GAO decides against Forest Service in Global SuperTanker’s contract protest

The Government Accountability Office said the FS failed to provide a reasonable justification for limiting the maximum size of the retardant tank.

Above:  The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission.

(Originally published at 3:48 p.m. MST November 10, 2017)

The Government Accountability Office has upheld a protest by Global SuperTanker (GST) who contended the Forest Service’s (FS) contract restriction on the maximum size of a retardant tank was unduly restrictive of competition.

The FS issued a solicitation for Call When Needed air tanker services May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the GST 747 carries up to 19,200.

10 Tanker Air Carrier, which operates three DC-10’s,  attempted to support GST’s protest, but the GAO denied their request to submit an amicus curiae or friend of the court pleading, concluding that the company did not meet the definition of either a protester or an intervenor under the GAO’s Bid Protest Regulations.

The GAO decided 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.

We asked Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the FS, for their reaction to the GAO decision, if GST would be reimbursed for their attorney fees, if GST would be considered for a contract, and if there was any bias in the FS against any VLATs. Here is the response:

In accordance with regulations, the U.S. Forest Service is complying with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision for the Call When Needed (CWN) protest. We are reviewing our documentation. After the review is completed, the agency will determine the most appropriate ways to continue to procure Large and Very Large Next Generation Airtankers.

Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of GST, said:

We are pleased that the GAO sustained our case. We really look forward to working with the Forest Service in the future and hopefully these issues around the [Requests for Proposals] will work themselves out to everybody’s satisfaction.

In 2016 and 2017 the 747 deployed to fires in Israel and Chile and the company currently has a CWN contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression. The aircraft was used for several weeks in California in the last part of the summer supporting CAL FIRE, but the FS has not allowed the company to submit a bid to acquire a contract.

In the 22-page decision, the GAO addressed numerous issues introduced by the FS that attempted to justify the agency’s new policy of restricting the maximum size of a retardant tank in a contract solicitation. In each case the GAO argued that the FS was wrong, unreasonable, illogical, or, it did not apply to the issue.

747 Supertanker first drop 2009
The 747 Supertanker drops on the Railbelt Complex of Fires in Alaska July 31, 2009. At that time the aircraft was operated by Evergreen Aviation. Photo by Mike McMillan, Fairbanks Area Forestry.

The FS claimed that the solicitation was intended to procure services to support initial attack operations for which VLATs are not suitable. The GAO responded that the solicitation sought to procure aerial firefighting services to support both initial and extended attack operations. And, since it was a CWN contract, the FS could choose whether or not to use the VLAT on initial or extended attack.

The GAO wrote…

…there is also no support for the agency’s contention that VLATs are not suited for performing initial attack operations.

The GAO noted that 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s  had completed a total of 700 missions in 2017 at the time of the decision and routinely performs initial attack operations.

They also found that…

Indeed, the record is completely silent regarding who, if anyone, at the agency made the decision to include the [maximum tank size] restriction, when the decision was made, and why the decision was made. Notably, none of the pre-solicitation documents contain any reference to a 5,000-gallon maximum restriction.

The FS cited air tanker studies from 1995, 1996, and 2005 as a basis for its restriction, but it did not identify any language in the studies to support the restriction.

From the GAO decision:

The cited pages do not lend support to the agency’s position. As an example, the page in the 2005 study merely indicates that the agency prefers larger aircraft over smaller aircraft, not that VLATs are somehow less desirable for initial attack operations.

The [2012] study recommends that the wildland firefighting aircraft fleet be composed of a mix of aircraft, including “Very Large Airtankers (>8000 gallons).” In discussing tank sizes, the study recommends a minimum capacity, not a maximum capacity, and reflects a preference for larger retardant tank capacities.

The Forest Service has not identified any study or analysis, upon which it relied to develop the RFP requirements, that has considered the question presented here: whether VLATs are unsuited for initial attack operations. In sum, the studies relied upon by the agency do not provide a reasonable basis to restrict competition.

Although the agency has reached conclusions regarding the technical limitations of VLATs, and is excluding VLATs from competition based upon such conclusions, the record does not demonstrate that the offered studies support the agency’s conclusions. For this reason, we are unable to find that the agency’s asserted justification for the exclusion of VLATs is reasonable.

