CWN contracts awarded for 22 next-gen air tankers

Coulson T-132 grid test
Coulson Aviation’s L-382G during the grid test in early May, 2015.

The U.S. Forest Service announced yesterday that they awarded Call When Needed (CWN) contracts to five companies for a total of 22 next-generation air tankers. Not all of the aircraft exist yet in flyable, modified, inspected, and carded form. In fact, we estimate only about half of them are ready to go now if the phone rang.

The companies receiving the six-year CWN contracts include:

  • Neptune Aviation, 6 BAe-146s
  • Coulson Aviation, 1 Lockheed L-382G
  • Air Spray USA, 4 BAe-146s
  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, 5 DC-10s
  • Aero Flite, 6 BAe Avro 146 RJ85s

These CWN contracts are in addition to the 14 air tankers currently on Exclusive Use Contracts, and the additional aircraft that could be added, up to seven, when the bidding process that is being protested now is settled. Later this year there could be up to 21 air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus the CWN aircraft on this contract that was just awarded. Many of the air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts are also listed on the new CWN contract, so there is some duplication.

An exclusive use contract commits an aircraft to working non-stop, except for days off, for an extended period of days, 160, for example.

However on a CWN contract the aircraft may never be used by the USFS. It could sit for years without being activated by the agency. That was one reason the 747 “Supertanker” ceased to exist. It was parked for years on a CWN contract and was not used.

This, of course, can be a very expensive and risky proposition for a private company. They have to decide if they are going to maintain the aircraft in a continuous airworthy condition and hire flight crews and maintenance personnel. The USFS thinks it’s a great deal since they spend nothing if an air tanker is not used. But even if a CWN aircraft had been at one time fully certified, by the time the USFS decides to activate it, the aircraft and the staff to operate it may or may not be ready to fight fire. And the CWN rates are usually much higher than a multi-year exclusive use contract.

Walt Darren, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away a couple of years ago, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker ready to go.

Ravi Saip, the General Manager and Director of Maintenance for Air Spray at Chico, California, said none of their BAe-146s are fully operational today. They are working on two of them, and hope to have one finished by the end of this fire season. He said most of the work is done on that aircraft, and they are working closely with British Aerospace on the cutouts in the belly through which the retardant will flow. In about two months they hope to begin flight tests, and they still need to get the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and the Interagency AirTanker Board certifications.

Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker told us they have three completed DC-10s. Two are carded and are being used today on fires in California, T-911 and T-912. The third, which replaced and upgraded the older T-910, will retain that tanker number and is waiting for the USFS to issue their certification.

Britt Coulson of Coulson Aviation said they hope their recently converted Lockheed L-382G will be carded by the USFS next week. A civilian version of the C-130, it completed the grid test in early May.

The full list of air tankers receiving CWN contracts is below. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Continue reading “CWN contracts awarded for 22 next-gen air tankers”

Protests delay awards of air tanker contracts

Tanker 101, an MD-87
Tanker 101, an MD-87 operated by Erickson Aero Tanker, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service (FS) had hoped to have as many as seven additional “Next Generation” large air tankers working under contract on May 30, 2015, but protests filed by two companies could push that date back by several months.

The FS first awarded contracts for Next-Gen air tankers in 2013 at the end of a 555-day process that also included protests which delayed the awards. Next-Gen air tankers are required to have capabilities not present in the previous generation of Korean War vintage machines. They must fly faster, be powered by turbine or jet engines, and have a capacity of at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

Two companies have filed protests about this latest round of potential contracts, Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit, which they are required to do by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s. Both companies later amended their original complaints, which complicates the procedure for the GAO, so it is unlikely that anything will be decided much before those mid-July due dates.

No contracts have been awarded yet, nor has the FS announced what their intentions are about the contracts. The two companies are protesting the terms of the solicitation which was first posted on February 19, 2015, and then amended five times. Responses from bidders were due on April 9, 2015.

In researching this article we reached out to Erickson Aero Tanker and Coulson Aviation, but did not receive replies by our publication deadline.

When the awards were announced for the first round of Next-Gen contracts in May, 2013, Neptune Aviation did not receive one of the seven contracts and filed a protest. A few weeks later Neptune dropped their protest which allowed the FS to finalize the contracts form the other seven air tankers. It was disclosed later that the FS and Neptune had entered into a written agreement under which the agency agreed to award Neptune a sole-source contract for two Next-Gen large airtankers in exchange for Neptune withdrawing its protest.

In December, 2013  the FS awarded the promised sole source contract to Neptune for the two air tankers beginning in 2014. The estimated minimum value of the contract was $141,000,000 and had a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. If those five years were tacked on it would could have brought the value of the contract up to almost half a billion dollars.

The basis for awarding the non-competitive sole source contract to Neptune, according to the FS, was that the company was in danger of going out of business. The agency used the industrial “mobilization exception” to the requirement to conduct a competitive procurement. Their rationale was that without Neptune, the FS could not field an adequate number of air tankers. In March, 2014 we wrote a very detailed article about the sole source award and how it developed.

That sole source contract was protested by three companies, Coulson Aviation, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, and Minden Air Corp. The GAO upheld the protest, writing in their March 2014 decision that the sole-source award to Neptune in exchange for Neptune’s withdrawal of an earlier protest, was not a reasonable basis for the agency’s action. GAO also disputed the claim that Neptune was in danger of going under, and recommended that the FS reimburse Coulson, 10 Tanker, and Minden for their costs of filing and pursuing the protests, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Douglas County, Colorado signs CWN aircraft contracts

Douglas County, just south of Denver (map), signed contracts three weeks ago with three fire aviation companies. The agreements are Call When Needed (CWN) and will only be activated when the aircraft are specifically needed.

