Forest Service announces contracts for legacy air tankers

(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MT, March 28, 2013; updated at 2:15 p.m. March 28, 2013)

On Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service awarded contracts to two companies for what they are calling “legacy” air tankers, for a total of eight aircraft in 2013. Minden will receive a contract worth $17.1 million and Neptune’s contract will total $180 million.

Minden will have their Tanker 48, a P2V, working under this new contract for one year, with options for four additional years, according to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the USFS in Boise.

Dan Snyder, President of Neptune Aviation, told Fire Aviation today that their company will have five P2Vs on contract for five years. Two other Neptune aircraft, one P2V and one BAe-146, will have a one-year fixed contract, with options for four additional years.  The optional years will be totally up to the USFS — if they have the need, desire, and the funds, they could activate the additional years, one at a time.

These awards mean that the USFS will have eight air tankers working this year under this “legacy” contract. Beginning in 2014 if the optional years are not activated, there will be six, if the information we have been provided is correct.

Mr. Snyder said they expect to have their signed contract in their hands within the next two days.

We attempted to talk to Tim Christy, Director of Flight Operations for Minden, but he was unavailable. Minden had one P2V on contract last year after their other one, Tanker 55, was damaged June 3 while landing on disabled landing gear, the same day that Neptune’s Tanker 11 crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots. For the last two or three years Minden has been working on converting a BAe-146 into an air tanker.

We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contract awards for next-generation air tankers powered by turbine, turbofan, or jet engines. That solicitation was first issued 484 days ago. Recently U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers.

Also pending are contract awards for very large air tankers, such as a DC-10 or 747, which can carry 11,600 and 20,000 gallons, respectively. The P2Vs usually hold about 2,000 gallons while the BAe-146 has a 3,000 gallon capacity. The P2V cruises at about 225 mph. The BAe-146 more than doubles that speed, at 498 mph.

While it may seem surprising that a jet-powered BAe-146 received a contract through a solicitation for “legacy” air tankers, Mr. Snyder of Neptune said they were allowed to put any air tanker they wanted on their proposal as long as it met the specs in the solicitation. He said the USFS was looking more at cost than technical specifications, and wanted “best value”.

Neptune still has the two fully operational BAe-146 next-generation air tankers that worked on fires in 2012, Tankers 40 and 41. They will operate them for one more season, Mr. Snyder said. After they they may be modified. The company is also finishing the conversions of two more BAe-146s that will have a much improved tanking system that Mr. Snyder said will fix some of the issues uncovered in their first two converted aircraft, including trail-off of retardant, consistency, and constant flow. The new systems will still hold approximately 3,000 gallons, but the exact capacity has not been determined. The tanks will be internal, and from the outside will look very similar to Tankers 40 and 41. But the redesign is so different that the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) is requiring that they go through the expensive grid tests, in which retardant is dropped over a grid of hundreds of containers to determine the consistency and volume of the retardant when it reaches the ground. Neptune is negotiating with the IATB on the date and location of the test. If the IATB certifies the new tank design, Mr. Snyder expects that Neptune’s third and fourth BAe-146s could be available in the Spring or early Summer.

Availability of air tankers

Air Tanker contract dates-2012
Mandatory availability periods for large exclusive use air tankers in 2012. Data from NIFC, chart by Wildfire Today. (Click to enlarge)

We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contracts for air tankers this year. Above is a chart showing the mandatory availability periods for large air tankers in 2012. We made it last year after the two aircraft crashed on June 3.

It was 483 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded. The USFS is also considering contracts for legacy and very large air tankers.

 

Billings runway to be closed 3 days a week this summer

The main runway at Billings Logan International Airport will be closed three days a week during a six-week period this summer. While the runway is being rehabilitated it will be closed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from July 12 through August 18. This will have an effect on the operations of large air tankers in the area.

