Should very large air tankers be used on 7-acre fires?

Landing gear of Air Tanker 910
Landing gear of Air Tanker 910, a DC-10, at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A video we embedded in an article on June 7 shows one of the DC-10 very large air tankers making a precision drop using what appeared to be a small fraction of it’s 11,600 gallon capacity, on what was described as a 7-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It generated a fair amount of discussion in the comments, mostly positive, except for one from “Don” who called it “overkill”. “DiggerT” provided a thoughtful response to Don, and I also added my two cents in a comment.

We don’t know why the DC-10 was selected to drop on the fire near Pinal Peak. Maybe it had been dropping on another fire in the area, or perhaps it was the only air tanker available. At any rate, in the video the radio traffic from the lead or air attack plane indicated that he was extremely pleased with the results of the drop.

I am pasting below what I wrote in the comment because it includes a few details about the pricing structure for the seven next generation air tankers that we have not previously covered:

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“Don, are you aware that the hourly flight rate for the DC-10 on this new exclusive use contract is by far lower than the other six aircraft that were selected for contracts? The nearest competitor is $2,054 per hour more expensive than the DC-10, and the DC-10 is a little more than half the hourly rate for Minden’s BAe-146.

But keep in mind the contract is complex, and the DC-10’s pricing structure, in order to compare apples to apples, is based on delivering 3,000 gallons, approximately the same as the other six aircraft — according to information I received from someone who is very familiar with the contracting process for next generation air tankers. There are additional specifics to cover the DC-10 dropping more than 3,000 gallons.

But as you can see in the bid details, the Total Cost Estimate for the first year, which apparently takes this into account, has the DC-10’s total cost approximately in the same ball park as the others, which are, in millions, $36.4, $36.4, $38.9, $39.5, and $41.3. The DC-10’s was $43.2. But keep in mind that the DC-10 delivers about three to four times more retardant than the maximum capacity of the other next gen air tankers , and six times more than Tanker 40, a BAe-146, if T40 is reloading at Silver City Airtanker Base on a 90 degree day.

And, I have to agree with DiggerT. If there is any potential for a wildland fire to become large it should be attacked with overwhelming force, rather than attempting to fire fire on the cheap. This can save money, property, and lives.

A year ago I wrote my “Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires“:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”

Very large air tanker drops on 7-acre fire

Most of us have seen videos of the DC-10 air tankers dropping massive loads of retardant stretched out over thousands of feet of fireline, as seen in this excellent video by Tim Walton, or this one on the Lost Fire, but the video below is very different. It shows Tanker 911 dropping a very small fraction of its 11,600-gallon load on a seven-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It was uploaded to YouTube April 22, 2013 by ir7kbpf.

 

Thanks go out to Johnny

DC-10 air tanker at Phoenix


The news footage above indicates some of the people in the Phoenix area are pleased to have one of the DC-10 air tankers temporarily working out of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Some Snake River Hotshots crewmembers detailed there out of Idaho are also interviewed in the piece.

After flying 10 missions on the Powerhouse Fire in southern California over two days, the air tanker flew two missions Tuesday on the Thompson Ridge fire which is spreading rapidly west of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today they are back on the Thompson Ridge Fire again, reloading out of Roswell, New Mexico.

Tanker 910 dropping downhill on the Goff Fire


Those who say the DC-10 can’t be used in the mountains should take a look at this.

It was uploaded to YouTube by Kevin Osborne. From the description there:

In this video, tanker 910 is dropping on the west flank of the Goff Fire (part of the Fort Complex) in late summer of 2012. The video was taken from Tim’s Peak, north of Hwy 96 on the Happy Camp/Oak Knoll District of the Klamath National Forest.

Also, check out these very impressive photos taken by Michael Meadows of the DC-10 dropping on the Powerhouse fire north of Los Angeles June 2, 2013.

10 Tanker Air Carrier moving to Casper, Wyoming

Air Tanker 910, Rapid City
Air Tanker 910 at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The operator of the two DC-10 air tankers, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, will be moving their base of operations from Victorville, California, to Casper, Wyoming Rick Hatton, the CEO of the company announced today. The company’s headquarters will be at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport in central Wyoming. Mr. Hatton said, “This fantastic operational environment and its central location will allow improved response times to fires in the mountain west region.”

They expect to have both Tanker 910 and 911 available this year, one on an exclusive use contract and the second on a call when needed contract.

