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.

DC-10 activated for California

DC-10 air tanker
Tanker 910, a DC-10 air tanker, at Rapid City April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(UPDATE May 5, 2013)

The DC-10, Tanker 910, was one of the aircraft used May 4 on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, California. The spread of the fire was stopped after it burned 650 acres.

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(Originally published at 3:41 p.m. MT, May 3, 2013.)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has activated one of the DC-10 air tankers on a call-when-needed contract.

Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that operates the two DC-10 air tankers, confirmed for us today that it will come on duty tomorrow, May 4. He said most likely the one they will use will be Tanker 910, the aircraft that visited four cities last week on the way back from scheduled maintenance in Michigan.

Neither CAL FIRE nor the U.S. Forest Service have exclusive use contracts for the DC-10s, so they operate on a call-when-needed basis, which results in a slower activation, higher per day costs, and less assurance that they will be available.

The USFS call-when-needed and exclusive use contracts for Very Large and Large air tankers all expired on December 31, 2012, but some were extended for a few months. Several weeks ago the agency awarded eight new exclusive use contracts for large “legacy” air tankers, with seven of them being Korean War vintage P2Vs, but it has been 520 days since they first began an attempt to contract for large “next generation” air tankers, with no results yet.

Video of Tanker 910 at Missoula

The video above was produced by the Missoulian when Tanker 910, a DC-10, visited Missoula on April 24. It features Captain Jack Maxey describing the features of the huge air tanker which carries 11,600 gallons of retardant.

The aircraft also stopped by Brainerd, MN, Rapid City, SD, and Billings, MT, taking the scenic route while ferrying back home to southern California following a C-check in Michigan.

Photos of the Tanker taken during the Rapid City visit are over at Wildfire Today.

Thanks go out to Dick

Senators urge USFS to convert C-27Js into air tankers

The three-person congressional delegation from South Dakota sent a letter to the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service on April 16 encouraging Chief Tidwell to acquire military surplus C-27J aircraft to be converted into air tankers. The Defense Department may be getting rid of all of their C-27Js, and legislation has given the Secretary of Agriculture the first right of refusal if that occurs.

C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

At least three other Senators have been pushing for this since last July. This newest letter was signed by Senator John Thune, Senator Tim Johnson, and Representative Kristi Noem. In spite of the fact that their letter shows a lack of understanding of how air tankers are managed in the federal government, they offered some advice, suggesting that “one or two” of the C-27Js be stationed at Ellsworth Air Force base in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The Senators and the Congresswoman failed in their letter to indicate that they would introduce legislation to appropriate dollars to maintain and operate the aircraft or supply funding to convert them into air tankers, which would require many millions of dollars. Talk and letter writing is very easy to do. Using their powers as elected officials representing taxpayers to actually facilitate change on this matter is something that they have not done, and can’t delegate to the intern that may have written the letter.

The C-27J is an interesting aircraft and appears to be a baby brother of the C-130J. It uses two of the same turbo-prop engines as the C-130, which has four of the 4,640 hp Rolls-Royce engines. If converted into an air tanker, at only five years old they would be by far the youngest large air tankers being used in the United States. The P2Vs that currently comprise most of the large air tanker fleet on exclusive use contracts are over 50 years old. Even Tanker 40 (N146FF), the recently acquired jet-powered BAe-146 operated by Neptune, is 27 years old.

The C-27J has a short but spotty history, with some reports of maintenance problems and difficulties in acquiring parts from the Italian suppliers. According to Wikipedia:

On 23 March 2012, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will cut the C-27J from its inventory in fiscal year 2013 after determining that its per-aircraft lifecycle costs are higher than those of C-130 aircraft performing the same combat resupply mission.

It is difficult to estimate how many gallons of retardant a C-27J could hold, but it could be between 1,800 and 2,300. This compares to an average of 1,948 for a P2V, a little less than 3,000 for a BAe-146, and 11,600 for a DC-10.

