The FS issued a solicitation for Call When Needed air tanker services May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the GST 747 carries up to 19,200.
10 Tanker Air Carrier, which operates three DC-10’s, attempted to support GST’s protest, but the GAO denied their request to submit an amicus curiae or friend of the court pleading, concluding that the company did not meet the definition of either a protester or an intervenor under the GAO’s Bid Protest Regulations.
The GAO decided that the FS…
…failed to provide reasonable justifications for the challenged specification, such that we are unable to conclude that the challenged specification is reasonably necessary for the agency to meet its needs.
We recommend that the agency make a documented determination of its needs. Once the agency identifies its needs, the agency should revise its solicitation to include specifications that are reasonably necessary to meet those needs. We also recommend that the protester be reimbursed the costs of filing and pursuing the protest, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.
We asked Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the FS, for their reaction to the GAO decision, if GST would be reimbursed for their attorney fees, if GST would be considered for a contract, and if there was any bias in the FS against any VLATs. Here is the response:
In accordance with regulations, the U.S. Forest Service is complying with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision for the Call When Needed (CWN) protest. We are reviewing our documentation. After the review is completed, the agency will determine the most appropriate ways to continue to procure Large and Very Large Next Generation Airtankers.
Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of GST, said:
We are pleased that the GAO sustained our case. We really look forward to working with the Forest Service in the future and hopefully these issues around the [Requests for Proposals] will work themselves out to everybody’s satisfaction.
In 2016 and 2017 the 747 deployed to fires in Israel and Chile and the company currently has a CWN contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression. The aircraft was used for several weeks in California in the last part of the summer supporting CAL FIRE, but the FS has not allowed the company to submit a bid to acquire a contract.
In the 22-page decision, the GAO addressed numerous issues introduced by the FS that attempted to justify the agency’s new policy of restricting the maximum size of a retardant tank in a contract solicitation. In each case the GAO argued that the FS was wrong, unreasonable, illogical, or, it did not apply to the issue.
The FS claimed that the solicitation was intended to procure services to support initial attack operations for which VLATs are not suitable. The GAO responded that the solicitation sought to procure aerial firefighting services to support both initial and extended attack operations. And, since it was a CWN contract, the FS could choose whether or not to use the VLAT on initial or extended attack.
The GAO wrote…
…there is also no support for the agency’s contention that VLATs are not suited for performing initial attack operations.
The GAO noted that 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s had completed a total of 700 missions in 2017 at the time of the decision and routinely performs initial attack operations.
They also found that…
Indeed, the record is completely silent regarding who, if anyone, at the agency made the decision to include the [maximum tank size] restriction, when the decision was made, and why the decision was made. Notably, none of the pre-solicitation documents contain any reference to a 5,000-gallon maximum restriction.
The cited pages do not lend support to the agency’s position. As an example, the page in the 2005 study merely indicates that the agency prefers larger aircraft over smaller aircraft, not that VLATs are somehow less desirable for initial attack operations.
The  study recommends that the wildland firefighting aircraft fleet be composed of a mix of aircraft, including “Very Large Airtankers (>8000 gallons).” In discussing tank sizes, the study recommends a minimum capacity, not a maximum capacity, and reflects a preference for larger retardant tank capacities.
The Forest Service has not identified any study or analysis, upon which it relied to develop the RFP requirements, that has considered the question presented here: whether VLATs are unsuited for initial attack operations. In sum, the studies relied upon by the agency do not provide a reasonable basis to restrict competition.
Although the agency has reached conclusions regarding the technical limitations of VLATs, and is excluding VLATs from competition based upon such conclusions, the record does not demonstrate that the offered studies support the agency’s conclusions. For this reason, we are unable to find that the agency’s asserted justification for the exclusion of VLATs is reasonable.
