GAO denies protests of Next-Gen air tanker solicitation

GAO logoThe Government Accountability Office has denied two protests over the solicitation for “up to seven” Next-Generation air tankers published by the U.S. Forest Service. Erickson Aero Tanker and Coulson Aviation protested some of the terms of the solicitation process before any announcement was made about awarding contracts. The USFS had hoped to have the air tankers working by May 30, but the protests halted the contracting process. Coulson’s was denied on July 8 and Erickson’s on July 17.

The next step is for the USFS to decide what companies they want to issue contracts to, and then they have to abide by a strange law that requires they notify Congress of their intent, and then wait 30 days before actually awarding any contracts.

At that point, the process will again be vulnerable to an another round of protests over the awards themselves, each of which will take up to 100 days to be adjudicated by the GAO.

Photos of helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia

Fire on Sproat Lake S-61
One of Coulson’s S-61 helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia. Photo by Britt Coulson.

Britt Coulson of The Coulson Group sent us these photos of the wildfire burning along the lake near the company’s Martin Mars base in British Columbia. One of their S-61 Type 1 helicopters assigned to the fire can be seen in two of the photos, the black and white ship.

helicopter fire on Sproat Lake
One of Coulson’s S-61 helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia. Photo by Britt Coulson.
Helicopters fire Sproat Lake
Helicopters working the fire on Sproat Lake in British Columbia. Photo by Britt Coulson.

Earlier we wrote about the inquiry the British Columbia Wildfire Service made about possibly activating the Martin Mars using their existing call when needed contract.

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”

Chinese pilots to train in Canada to fly new amphibious air tanker

AG600 TA-600
AG600/TA-600 under construction. DFNS photo.

Chinese pilots will be training in Canada to fly the new TA-600 amphibious aircraft now being built in China by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

Britton Coulson of The Coulson Group said their company will be training 14 test pilots during two weeks in late July who will be the first to fly the TA-600. The training will include ground, water taxi, flight, and scooping and dropping water. The pilots from China will go through classroom and hands on training using Coulson’s Hawaii Martin Mars aircraft, actually taxiing and flying the huge flying boat.

The new Chinese aircraft will have a 3,000-gallon water capacity, four turboprop engines, can handle a wave height of two meters, and will have a maximum speed of 354 mph (570 kph, 308 knots). The base model for the aircraft is the AVIC TA-600 which is designed to be used for transport, water rescue, or to carry up to 50 passengers. The air tanker version appears to have the AG-600 model name. Both aircraft are similar to what was then known as the JL-600 when we wrote about it in 2010 at Wildfire Today. The maiden flight is expected to take place in the first half of 2016.

Hawaii and Philippine Mars
Hawaii (foreground) and Philippine Mars in 2008. Photo by RuthAS.

Coulson owns two huge water scooping flying boat Martin Mars air tankers, with a capacity of 7,200 gallons of water which can be mixed on board with foam concentrate. However, the two planes, the Philippine and Hawaii Mars built in 1945 and now based at Port Alberni, BC, Canada, have not been used as air tankers in recent years. The Philippine Mars, which retired several years ago, is expected to be traded to the Pensacola Naval Museum in Florida in exchange for some aircraft the museum has in their inventory. British Columbia did not renew their firefighting contract for the Hawaii Mars for 2014.

Mr. Coulson said, “By the end of July both Mars will be serviceable and most likely we will have the Philippine in the water as well getting ready to fly to Pensacola”.

Philippine Mars
Philippine Mars after being repainted in its original colors, July 17, 2014. (Screen grab from a Coulson video.)

Related articles on Fire Aviation and Wildfire Today:

China manufacturing large amphibious air tanker
Wayne Coulson, on the Martin Mars and their C-130
Coulson loses B.C. contract for Martin Mars
Martin Mars finishes fire contract in Mexico, next stop Discovery Channel
Video of Martin Mars’ drop in Vancouver today
Video of Martin Mars dropping on Mt. Wilson
Martin Mars drops 64,000 gallons on two fires

Coulson’s L-382G at the grid test

Coulson T-132 grid test

Last week Coulson’s Tanker 132, a Lockheed L-382G, went through the grid testing procedure, which involves dropping loads of retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups placed on stakes. Then the amount of retardant in each cup is measured to determine if the pattern across the grid meets the standards of the Interagency AirTanker Board.