Chuck Bushey, a former President of the International Association of Wildland Fire, talked to a BLM tanker base manager at Billings. Chuck sent us this information:

[The base manager said] they would be using SEATS and helicopters based at other nearby locations with mobile bases (Laurel, Miles City, Cody, etc.) as they do every year, and that large air tankers (LAT’s) would probably go to West Yellowstone or Rapid City. That leaves a big gap in LAT coverage for eastern MT and northern WY, including eastern Yellowstone National Park. [Billings] airport was very busy last season with LAT’s including the former Eisenhower Air Force 1 now owned by a Canadian company. I think for a while we had four LAT’s plus SEATS and helicopters flying out of here. Reminded me of being in Missoula!

Thought it was interesting and wondered how many other LAT airports this could impact – if any. Not a problem if we only have fires Monday–Thursday!

More information is available in a press release from the Billings airport.

Thanks Chuck.

Entries for Photoshop contest, ads on air tankers

We have received some entries in our Photoshop contest. As you may remember, it was inspired by Colorado State Senator Steve King who said he would be introducing a bill in the legislature this week to establish a fleet of aerial firefighting resources for the state. In addition, he suggested this:

Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on the tail of slurry bomber?

Below are the submissions we received. Thanks Vincent, Jerome, Walt, and Tim. I think they are all excellent!

Which one do you like best? Be sure and vote in the poll.

Vincent Laval BE-200
BE-200, by Vincent Laval
Jerome Laval P3
P3, by Jerome Laval
Walt Darran DC-10
DC-10, by Walt Darran
Tim Holmes P2V
P2V, by Tim Holmes

(UPDATE: voting on the contest has ended.)

Which design for an ad on an air tanker do you like best?

  • P3 (47%, 70 Votes)
  • P2V (27%, 40 Votes)
  • BE-200 (the one above, not below) (19%, 28 Votes)
  • DC-10 (7%, 10 Votes)

Total Voters: 148

Loading ... Loading ...

The one below came in from Vincent after the deadline, so it’s not part of the contest or the poll.

Beriev Be-200 vincent

Update on air tanker contracting process

 

It was 482 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded in spite of the fact that all previous contracts for federal large and very large air tankers expired in December. The old contracts for a few air tankers were temporarily extended early in 2013 to provide some coverage.

Obviously the Forest Service is long overdue in awarding the contracts for legacy, next-generation, and very large air tankers. Fire season has been going on for several weeks in the south and the southwest, and Red Flag Warnings for enhanced fire danger have been common. Usually the tankers start coming on duty in mid-February.

There have been some indications that the Forest Service will announce contract awards this week for legacy air tankers, perhaps as early as Wednesday. But don’t hold your breath.

The privately owned air tanker companies, in order to remain alive in this industry, have to have nerves of steel and balls of titanium. They have to invest millions in the aircraft, deal with the FAA, pass a very expensive certification process required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, hope that Congress and the President appropriate enough money to fund a viable air tanker program, and then maybe, MAYBE receive a contract. And the contracting process is very daunting. Here is an example of a question from a potential bidder for a legacy contract, and an “answer” from the U.S. Forest Service:

Question: The response to question 44 in Response to Questions to the Draft Solicitation is confusing …. Please confirm that this RFP is only for legacy airtankers as defined by the “large Airtanker Modernization Strategy’.

Answer: The “Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” states that Legacy Airtankers are airtankers such as P-2V Neptunes, P-3 Orions, and Convair CV-580s. However, the strategy provides no formal definition of a Legacy Airtanker. This solicitation was developed around the specifications of the Legacy type airtankers as identified above. There is no specifically defined criterion that specifically defines a Legacy airtanker. Next generation type (again no formal definition) aircraft or any type of aircraft may be offered and may be awarded under this solicitation as long as they meet the specifications identified in the solicitation.

 

Report: contracts to be awarded for 7 next-gen air tankers

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

According to a report in Friday’s Durango Herald, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers. Secretary Vilsack was responding to a letter Senator Udall sent to the Secretary in January requesting an update on the modernization of the federal air tanker fleet.