The FS pointed out that on two occasions a VLAT struck objects on the ground while taxiing. The GAO said both incidents occurred while FS ground personnel were directing the aircraft. Reviews determined that one was 100 percent the fault of the ground guides and the other was 75 percent the fault of the ground guides.
The FS also listed several other reasons that they contend are significant problems related to the use of VLATs, including, the number of personnel needed on the ground, the amount of fuel and retardant needed, the number of suitable bases, and the need for lead planes.
In their written decision the GAO addressed these and other issues brought up by the FS, and similar to the examples above, shot them all down, saying the FS was simply wrong or the issue was not applicable to the protest. The GAO noted that economies of scale, with the VLATs carrying four to seven times more retardant than a conventional large air tanker, can mitigate some of these issues.
We asked Bean Barrett, a former Naval aviator and frequent contributor to this website, for his take on this issue:
It seems to me that their main contracting focus should be the gallons of retardant required to be delivered per hour or per day and the total cost per gallon delivered and the ability to meet various delivery rates/ coverage levels.
Platform type shouldn’t have any bearing on the issue at all unless there is some performance limitation that impacts its ability to meet delivery requirements.
If they ever get around to defining what constitutes acceptable IA in terms of how much retardant, how far away from base, and how fast, then there may be some platform considerations.
Bean recommends a book by Stephen Budiansky titled Blackett’s War: The Men Who defeated Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. It tells the story of how efforts led by Winston Churchill before and during World War II to utilize science and careful analysis resulted in innovations that made the British much more successful in warfare. Bean said, “The parallels you can draw with the USFS and fire aviation’s problems are amazing. It’s a very good interesting book and an easy read.”
One reviewer of the book on Amazon wrote that the Churchill-led efforts “…showed how careful quantitative analysis could provide far better guidance for decision makers than tradition, prejudice, and gut feeling.”
It appears from the GAO report that their decision to sustain the protest was not even close to going the other way. The FS seemed to be grasping at straws trying a shotgun approach, throwing out everything they could think of off the top of their head, with little serious thought, in their ill-considered attempt to prevent GST from being allowed to submit a bid on the contract. They came off looking like an inept, bumbling, incompetent, leaderless organization.
This should be an embarrassment for Jeffery Power, the new Assistant Director of Aviation for the FS, and Shawna Legarza, the National Fire Director for the FS.
Fire aviation is very expensive and based on the fatality records, is very dangerous. The Forest Service should consider reorganizing their aviation assets, removing the aviation autonomy from the individual regions and using a more centralized approach led by a Chief Pilot with actual pilot credentials and experience. It is our understanding that only one of the Regional Aviation Officers, who have far too much responsibility and power, is actually a pilot.
The air tanker holds about 19,000 gallons of retardant or water to aid firefighters on the ground suppressing wildland fires.
Above: Some of the tanks inside the 747 Supertanker while the system was basically in place but not fully installed and operational. McClellan Air Field, March 22, 2016.
(Originally published at 12:05 p.m. October 24, 2017)
Craig notified us about this video which is a very interesting guided tour through the retardant delivery system of the 747 SuperTanker. I learned that the equipment is more complex that I realized. For example, just the compressed air, the AIR, that forces the liquid out of the tanks weighs 2,700 pounds.
The videography is very shaky and the camera is not always pointed in the appropriate direction, but if you can hear SuperTanker pilot Marcos Valdez’s narration, it is very informative. The video was uploaded June 24, 2016.
With seven large fires burning within 40 to 80 miles of McClellan Air Field near Sacramento, the air tanker base there has been extremely busy this week with 12 air tankers working out of the facility at times. Along with the 1,200 to 4,000-gallon air tankers, the very large DC-10 and 747 air tankers using the base need about 12,000 to 19,000 gallons each time they park in a retardant pit.
On Wednesday October 11 a new record was set for the number of gallons loaded into air tankers in one day at the base — 311,000 gallons.
Between October 9 and 11, Tanker 944, a 747, flew 13 sorties and dropped 215,489 gallons of retardant in the 3 day period. The DC-10’s undoubtedly also played a large role in achieving the new record.