Two of the contracts are for helicopters, with HeliQwest International and Trans Aero Ltd. The other is for the 11,600-gallon DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

Thanks and a tip of  the hat go out to Bean.

10 Tanker’s upgraded DC-10 is almost ready to fight fire

T-910
This aircraft replaced the original DC-10, Tanker 910. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.

On April 18, 10 Tanker Air Carrier wrote on their Facebook page:

Last week our “new” 910 finished the conversion and came out of the hanger. Yesterday she made her first flight. She’ll head back to Albuquerque this week for Forest Service checks, and be ready for the fire season. What a beautiful addition to the fleet!

T-910
The “new” version of Tanker 910. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.

Last year 10 Tanker Air Carrier retired one of their three DC-10 air tankers, Tanker 910, the first DC-10 air tanker.

The aircraft was converted in 2004, and began working in California under a CAL FIRE contract in 2006. Since that time Tanker 910 dropped on over 500 fire missions in California, and over 750 across the country. It has been joined by two other converted DC-10s, with the third one being introduced to the fleet on August 30.

The “new” Tanker 910 is a newer air frame that will carry the same “T-910” designation as the plane that retired last fall. The work on the replacement began in early September, 2014.

“The new T-910, like T-912, is one of the last DC-10s built, and will standardize our fleet on the DC-10 -30 model,” Rick Hatton, President and CEO of 10 Tanker, said in January. He said the DC-10-30 is certified to fly at gross weights up to 590,000 pounds. On a typical firefighting mission with three hours of fuel the aircraft would lift off weighing approximately 390,000 pounds. The company says this allows a margin of nearly 200,000 pounds below the previously certified weight, which greatly enhances performance, maneuverability, and safety.

Mr. Hatton said three of their DC-10 airtankers will be available for the 2015 fire season — T-911, T-912, and the “new” T-910.

A DC-10 engine on the highway

DC-10 engine

10 Tanker Air Carrier describes their photo, taken in the Albuquerque area:

“Today we loaded one of our General Electric CF6 engines on a trailer and trucked it across town to Central New Mexico Community College School of Applied Technologies. We donated the engine with the hope that it will enhance their large aircraft maintenance program…… and continue to send us good employees! No denying its large, and looks even larger driving down the road! BTW…….this is an engine for a DC10-10, and all of our airplanes will now be DC10-30’s.”

Three DC-10 air tankers at Castle

Tankers 919, 911, 912 at Merced 8-30-2014
Tankers 910, 911, and 912 at Castle Airport, 8-30-2014. Photo by 10 Tanker.

On August 30 the latest DC-10 air tanker to be retrofitted, Tanker 912, joined its’ sisters, T-910 and T-911 at Castle Airport near Merced, California. It has been carded by the U.S. Forest Service and is ready to go, according to 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

A third DC-10 air tanker to become available

Tanker 912, DC-10
T-912 after arrival at Albuquerque. Photo by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

A third DC-10 air tanker is expected to become available in the very near future. 10 Tanker Air Carrier has announced that the conversion of their third Very Large Air Tanker is complete and they expect to receive it at their company headquarters this week in Albuquerque. The final step will be certification by the Forest Service, after which it will be dispatched where requested by fire managers. It will be designated as Tanker 912.

The DC-10s always carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant unless a smaller load is requested by fire managers. That is three to six times more than conventional air tankers.

Updated: MD-87 and DC-10 back in the air

(Originally published at 11:24 a.m. MDT, August 3, 2014; revised August 4, 2014)

The issues that kept one of the DC-10s and all three of the MD-87 air tankers grounded for a while have been partially mitigated for the MD-87s, and totally fixed in the case of the DC-10.

DC-10

Tanker 910, a DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, suffered some damage to a wing on July 19 as it was taxiing at the air tanker base at Moses Lake, Washington. While relocating in the loading pit area the aircraft struck a portable “air stair”, a structure that can be pushed up to the aircraft door. Two people on the ground were marshaling the DC-10 as it slowly moved, directing it where to go and supposedly watching for obstructions. Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker, told us that the air tanker was back in service on July 28.

Mr. Hatton said their second DC-10, Tanker 911, has been busy on fires. The third one being built now, Tanker 912, was test flown on August 2. It will enter service later this month, perhaps as early as August 11.

MD-87s

On June 27 Erickson Aero Tanker recalled the three MD-87s they were operating, tanker numbers 101, 103, and 105, “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Oregonian later reported that retardant was being ingested into the engines. On June 30 Tanker 101 returned to service, but with restrictions. Tanker 105 should be in service the week of August 4, but with same restrictions.

We have confirmed that the air tanker is limited to no more than coverage level four, which is four gallons per 100 square feet — about half of the maximum coverage level for fully capable air tankers. Our understanding of the issue is that the MD-87s have two retardant openings on the belly. On most air tankers they are called “doors”, since they operate much like a door on a hinge, swinging down on some air tankers. But the MD-87 has two “spades”, which function like a stopper in a bathtub. The spade in the aircraft normally plugs the hole, but raises, in a constant-flow manner, to allow retardant to flow around it and exit the aircraft.

Tanker 101 is using just the left spade instead of both. That spade now has half a funnel at the leading edge to get the retardant moving backwards as it comes out. There is a report that a slight mist was still contacting the wing but it appears that retardant is no longer going into the engines. The leading edge slats make that small amount of retardant that touches the wing look worse than it is.

One of the MD-87 pilots is qualified for initial attack.

Phone calls to Erickson Aero Tanker requesting comments on this issue were not returned.