The FS pointed out that on two occasions a VLAT struck objects on the ground while taxiing. The GAO said both incidents occurred while FS ground personnel were directing the aircraft. Reviews determined that one was 100 percent the fault of the ground guides and the other was 75 percent the fault of the ground guides.

The FS also listed several other reasons that they contend are significant problems related to the use of VLATs, including, the number of personnel needed on the ground, the amount of fuel and retardant needed, the number of suitable bases, and the need for lead planes.

In their written decision the GAO addressed these and other issues brought up by the FS, and similar to the examples above, shot them all down, saying the FS was simply wrong or the issue was not applicable to the protest. The GAO noted that economies of scale, with the VLATs carrying four to seven times more retardant than a conventional large air tanker, can mitigate some of these issues.

We asked Bean Barrett, a former Naval aviator and frequent contributor to this website, for his take on this issue:

It seems to me that their main contracting focus should be the gallons of retardant required to be delivered per hour or per day and the total cost per gallon delivered and the ability to meet various delivery rates/ coverage levels.

Platform type shouldn’t have any bearing on the issue at all unless there is some performance limitation that impacts its ability to meet delivery requirements.

If they ever get around to defining what constitutes acceptable IA in terms of how much retardant, how far away from base, and how fast, then there may be some platform considerations.

Bean recommends a book by Stephen Budiansky titled Blackett’s War: The Men Who defeated Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. It tells the story of how efforts led by Winston Churchill before and during World War II to utilize science and careful analysis resulted in innovations that made the British much more successful in warfare. Bean said, “The parallels you can draw with the USFS and fire aviation’s problems are amazing. It’s a very good interesting book and an easy read.”

One reviewer of the book on Amazon wrote that the Churchill-led efforts “…showed how careful quantitative analysis could provide far better guidance for decision makers than tradition, prejudice, and gut feeling.”

Our opinion

It appears from the GAO report that their decision to sustain the protest was not even close to going the other way. The FS seemed to be grasping at straws trying a shotgun approach, throwing out everything they could think of off the top of their head, with little serious thought, in their ill-considered attempt to prevent GST from being allowed to submit a bid on the contract. They came off looking like an inept, bumbling, incompetent, leaderless organization.

This should be an embarrassment for Jeffery Power, the new Assistant Director of Aviation for the FS, and Shawna Legarza, the National Fire Director for the FS.

Fire aviation is very expensive and based on the fatality records, is very dangerous. The Forest Service should consider reorganizing their aviation assets, removing the aviation autonomy from the individual regions and using a more centralized approach led by a Chief Pilot with actual pilot credentials and experience. It is our understanding that only one of the Regional Aviation Officers, who have far too much responsibility and power, is actually a pilot.

For anyone who closely follows FS aviation contracting it is obvious that for the last five years it has been a quagmire, with bad strategic decisions being implemented poorly, resulting in numerous protests. (It must be contagious, because the condition spread to the BLM this year.) It took 555 days for the FS to award the first “Next Generation” air tanker contract in 2012. Perhaps a Chief Pilot and an improved contracting section would better serve their customers, including aviators and our citizens.

A tour through the 747’s retardant delivery system

The air tanker holds about 19,000 gallons of retardant or water to aid firefighters on the ground suppressing wildland fires.

Above: Some of the tanks inside the 747 Supertanker while the system was basically in place but not fully installed and operational. McClellan Air Field, March 22, 2016.

(Originally published at 12:05 p.m. October 24, 2017)

Craig notified us about this video which is a very interesting guided tour through the retardant delivery system of the 747 SuperTanker. I learned that the equipment is more complex that I realized. For example, just the compressed air, the AIR, that forces the liquid out of the tanks weighs 2,700 pounds.

The videography is very shaky and the camera is not always pointed in the appropriate direction, but if you can hear SuperTanker pilot Marcos Valdez’s narration, it is very informative. The video was uploaded June 24, 2016.

As the camera enters the plane, Marcos is on the right and lead plane pilot Jamie Tackman is on the left. Jamie spent some time with us during the crew’s deployment to Chile in January providing insight on flying lead planes in general, and operating in front of the 747 in particular — very informative.