 

Thanks go out to Jim

DC-10 air tanker to tour airports in Montana, South Dakota, and Minnesota

DC10 dropping
Tanker-911, a DC 10 airtanker, drops retardant on the Wallow fire above Greer, AZ, as the Del Rosa Hotshots wait in a safety zone, June 11, 2011. USFS photo by Kari Greer

Over at Wildfire Today there is an article about plans for one of the DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers to visit airports in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana next week.

Senator suggests possibility of ignoring air tanker protests, 10 Tanker issues statement

10 Tanker Air Carrier issued a statement Monday on their Facebook page about the bid protests that they, along with Coulson, filed over the contracts for next generation air tankers that the U.S. Forest Service announced that they were going to award last summer. The company has two DC-10 air tankers that carry 11,600 gallons of retardant, about six times more than a P2V, but they were not going to receive exclusive use contracts for the aircraft. The USFS had to cancel the process just before the contracts were signed. Four months later the solicitation was reissued with 31 changes, requiring responses by November 1, 2012.

The DC-10 air tankers have received excellent reviews from firefighters and aviation managers, but the USFS has in the past only offered them call when needed contracts, meaning they may or may not be used at all, and if they were, it would be intermittently.

10 Tanker’s statement appears to be partially in response to Colorado Senator Mark Udall’s remarks on the issue Thursday, in which he suggests that the protests may be ignored (emphasis added):

Mark Udall, who serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged private contractors to respect the U.S. Forest Service’s upcoming decision to award contracts to several U.S. companies to supply next-generation air tankers. Protests and challenges of past contract awards have already delayed the Forest Service’s acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers — which Udall championed last year. Additional protests could leave Colorado and the West without these tanker resources for the 2013 wildfire season.

“Air tankers are critical firefighting resources that can save lives and prevent small blazes from becoming catastrophic wildfires,” Udall said. “When I met with Northern Colorado firefighting and emergency-management officials this week, they all agreed that we need to ensure that Colorado and the Forest Service have the resources they need to fight fires now. If contractors continue to challenge agency decisions, I will urge the Forest Service to use its emergency authorities to override the challenges and finalize the tanker contracts as soon as possible. Colorado cannot wait.

Below is the text from 10 Tanker’s statement:

A widely published Associated Press article recently related the story of the long-term decline in the U.S. Forest Service’s aerial tanker fleet to the Next Generation Air Tanker solicitation bid protest last year by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and another bidder. Some members of Congress have expressed support for Forest Service to use emergency authorities to work around the bid protest. What the article omits and members of Congress may not realize is that it was the General Accountability Office (GAO) that found the 10 Tanker bid protest to be valid. That caused the US Forest Service to withdraw from the bid protest process, to amend the solicitation to correct its discriminatory issues, and to reissue the solicitation.

As you may know, GAO is the investigative arm of Congress “charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and payment of public funds.” As a part of that responsibility, GAO is also charged with handling bid protests, but they do not undertake that role unless there is obvious discrimination in an agency’s contract decisions. In this case, they found that the Forest Service used a decision process that discriminated against 10 Tanker Air Carrier. The issues involved cost basis in which 10 Tanker clearly offered the lowest cost per gallon of retardant delivered on fires, and also involved the USFS use of outdated, third party input that, had the well-known facts been used, would have been in 10 Tanker’s favor.

Had 10 Tanker’s bid been awarded, we could have provided the same protection to the public with four aircraft this 2013 wildfire season that is the equivalent of 15 – 16 competing aircraft that will not be available for use for several years.

10 Tanker wholeheartedly agrees that responsible leaders, including the Chief of the USFS, should use emergency procedures and resources to protect the public in an emergency. However, we discourage the declaration of an emergency as a means of providing a long-term solution to this on-going issue. We are confident it will be resolved within the next several months and thank you all for your support as we move closer to the upcoming fire season.

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It has has been 1 year, 2 months, and 25 days since the USFS first issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.