Tanker 911 spent some time last summer working out of Casper. One of the fires it worked on was just five miles from the airport. The remarkable photo below was taken on that fire, the Sheep Herder Hill Complex.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, drops on the Sheep Herder Hill Complex near Casper September 10, 2012. Photo by Alan Rogers, Casper Star-Tribune. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)
Tanker 911, a DC-10, drops on the Sheep Herder Hill Complex near Casper September 10, 2012. Photo by Alan Rogers, Casper Star-Tribune. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)

The status of 10 Tanker’s contract for a next-generation air tanker that was announced last week is uncertain, in light of the protest that is being lodged by Neptune Aviation. The company does not have a signed contract in hand yet, but if there are no problems, Mr. Hatton expects to have it in a matter of days. If the protest does delay the date when the DC-10 is allowed to begin work, or if the USFS has to start the contracting process over again for the third time, it could be many months before any of the seven next-generation air tankers are seen over fires.

This relocation of the company’s headquarters does not have anything to do with the U.S. Forest Service contracts. Regardless of where the agency decides to base the DC-10 on the exclusive use next-gen contract, the new home of the company will be Casper instead of Victorville.

Casper Air Tanker Base
Casper Air Tanker Base, showing two SEATs and a helicopter, August 17, 2012. Google Earth

There are at least eight tanker bases that can accommodate the DC-10 in the western United States with the existing layout of the reloading facilities, according to Pam Baltimore, an Acting Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington D.C. we talked with last year:

  • SBD – San Bernardino, CA
  • MCC – McClellen – CA (Sacramento)
  • MWH – Moses Lake, WA
  • BOI – Boise, ID
  • IWA – Mesa-Gateway, AZ (Phoenix)
  • HIF – Hill AFB, UT
  • HLN – Helena, MT
  • CPR – Casper, WY

Some other bases, such as Rapid City, can accommodate the DC-10 if a portable retardant base is set up. The existing ramp at the Rapid City Tanker Base is too cramped for a Very Large Air Tanker, but there is room on the west side of the terminal for it to be reloaded if a temporary base were set up at that location.

If the DC-10 has to travel farther between a reload base and a fire, that travel distance can be offset to a degree by the 564 mph cruising speed and the 11,600-gallon capacity, equal to about six loads in a P2V.

Neptune air tankers shut down Monday

After the U.S. Forest Service announced on Monday morning their intention to award contracts for next-generation air tankers to five companies, the pilots of all five Neptune Aviation air tankers that were currently working and available for fire assignments walked away from their aircraft in California and New Mexico at about 12:30 p.m MT. The aircraft were unstaffed until Tuesday morning. Neptune did not receive one of the next-gen contracts even though they supplied all but one of the large air tankers on exclusive use contracts for the last one and a half years. The company did, however, receive contracts a few weeks ago for one BAe-146 and six  P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract.

One person who contacted Fire Aviation assumed that the pilots walking off the job was a protest about the fact that the company did not receive a next-gen contract.

We contacted Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, who told us the following:

Neptune decided, for safety reasons, to stand-down our contract fleet (plus flight training in MSO) due to the number of questions and concerns that were flooding into Missoula from the crews in the field. The decision was made with the USFS’s full knowledge and done in accordance with the current “Legacy Contract”. We were notified of the contract awards at the same time of the USFS press release. The timing of the two messages did not give us enough time to send out a notice to our employees of the USFS decision and what it meant to the company and employees. We did not want our crews worried about the company’s future, their jobs, BAe program, etc, instead of being 100% mission focused. We took the opportunity to get clear and concise information to them and allow for questions and concerns to be addressed.

Bottom line, no one was told to walk off the job in protest and to my knowledge no one did it independently.

The first attempt to award the next-gen contracts on June 13, 2012 was overturned after protests by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson Aviation, who did not receive awards, were upheld by the Government Accountability Office. We asked Mr. Snyder if they planned to protest this latest contracting process, and he told Fire Aviation that their company would make a decision about that after a debriefing from the U.S. Forest Service contracting officer.

In their news release, the USFS said the five successful bidders were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing. A person who is familiar with the air tanker contracting process told Fire Aviation that the reasons for not selecting Neptune for this latest next-gen award were most likely based on price and their accident history.

If Neptune submitted the same bid structure on this latest next-gen solicitation as they did the first time, their price, based on the total cost estimate for the 5-year base period, would have been higher than all of the successful bidders in round two, except for the proposal for the DC-10 from 10 Tanker, who based their bid on delivering 5,000 gallons, compared to Neptune’s BAe-146 with a maximum capacity of around 3,000 gallons. The DC-10’s bid allowed for options for the additional 6,600 gallons in their 11,600-gallon tank. The solicitation’s specification was for tankers delivering between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. 10 Tanker shrewdly configured their bid to work within the constraints of the solicitation.