Here is another video that shows the installation of the tank system. While it is roll-on/roll-off, it obviously takes a while.

747 Supertanker tanks
Part of the retardant delivery system on the 747 Supertanker, March 22, 2016 at McClellan Air Field.
747 Palmer Fire supertanker
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. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Craig.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Outstanding photo of the 747 on the Palmer Fire (new: added videos)

(Originally published at 7:22 a.m. MDT September 5, 2017)

A few days ago Cy Phenice sent us an excellent photo of Air Tanker 944, the 747 SuperTanker, dropping on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California which we published September 3. Now we have another great photo of the huge airplane dropping on the fire.

It was taken by Leroy Leggit with a Nikon D810. He shot it at 1/800, F 5.6, using a 70-200mm lens at 150mm.

He said he took the photo from the top of a hill looking down at the aircraft.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
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. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

He told us:

I didn’t know anything about the 747 supertanker until it appeared to my right (at eye level) headed straight toward the fire… what an amazing and unexpected sight… I looked online and saw that it had only been in service for a few days.

The Palmer Fire was reported at 1:33 p.m. MDT September 2, 2017. It is nearly officially contained according to CAL FIRE after burning 3,874 acres.

This was the second fire the aircraft was used on after receiving certification and a contract from CAL FIRE. The 747 was dispatched from McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. According to FlightAware it cruised south at over 600 mph at times before dropping on the fire about an hour later, then reloaded at McClellan and completed a second sortie, dropping almost 19,000 gallons again, splitting the load into two drops.

(UPDATED at 10:07 a.m. MDT September 5, 2017)

After Johnny commented that videos are available, we checked and found these. The first one appears to be the same drop seen in the photo above.

Colorado county approves first-of-its-kind deal with Global SuperTanker Services

Above: 747 Supertanker in Chile, January 26, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A Colorado county on Tuesday approved a deal that sets the stage for a response from the largest firefighting aircraft in the world if and when major wildfires flare up near Denver, marking the culmination of a first-of-its-kind contract.

Commissioners in Douglas County on Tuesday approved the one-year, $200,000 deal with Global SuperTanker Services LLC that gives the county access to the mammoth Boeing 747-400 aircraft that can drop roughly 20,000 gallons of water or retardant — nearly double the capacity of its closest rival, the DC-10.

The deal is unique in that it gives the 800-square-mile county situated between Denver and Colorado Springs exclusive access to the SuperTanker.

“Douglas County is establishing a model for wildland fire-prone municipalities to follow,” Bob Soleberg, senior vice president and program manager for Global SuperTanker, said in a statement Tuesday night to Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation. “Their planning is comprehensive and designed to protect lives, property and the natural resources.”

The county’s office of emergency management requested approval of the deal, citing “ongoing dry conditions in and around Douglas County and coupled with the limited air resources in the region for the purpose of wildland fire suppression,” according to county documents proposing the contract.

drop Tanker 944 747-400
The first drop from Tanker 944, the 747-400 operated by Global Supertanker.
The Denver Post first reported elements of the proposed contract on Monday.

Director of Emergency Management Tim Johnson told the newspaper the move was part of a multi-pronged effort ensuring adequate air power existed when fires ignited. From The Post: 

Douglas County has firefighting contracts with Castle Rock-based Rampart Helicopter Service, Broomfield-based HeliQwest, Loveland-based Trans Aero Ltd., and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, which uses DC-10s carrying more than 11,000-gallons capacity on board. It also has access to state and federal firefighting air resources.

“We need redundancies in our abilities during fire season because the resources may not always be available — we want to be able to go down a list,” Johnson said. “We’re leaning forward in terms of preparedness.”

Specific terms and conditions of the contract are available beginning on page 382 of this county commissioners’ board meeting packet, available here.

Avid readers of this website might remember that the SuperTanker made headlines earlier this year when it responded to Chile. Fire Aviation’s own Bill Gabbert embedded with that crew for more than a week and chronicled the trip online.