Shifting winds were top of mind for crews on Tuesday.
Of note, the coastal marine layer that typically brings with it low-lying clouds and higher humidities was apparent Tuesday morning. However, the boundary line was pronounced, and the area of the Canyon Fire 2 was still experiencing single-digit relative humidity levels, courtesy of the Santa Ana Winds.
Of course, most of the country’s attention was focused on Northern California, where a series of fires charred upward of 80,000 acres in 18 hours — head over to Wildfire Today for details on that.
A 747 Supertanker was among those resources assisting teams on the ground. By 6 p.m. PDT on Monday the aircraft had conducted six sorties, dropping over 110,000 gallons of retardant mostly in the Napa area. Many other air tankers and helicopters were also very busy slowing down the fires, where possible, with water and retardant.
(Above: The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission).
A 747 Supertanker will assist firefighters battling a series of fires that erupted overnight Sunday in California’s wine country.
Global Supertanker announced Monday morning it would assist with efforts to battle the Atlas Fire in Napa County, California. The fire broke out about 9:20 p.m. Sunday and quickly burned approximately 5,000 acres, fanned by high winds, CAL FIRE reported.
The Atlas Fire is among a number of blazes that started Sunday night and Monday morning, forcing thousands of residents from their homes and leaving crews scrambling through the night to get a handle on the sheer number of fire starts.
The largest, the Tubbs Fire, scorched in excess of 20,000 acres within just a few hours, Santa Rosa Fire reported. The fast-moving fire forced the evacuation of area hospitals, closed schools and led officials to recall all city employees to help staff the emergency operations center.
Details about damages or injuries were not immediately available by daybreak Monday.
Fires near "Santa Rosa" and Sonoma/Napa Valleys seen by satellite data "MODIS" from @NASA Greens/Red colors indicate more heat generation. pic.twitter.com/ckmSAF0nEf
It was taken by Leroy Leggit with a Nikon D810. He shot it at 1/800, F 5.6, using a 70-200mm lens at 150mm.
He said he took the photo from the top of a hill looking down at the aircraft.
He told us:
I didn’t know anything about the 747 supertanker until it appeared to my right (at eye level) headed straight toward the fire… what an amazing and unexpected sight… I looked online and saw that it had only been in service for a few days.
The Palmer Fire was reported at 1:33 p.m. MDT September 2, 2017. It is nearly officially contained according to CAL FIRE after burning 3,874 acres.
This was the second fire the aircraft was used on after receiving certification and a contract from CAL FIRE. The 747 was dispatched from McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. According to FlightAware it cruised south at over 600 mph at times before dropping on the fire about an hour later, then reloaded at McClellan and completed a second sortie, dropping almost 19,000 gallons again, splitting the load into two drops.
(UPDATED at 10:07 a.m. MDT September 5, 2017)
After Johnny commented that videos are available, we checked and found these. The first one appears to be the same drop seen in the photo above.
The Supertanker dropped on a wildfire 13 miles northeast of Oroville, California.
(Updated at 12:45 p.m. PDT August 31, 2017)
For the first time in several years the 747 SuperTanker dropped retardant on a wildfire in the United States. In 2016 and earlier this year the 19,000-gallon aircraft was used on fires in Israel and Chile, but it wasn’t until a few days ago that it had all of the inspections, tests, approvals, and very importantly, a contract in place.
On one sortie to the Ponderosa Fire northeast of Oroville, California at 7 p.m. MDT Wednesday August 30 Tanker 944 made two drops, half a load on each pass.
As this article was updated at 12:45 p.m. PDT August 31 the Tanker 944 was on another sortie in the same general area. (see above)
This aircraft is the second version of the Supertanker that was developed by Evergreen Aviation, originally in a 747-100. After buying the retardant system and the intellectual property, Global SuperTanker installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.