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.

10 Tanker is getting four DC-10’s ready for the season

Above: The four Maintenance Support units for 10 Tanker — one for each DC-10. Photo by Robert Mouck.

The crews at 10 Tanker Air Carrier are getting their four DC-10 air tankers ready for the fire season. Two of the aircraft are on exclusive use (EU) contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and the other two are on call when needed (CWN) contracts with the Forest Service.

The company just completed a two-year EU contract with New South Wales in Australia and will be submitting a bid for the next two years. 10 Tanker also has CWN contracts with Douglas County (just south of Denver) and four states: Nevada, California, Montana, and Minnesota.

They just upgraded their Maintenance Support units that follow the air tankers. Each of the four aircraft has a dedicated large goose-neck trailer full of tools and spare parts pulled by a Dodge heavy duty crew cab pickup.

John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said they recently resolved a Supplemental Type Certificate issue with the FAA and expect to finalize some details with the Operational Load Monitoring System and the ATU soon, and then they will be carded again for this year.

10 Tanker maintenance support trucks
Some of the Maintenance Support units for 10 Tanker. Photo by RK Smithley.

North American air tankers return from Australia

Four large air tankers have completed their assignments

Above: The crew from 10 Tanker makes final preparations to depart at the end of their assignment in Australia. Photo credit: RK Smithley.

Originally published at 8:59 a.m. MDT March 23, 2018.

As the bushfire season winds down in New South Wales and Victoria the large air tankers have all returned to their  bases in North America or will be departing soon. The four aircraft were an RJ85 from Aero Flite, a DC-10 from 10 Tanker, and two C-130’s from Coulson.

Below, RK Smithley documents the preparation of the DC-10, the cargo, and their flight from Richmond RAAF Base in New South Wales, Australia back to Albuquerque.

2017 was a busy year for air tankers

In spite of that, the numbers of air tankers and helicopters are being slashed

Above: A water-scooping air tanker, a CL-415, at Sacramento, March 12, 2018.

In our notes from the Aerial Firefighting conference HERE and HERE, we included information about how some air tankers were busier than usual in 2017:

  • Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation, said their air tankers in 2016 averaged 180 hours while working on wildfires. In 2017 that increased to 276 hours each.
  • Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said each of their three DC-10s averaged about 300 hours on fires in 2017, which is more than usual.
  • Shawna Legarza, the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, said the two Aero-Flite CL-415 scooping air tankers that were on exclusive use (EU) USFS contracts in 2017 each had over 400 hours of fire flight time.

After we reported the information above, Jason Robinson, the Chief CL-415 pilot for Aero-Flite contacted us to supply more details. He generally  confirmed the numbers reported  by Ms. Legarza and said their two EU and two CWN CL-415’s averaged 410 hours each. In July and August alone the four scoopers flew 1,036 hours. The company brought in extra staffing to provide seven-day coverage and manage pilot fatigue. He said that in 2017, 12 Canadian CL-415’s and CL-215’s worked in California and Montana.

Mr. Robinson said they have operated CL-415’s in Alaska for up to 12 hours a day by double-crewing the aircraft.

Due to a reduction in the federal firefighting budget by the Administration and Congress, there will be no scoopers on the EU list this year. Some are still on a CWN contract, but they may or may not be available if the USFS Calls them When Needed. The large air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13 while the large Type 1 helicopters have been reduced from 34 to 28.

Videos of a DC-10 working a fire in New South Wales

Above: A DC-10 drops on the Masonite Road Fire in New South Wales. Screengrab from video by Raymond Terrace Fire & Rescue.

Check out these videos of a DC-10 dropping on the Masonite Road Fire near the Newcastle Airport in New South Wales. The fire burned 2,300 hectares (5,683 acres). The airport was closed at times due to degraded visibility caused by the smoke.

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UPDATE January 20, 2018: I found another video, of the DC-10 working the Pilliga fire.

Video of multiple air tankers working the Liberty Fire near Murrieta, CA

Above: The Liberty Fire east of Murrieta, California, December 7, 2017. Screengrab from the KTLA video.

(Originally published at 7 p.m. PST December 7, 2017)

KTLA shot some excellent stabilized video from a helicopter Thursday of the Liberty Fire that has burned about 300 acres northeast of Murrieta, California. This is a new fire that erupted this afternoon 17 miles north of another new fire, the Lilac Fire south of Temecula which was 3,000 acres at 7 p.m. PST.

The video, which is almost 2 hours long, has at least 8 shots of air tankers dropping. We skimmed through it quickly and noted where the drops occur, probably missing a few.

13:00 – DC-10
17:00 – BAe-146/C-130
35:30 – C-130
38:35 – BAe-146
49:15 –  S-2
1:05:00 – MAFFS
1:30:00 – 747
1:40:20 – MAFFS

A tour of Air Tanker 912

Also known in Australia as Bomber 912, or “Nancy Bird”.

Above: File photo of Air Tanker 912, a DC-10, making a quick orbit over the Indian Canyon Fire to check out the last of two drops the aircraft had just made just after sunset near Edgemont, South Dakota July 17, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Air Tanker 912 is beginning its contract with New South Wales in Australia, working out of Richmond. The NSW Rural Fire Service produced this video featuring pilot Captain R. K. Smithley giving us a tour of the huge 11,600-gallon capacity aircraft. (If you are having trouble seeing the video you can view it at YouTube.

10 Tanker Air Carrier recently renamed the aircraft “Nancy Bird”, honoring a renowned aviatrix in Australia.