747 SuperTanker
Local firefighters keep portable tanks full of water that will be used to refill the 747 SuperTanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The back story: How the deployment of U.S. air tankers to Chile happened

Above: The 747 Supertanker being reloaded at Santiago, Chile, January 28, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In January and February two large air tankers traveled from the United States to South America to assist firefighters in Chile that were dealing with an unprecedented number of wildfires. Global SuperTanker’s 747 left Colorado Springs on January 24 and returned on February 13. A BAe-146 operated by Neptune Aviation was down there from about February 4 to March 5.

As far as I know this is the first time that any large air tankers from North America have assisted with wildfires in South America. One limiting factor is that up until recently most of the U.S. air tankers were former military aircraft which were not allowed to be used outside the country. With the industry converting to used civilian airliners and cargo aircraft that restriction does not apply to the newer privately owned aircraft.

In January, 2017 I had been following the increased wildfire activity in Chile and had written about it several times on Wildfire Today. Here is an excerpt from an article published on January 3, 2017:

Wildfire burns 100 homes in Chile

On Monday a wildfire burned approximately 100 homes in Valparaiso, Chile. There are reports that 19 people were injured and hundreds were forced to evacuate. The fire was fought by firefighters on the ground assisted by [single engine] air tankers and helicopters dropping water.

Pushed by strong winds it burned about 120 acres of vegetation 75 miles northwest of Santiago.

An air tanker pilot was killed December 28 while working on a fire in the Bío Bío region.

And later, three wildland firefighters were killed January 15 while battling a fire in the commune of Vichuquén, Maule Region of Chile.

But the fires in Chile were receiving very little notice in the mainstream media in the U.S.

Eduardo Frugone, who is kind of a mysterious person in Chile with many connections, read the articles on Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation about the fires in his country and the fatal air tanker crash. I had never heard of him, but on January 18 he sent me an email message through the Contact Us page on Fire Aviation that read, in its entirety:

“We need fire figthing [sic] planes to fly to Chile, need to know if your company can establish contacts right away.

Stand by.”

I, of course, do not have any air tankers, but I forwarded his message to air tanker companies that I thought might have some available. Selecting the companies was a pretty quick decision that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on. I figured the chances of the person that contacted me having any influence in deploying North American air tankers to South America was very, very slim. As far as I knew the paradigm of contracting for air tankers was limited to federal, state, or provincial governments, not a random person who only had links to private companies in his automatic email signature. So I didn’t want to waste the time of every air tanker company in the world.

I did not contact any company that I knew had 100 percent of their tankers committed to Australia. And I limited the short list to companies that had deployed air tankers on fires in 2016, or that I knew had recently received certification from the Interagency Air Tanker Board, and that I knew how to reliably contact. Not all air tanker companies will return my phone calls or respond consistently to my emails.

I forwarded the email to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Neptune Aviation, and Global Supertanker. I wrote to them, “I don’t know if this is legit or not, but it might be an opportunity to use your aircraft in Chile.” Two of those companies, Global Supertanker and Neptune, followed up.

So, Eduardo got the ball rolling, through Wildfire Today.

What followed, in the case of Global Supertanker, were eight days of phone calls, email messages, and negotiations.

During the week of January 22 an heir to the Walmart fortune in Denver, Ben Walton with his wife Lucy Ana, got involved. She grew up in Chile and still maintains very strong ties to the people and the country. They have used their foundation in recent years to help the residents in her homeland. In 2016 the foundation helped arrange for $1.5 million worth of medical supplies to be sent to hospitals and rural clinics in Chile. And they also rebuilt a school after it was destroyed by the earthquake and resulting Tsunami in Chile a few years ago.

747 Supertanker
Lucy Ana Walton and Ben Walton, (left) receive a briefing on the 747 Supertanker, January 23, 2017. Jim Wheeler is on the right. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The Waltons had been following the escalating fire situation in Chile and were familiar with my web sites, Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation, after I had written about wildfires in Colorado. They knew the 747 Supertanker was based in Colorado Springs just an hour south of their Denver home.

In discussions with Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global Supertanker, they offered to have their foundation, Foundación Viento Sur, provide the funds for the 747 to ferry to Chile and back, and for five days of firefighting in Chile. They hoped that after they saw the effectiveness of the aircraft, the government would retain the services of the air tanker for as long as it was needed .