USFS announces contracts for next-generation air tankers

Erickson Aerotanker MD-87
Erickson Aerotanker (Aero Air) MD-87 test drop. Screen grab from Erickson Aerotanker video. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service announced today they intend to award contracts to five companies for what the agency is calling “next-generation” air tankers, used for dropping water or fire retardant on wildfires.

The U.S. Forest Service expects to award exclusive use contracts to:

Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. (See below for more information on the “legacy” aircraft contract).

The new next-gen contracts are for a base period of five years with five one-year options (a total of 10 years if all contract options are exercised).

In a press release the USFS said the contracts allow the companies to provide additional next generation air tankers in future years, contingent on funding and other circumstances…

…to reach the total of 18 to 28 recommended in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy that the Forest Service submitted to Congress in February 2012.

These new contracts for next-gen air tankers require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least  3,000 gallons.

The USFS said the five were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.

We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.

The USFS said they plan to bring the seven next-gen air tankers into service over the next year. Most of these aircraft, except for the DC-10, are not ready to drop retardant on fires. Some are still being converted from airliners into air tankers, have not passed the drop tests required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, or they do not have an FAA Type Certificate. Even if the progress on some of these air tankers goes as the companies optimistically hope, it could be months before they are seen dropping retardant over a fire.

The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers 523 days ago on November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012.

These next-generation air tankers can fly faster, should be more reliable, and can carry more retardant than the “legacy” P2V air tankers that were designed in the 1940s for maritime patrol. The Korean War vintage P2Vs have two 18-cylinder radial piston engines with many moving parts, requiring more maintenance than the turbine or turbofan engines of these newer aircraft. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000 gallons of retardant and can cruise at 225 mph.

On March 28, 2013 the USFS announced that contracts were awarded to Neptune Aviation and Minden Air, for what the agency called “legacy” air tankers. Exclusive use contracts were awarded to Minden for one P2V and to Neptune for six P2Vs and one BAe-146. These contracts are for six to eight aircraft over the next five years, when optional years for various line items are considered.

The USFS expects legacy air tankers to continue to be part of the fleet until there are adequate numbers of next generation large air tankers.

With the 7 contracts for next-gen air tankers announced today, plus the 8 legacy contracts, this will make 15 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts if and when the 7 next-gen aircraft are converted and obtain approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and the FAA. In addition, the government can call up 8 military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers.

The USFS still has not announced new contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10 or 747, which expired December 31, 2012. However, and surprisingly, one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s received a contract on this new next-gen solicitation. The agency had extended the call-when-needed contract for the DC-10 while they struggled with issuing new contracts. There have been no contracts for the 747 “Supertanker” operated by Evergreen in recent years.

Below are the specifications for air tankers that we compiled, including some aircraft being considered for conversion into air tankers. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Air Tanker Specifications

 

Tanker 910 at Gorgonio Fire

Tanker 910, a DC-10, on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, Calif., 5-4-2013 used with permission. Credit Rachel Luna/The Sun.
Tanker 910, a DC-10, on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, Calif., 5-4-2013. Used with permission. Credit Rachel Luna/The Sun.

The day that Tanker 910, a DC-10, came on duty after being activated by CAL FIRE on a call-when-needed contract, it was used on at least one fire in California. These photos were taken May 4 on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, California, by Rachel Luna, a photographer with The Sun.

The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons, almost six times more retardant than a Korean War vintage P2V air tanker, which currently make up most of the large air tanker fleet contracted to the federal government. (Update: Trish said in a comment that the DC-10 dropped two loads on the fire, for a total of 23,200 gallons. That would have been 12 loads from a P2V, or 8 from a BAe-146.)

DC-10 Tanker 910
Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, Calif., 5-4-2013. Used with permission. Credit Rachel Luna/The Sun

The Gorgonio Fire was reported at 11:43 a.m. on May 5 in an area that was difficult to access. The spread was stopped that afternoon after it burned 650 acres near Highway 243 south of Banning and north of Pine Cove. The initial attack included a fast, aggressive response by ground and aerial fire resources, a strategy that is not seen often enough outside of California. As of Sunday afternoon, the fire is 75 percent contained.

KMIR TV has a video report on the fire which has a few seconds of the DC-10 dropping.