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.

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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

New 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.

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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.

12 Questions for Dave Dicky

This is the eighth in a series of articles on FireAviation.com featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. We hope to get participation from senior pilots, as well as Air Operations Branch Directors, Air Tactical Group Supervisors, and others that have worked closely with fire aviation. Our objective is to not only provide our readers with interesting articles, but these very experienced aerial firefighters may also reveal a few gems of information that could prove to be valuable to those considering or just beginning a career in fire aviation. If you have a suggestion of someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Today we hear from Dave Dicky, captain on a P2V for Neptune Aviation. In addition to flying air tankers he has also done some instructing for the companies he has worked with.

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Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known?
Mike Lynn is “The Most Valuable Player” in my book. He is highly experienced at the lead plane duties, maintaining safety and calmness throughout the mission. His prior experience as a tanker pilot shows in his ability to execute the tasks accurately and with little effort. He simply does an outstanding job in all aspects of the firefighting environment.

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
Be open minded of those with much experience, even if they suggest another occupation.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Getting back to the basics of initial attack firefighting with the right tools. Bureaucracy doesn’t fight fire well at all.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
Call us in to work sooner. Don’t wait until it blows up to call in aircraft. It’s too late then, even for aircraft.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
There are much better aircraft out there for the mission.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
P-3 Orion and Q400.

List the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?
PB4Y2, KC-97, P2V, P-3, and L-188 Electra. The P-3 is the most favorable due to its tank, capabilities and reliability.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
One air tanker being flown to another base to cover the existing tanker. It was funny to learn that both aircraft had the same day off.

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
4900

Your favorite book about fire, firefighting, or aerial firefighting?
The True Story of Smokey Bear

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
Co-pilot on Tanker 06 with Black Hills Aviation

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
GPS and In-flight Weather display is great. A multifunction display is also quite useful. A cell phone is pretty nice. How about a laptop computer? Where do you want to go with this? Snap-on super offset wrenches are very useful at times. I use a fork nearly every day too.

Oklahoma firefighters may use a drone on wildfires this year

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been in the news recently. FireFlight UAS, a company in Oklahoma that manufactures small versions of the aircraft, is adding to the hype by marketing their products to firefighters. According to NewsOn6, they have convinced John Hansen, the Director of the Oklahoma Council on Firefighter Training, the vehicles could provide valuable intelligence during suppression of wildfires.

Here is a video report about the UAV.
NewsOn6.com – Tulsa, OK – News, Weather, Video and Sports – KOTV.com |

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.

FAA approvals for the use of UAVs

FAA approvals for drones
FAA approvals for drones. Map by Electronic Frontier Foundation.

We ran across an interesting map put together by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that displays locations where the FAA has issued permits authorizing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones in the United States. Here is a link to an interactive version of the map with more information.

Below we have pasted some information from the map with a few details about land management agencies that have had these permits. Two of them have expired, and two are still active.
Continue reading “FAA approvals for the use of UAVs”