Working out the details with the foundation, the Chilean government, and Global Supertanker was a complex procedure that took a while. Ben and Lucy Ana visited Global SuperTanker’s Colorado Springs facilities on June 23 and received a briefing on the use and capabilities of the aircraft. Ben has some pilot training and both of them, but especially Lucy Ana, were very enthusiastic about its 19,200-gallon capacity and its potential to assist the residents of Chile.

Lucy Ana Walton 747 Supertanker
Lucy Ana Walton in front of one of the 747’s engines at Colorado Springs, January 23, 2017. Photo By Bill Gabbert.

Attorneys in the U.S. and Chile got involved, and finally late Tuesday morning, January 24, the flight crew received the GO order and departed for South America at about 1:40 p.m. MST.

Mr. Wheeler offered me one of the 12 seats on the 747 for the trip south, and I accepted and became embedded with the crew. I returned on my own February 5 and the aircraft flew back to Colorado Springs nine days later.

Eduardo Frugone, who initially came up with the concept for the deployment of North American air tankers to Chile, helped to facilitate the missions before and during the assignment in exchange for a salary.

The Chilean government was very reluctant to bring in aircraft from outside the country, possibly because they had existing contracts with European companies for single engine air tankers. Questions have been raised about irregularities related to the activities of those companies in Europe and an investigation is underway now in Chile about procedures, before this year, about the acquisition of firefighting aircraft.

Chile is also considering the creation, for the first time, of a “Forest Service”-type agency that would assume the role of coordinating wildfire suppression, a task that presently is done by CONAF, a private, non-profit organization funded by the government and responsible for initiating air tanker contracts.

Video from the 747 as it drops on wildfires in Chile

Above: A screen capture from a video shot from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker.

This video is a compilation of scenes recorded from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker as it dropped on fires in Chile between February 5 and 12, 2017. It was shot from a camera set up by Tom Parsons, one of the pilots on the air tanker.

If you enlarge the video to full screen you might be able to see the lead plane in the first two of the three shots.

Interview with lead plane pilot Jamie Tackman about the 747 air tanker

On January 24, 2017 the 747 SuperTanker left its base in Colorado Springs, Colorado for an assignment in Chile. It returned on February 13 after dropping on many wildfires in the South American country, making as many as seven sorties in a day each with 19,200 gallons of water enhanced with an additive to help make the water more effective, since long term retardant was not available.

After 17 years as a ground based wildland firefighter, with much as it as a smokejumper, Jamie Tackman transitioned to the air, becoming a lead plane pilot. He has worked off and on with the 747 air tankers since Evergreen converted the first one. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled to Chile to provide lead plane services for the huge aircraft operated by Global SuperTankers. This time he had a different role, or at least a different platform, flying ahead of the air tanker as usual but in an aircraft flown by military pilots.

Bill Gabbert interviewed Jamie, who began by describing the situation. Chile has no infrastructure for supervising, using, or refilling large or very large air tankers and they were unfamiliar with the concept of lead planes. In spite of these challenges the personnel working with the 747 and the other aircraft developed procedures to fight the fires from the air, while the local firefighters improvised a system on the ground for refilling the 747 and the IL-76 with water.

Red Cross honors crew of 747 in Chile

Above: Members of the 747 SuperTanker crew, and others, assemble after the crew received an award from the Chilean Red Cross.

The Red Cross in Chile presented each member of the 747 SuperTanker crew with an Extraordinary Services Medal, the highest honor the organization can bestow on individuals contributing to the management of emergency services.

The aircraft has been in the country since January 25 and initially flew many missions dropping water on wildfires, but Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global Supertanker, said today the fire activity has slowed greatly, and they have not dropped on a fire in the last five to six days. They expect to still be assigned there through Sunday, February 12, and while there is a slight chance they could be extended beyond that date, it is not likely unless the fire situation changes.

747 SuperTanker Chile
747 SuperTanker VP for Flight Operations & Chief Pilot Cliff Hale receives award from the Chilean Red Cross. The other members of the crew also received awards, including Scott Olson on the right, VP of Maintenance.