Forest Service issues solicitations for CWN air tankers

Above: Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. The aircraft was under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

On June 15 the U.S. Forest Service issued solicitations for Call When Needed (CWN) air tankers. There are two separate requests for proposals (RFP), one for Large Air Tankers (LAT) and another for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT).

The verbiage in the LAT document implies that, perhaps, only air tankers that have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons will be considered:

Aircraft less than 3000 gallons or greater than 5000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft in the target volume, given the priority mission for these airtankers is initial attack.

And the VLAT RFP “prefers” aircraft that can carry at least 8,000 gallons.

Aircraft with greater than 8000-gallon (72,000 pounds) dispensing capacity are preferred. Aircraft less than 8000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft at the target volume, given the primary mission for these airtankers is large fire support.

It is interesting that the RFP has such imprecise language for this important specification, capacity, that can be easily required and measured. It is not subjective, unlike the editorial comments about one type of air tanker being prioritized for initial attack and another for large fire support. This assumes that LATs are not suitable for large fires and VLATs are not appropriate for initial attack. There are so few federally contracted air tankers available, now that the numbers have been cut again, that during periods of high fire activity too often no air tanker is going to arrive during the initial attack stage when a new fire is still small — unless it is on state land in California where CAL FIRE still believes in aggressive initial attack from both the ground AND the air. A VLAT, while carrying three to six times more than a LAT, can split their load, only dropping what is necessary, and land partially loaded with retardant if necessary.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and various congressional committees have been begging the Forest Service for many years to develop hard data to determine the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft and the liquids they drop on fires, so that better decisions can be made about how the $100 million appropriated annually for this activity should be spent.

The last time the Forest Service issued a solicitation for CWN air tankers was 222 days ago, on May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS at that time restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated VLATs from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the 747 carries up to 19,200.

Global Supertanker, the operator of a 747 VLAT, filed a protest which was upheld by the GAO. In their decision, the GAO wrote 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.

In 2012 the FS began a program to answer some of the questions about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft, titled, Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study. The agency’s stated goal was to begin releasing summaries of the results in 2017, but so far have not done so. A couple of weeks ago when we asked Vicki Christiansen, the Interim Chief of the Forest Service, when the study’s results would be released, she responded by email:

The summaries are not currently available. Unforeseen delays with staffing changes, retrieving aviation use data, and completing final reviews has delayed their overall schedule. The AFUE work group is continuing their work to complete the summaries and they will be provided as soon as they become available.

We asked Forest Service Chief why air tankers were cut by 35%

Above: Tanker 07, a P2V, drops retardant on the Red Canyon Fire nine miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

The U.S. Forest Service has cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year by 35 percent, from 20 to 13. We asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, why, and she responded in writing Tuesday:

The reduction in Exclusive Use contracts is due to the “Legacy” Exclusive Use Airtanker contract expiring in 2017.

The Forest Service has known for years that 2017 would be the last season for the Korean War vintage P2V’s with the 18-cylinder radial engines. In 2013 the agency began a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” turbine-powered aircraft with the ultimate goal of eliminating the P2V’s. The last four that were on contract in 2017 are now retired and most will find final resting places in museums.

Victoria Christiansen
Victoria Christiansen

In addition to losing the four P2V’s, the Forest Service cut three Next Gen BAe-146’s this year.

In February U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues were affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner.

Chief Christiansen told us this week they will have “up to 16” large air tankers available through Call When Needed (CWN) contracts. This is an increase over the 11 the FS told us about in February.

If CWN air tankers are available the cost can be up to 54 percent higher than those on EU contracts.

There are two costs for air tankers — daily plus hourly. If the aircraft just sits at an air tanker base available with a flight crew it only earns the daily availability rate. When it flies, an hourly rate is added.

We averaged the daily and hourly EU and CWN rates for three models of air tankers provided by three different companies, BAe-146 by Neptune, RJ85 by Aero Flite, and C-130 (382G) by Coulson. The numbers below are the combined averages of the three aircraft:

EU Daily: $30,150
EU Hourly: $7,601
CWN Daily: $46,341 (+54%)
CWN Hourly: $8,970 (+18%)

These costs only account for the additional costs of contracting for the air tankers, and do not include any increased costs of new, small wildfires escaping initial attack due to a lack of available air tankers or Type 1 helicopters (which have also been cut, from 34 to 28). And it does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost.

Art Prints

In addition to the 13 air tankers on EU and the 11 (or 16) that may or may not be available on CWN, the Forest Service will use one Coast Guard HC-130H. They will also have access to up to seven military C-130’s which can be outfitted temporally with 3,000-gallon MAFFS retardant systems. And, they have occasionally borrowed air tankers from Canada and the state of Alaska if they were available.

Forest Service activates seven CWN air tankers

Recently the U.S. Forest Service temporarily activated an additional seven air tankers using the Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in June:

  • T-02 (N474NA) Neptune BAe-146 (presently on loan to Canada)
  • T-40 (N146FF) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-163 (N366AC) Aero Flite RJ-85
  • T-41 (N471NA) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-911 (N17085) 10 Tanker DC-10
  • T-162 (N355AC) Aero Flite RJ 85
  • T-01 (N473NA) Neptune BAe-146

That makes 22 large air tankers that are available now, counting the 14 on exclusive use contracts, the one USFS HC-130H that will start this week, and the seven that are on temporary call-up assignments. But those seven CWN tankers can be sent home anytime.

Having 15 air tankers on exclusive use contracts is the most since 2010 when there were 19. There have not been 22 air tankers on EU contracts since 2004 when we had 27. In 2002, 44 large air tankers were on EU contracts.

Graph, request for large air tankers

The USFS is trying to award “up to seven” additional EU contracts for next-generation air tankers. They hoped to have them working by May 30, but protests about the contracting process by two companies brought that process to a halt. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit. The OMB is required to reach their decisions by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s.

On July 8 the GAO issued their decision on Coulson’s protest, and it was denied. They still have not decided on Erickson’s. We believe that if both protests are denied, the USFS can immediately, or as soon as they can, award additional EU contracts for air tankers.

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”

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.

Evergreen to get CWN contract for 747

We will classify this as Breaking News. Evergreen has not had a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for their 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker for a while, but they will get a new three-year CWN contract beginning July 1, 2013.

When the company had a CWN contract before, the aircraft was very rarely used, making it difficult for the company to justify maintaining the ship and the flight crew in a ready to go state. It will be interesting to see if it sits, or actually drops retardant on fires.

Maybe the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that awarded the contract, is looking for a stop-gap, to fill the void until the all seven “next generation” air tankers that recently received exclusive use contracts become fully certified. Only one of the seven is, the DC-10.

The CWN contract for 10 Tanker’s second DC-10, Tanker 910, will also be renewed for three years on July 1. It was activated Friday morning and flew to Albuquerque.

The other DC-10, Tanker 911, recently got a five-year exclusive use contract. It has been busy for the last two weeks dropping on fires in California, New Mexico, and Colorado

(UPDATE June 15, 2013)

Thanks to John, we have the numbers in the contracts:

  • Evergreen 747 – Daily Rate $75,000 + Flight Rate $12,000
  • 10 Tanker DC-10 – Daily Rate $51,522 + Flight Rate $7,668

More details about the prices in the contract awards.

(UPDATE at 2:25 p.m. MT, June 17, 2013)

I was wondering why the contract for the 747 does not start until July 1. Today I found on an aircraft forum what might be the answer — in February, 2012, the Supertanker was photographed in the desert missing two engines.

(UPDATED info HERE, August 22, 2013)