The U.S. Forest Service first issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers 479 days ago but no contracts have been signed. The contracts were almost awarded last summer but were held up by protests that two unsuccessful bidders filed. The solicitation was reissued in October of 2012 but no results have been announced. It is possible that even after the USFS makes their decision about potential awards, there will be an additional 30-day delay while Congress is notified. The USFS is also overdue in announcing awards for “legacy air tankers”, the old P2Vs, the contracts for which expired December 31, 2012. Since there were no large air tankers on contract when this new year began, the agency temporarily extended the contracts for a few of the P2Vs. The call when needed contracts for very large air tankers, such as the DC-10, also expired last year and has not been renewed.

In 2012 the USFS only had 9 to 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This is in contrast to the 44 on contract in 2002. The agency has paid for eight studies about the use of air tankers since 1995, some of which recommended that 30, 40, or more are needed.

Next-generation air tankers will eventually replace the Korean War vintage P2V aircraft currently being used. They will be turbine-powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and preferably have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant.

Erickson to buy Evergreen Helicopters, Inc.

Evergreen helicopter at Custer 2008
An Evergreen helicopter, a Eurocopter AS 350 B3,  at Custer, SD July 9, 2008. Photo by Bill Gabbert

As we reported on Wildfire Today earlier this afternoon, Erickson Air-Crane, Inc. has signed an agreement to purchase Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., a company with approximately 400 employees. This will be the second major acquisition Erickson has made in the last three months. In November they reached an agreement to buy Air Amazonia, a subsidiary of HRT Participacoes in Brazil, along with their 14 helicopters. Both acquisitions are expected to close in the second quarter of this year.

For the $250 million price tag, Erickson will get 52 helicopters and 12 fixed wing aircraft from Evergreen Helicopters. The 64 aircraft are a mix of leased and owned. Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker”, which can carry up to 20,000 gallons of fire retardant, is not part of the deal and will remain with Evergreen. The 747 is still configured as an air tanker but has not fought fire recently. The company has not been interested in accepting the U.S. Forest Service’s only offer of a call when needed contract.

From Air Amazonia Erickson will receive 14 passenger transport and medium-lift helicopters, (7) S-61, (5) Bell 212, and (2) A350 that have been used in the oil and gas industry. At this time Erickson has no plans to use the Amazonia helicopters for aerial fire suppression.

Erickson Air-Crane, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, for decades has built, operated, and sold Erickson S-64 heavy-lift helicopters, using a license acquired from Sikorsky. Up through 2007 the company concentrated on firefighting (53% of their business) and timber harvesting (38%). With the planned diversification the company expects to add contracts for Department of Defense work amounting to approximately 43% of their revenue, as well as increasing the oil and gas component. They think that about 30% of their work will be in Afghanistan. After the acquisitions, firefighting will provide about 19% of Evergreen’s revenue.

Since the company went public in April 2012 their stock price has risen from $8.00 to $15.11 today. According to Zacks.com:

In 2012, the company generated revenues of $180.8 million, up 18.4% year over year. The increase in revenue was driven by new firefighting contracts, an active fire season and the company’s expansion of infrastructure construction, especially in support of the oil-and-gas market in South America.

Maybe we’re entering a period of merger-mania. As we reported December 12, 2012, Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick. Aero Air acquired Butler’s three DC-7 air tankers, support equipment, and spare parts in Madras, Oregon. Kevin McCullough, now the President of Aero Air, and Jack Erickson, founder and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, became co-owners of Aero Air in 1998. Aero Air is currently converting some MD-87s into air tankers and hopes to snag a contract for “next-generation” air tankers, when and if the U.S. Forest Service ever issues the contracts. It has been 476 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.

Below are examples of the aircraft Erickson will be acquiring.

–From Evergreen Helicopters:

Evergreen helicopters Evergreen fixed wing

–From Air Amazonia:

Amazonia helicopters

Thanks go out to Kelly