by Steve Whitby.
C-119 at Hemet. Photo by Steve Whitby.
C-119 at Hemet. Photo by Steve Whitby.
C-119 at Hemet
Tanker 82, a C-119, at Hemet. Photo by Steve Whitby.

Speaking of C-119s, the five photos below were taken by Bill Gabbert between 1970 and 1972. The gentleman in the first photo is Ron Campbell, Superintendent of the El Cariso Hot Shots.
Continue reading “Photos of classic air tankers”

“It’s not your average video game”

A reporter for Shaw TV in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada conducted two interviews with Perry Dancause, Director of Flight Operations for Air Spray about their air tanker business. The first one covers general information about the company and their operations at the Red Deer facility.

The second video is about their flight simulators. The reporter who looks like he is about 14 years old begins by saying “You know, it’s not your average video game”.

Air Spray has a fleet of Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop air tankers and has established a US base at Chico, California. They are converting two BAe 146s into air tankers and in September received a Call When Needed contract from CAL FIRE for an L-188 Electra.

Photos of aircraft on the Mountain Fire

Air tanker 07,  a P2V
Air tanker 07, a P2V, July 15 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.

These photos were graciously sent to us by Steve Whitby who took them on the Mountain Fire in July. The fire burned over 20,000 acres in and near the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California. Thanks Steve — great pictures!

Air tanker 73, an S2T
Air tanker 73, an S2T, flown by Mike Venable, July 15 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.
Tanker 910, a DC-10, July 16
Tanker 910, a DC-10, July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.
Erickson Air-Crane July 16 on the Mountain Fire
Erickson Air-Crane, July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.