An L-382G, also known as an L-100-30,  is a civilian version of a Lockheed C-130, which has been stretched about 15 feet compared to the L-100.

The aircraft will eventually receive a “wrap” that will look like a fancy paint job, similar to the one on T-131.

Coulson T-132 grid test

Coulson T-132 grid test

Coulson T-132 grid test

Coulson’s L-382G going through static and grid testing

air tanker L-382G tank rolling in
The retardant tank rolling into Coulson’s L-382G. Coulson photo.

The L-382G that Coulson is converting into an air tanker will be at McClellan on April 27 for static testing of the tank system and in Lancaster, California on May 4 for grid tests.

The L-382G is the civilian version of Lockheed’s C-130H-30, which is the stretched H model.

The tank has a capacity of 36,000 pounds. There is not much agreement about the exact weight of retardant, but Britton Coulson said they expect to carry about 4,250 USG.

“Even with a full tank and 3 to 4 hours of fuel”, Mr. Coulson said, “we are still almost 20,000 pounds under our max gross weight so we are still no where near maxing out the airplane.”

L-382G ready for tank
The interior of the L-382G showing the lower hopper installation. This was a structural superior version where none of the Lockheed structure was cut, other than the skin. Coulson photo.
L-382G cargo
The interior of the L-382G with the floorboard down, configured to haul cargo. Coulson photo.

Coulson’s C-130Q air tanker began their fire season this year on April 1, the start of their Mandatory Availability Period.

Australia gearing up air assets for bushfire season

T162 arriving Avalon
Tanker 162, an RJ-85, arrives at Avalon, Victoria, Australia December 7, 2014. Photo by Mike Austin.

Contracted aerial firefighting assets are arriving in Victoria for the Australian bushfire season. Conair’s Tanker 162, an RJ-85, arrived on December 7. Coulson’s C-130Q is expected to be there by Monday night local time, December 8. They will be based at the Avalon Airport in Victoria.

As usual, two of Coulson’s S61 helicopters will be on contract, beginning December 17 this year. One of them was in storage over the winter at Essendon Airport. The other was seen December 8 being trucked from Port Melbourne to Essendon.

Two Erickson Air-Crane helicopters are being contracted through Kestrel Aviation in Victoria for service in the state.

New South Wales had two Air-Cranes delivered by an Antonov cargo aircraft on October 4. Those two helicopters are “Gypsy Lady” and “Ichabod”; their contract started on October 6.

(UPDATED at 8 p.m. MST December 7, to provide more detailed information about the helicopters, and the ETA of the C-130Q.)

More details about the aviation assets to be available for the 2014/2015 bushfire season in Victoria.

In-flight videos shot from Tanker 131

These videos were shot with a GoPro camera attached to Tanker 131, a C-130Q, while it was dropping on the King Fire between Placerville and Lake Tahoe, California. That was the fire where 12 firefighters deployed their fire shelters in front of advancing flames and were led to safety by a pilot in a helicopter.

Thanks go out to Britt Coulson for making these available.

We wish other air tanker operators would invest a couple of hundred dollars in a camera they could attach to their aircraft.

I’d love to see a split screen video of an air tanker dropping. On one side we would see the ground and the drop itself, and the other side would be shot from the cockpit and would include the audio of the crew — like this video shot from MAFFS 3 in July. It would take a little bit of advanced video editing, but I imagine if the raw footage was available we could find a volunteer who could put it together.

The photo below of Coulson’s Tanker 131 was shot while it was on final for landing at Redding, California, August 7, 2014.

T-131 landing at Redding, California 8-7-2014
T-131 landing at Redding, California August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.