The U.S. Forest Service has canceled the solicitation issued on November 18, 2016 for the acquisition of one to seven new multi-engine air tankers. It was thought by some that this procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.
The specifications appeared, after a brief perusal, to fit a C-130-type aircraft, including Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million.
When we inquired about the reasons for the cancellation and the plans for spending the appropriated $65 million, USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones said the only information available was:
The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing its requirements for the airtanker.
With the reports in the national news since January 20 about massive budget cuts for federal agencies, it is not surprising that this aircraft would be axed. The fact that the official word from the USFS is they are “reviewing [their] requirements” looks like they are hesitant to own an action that would reduce planned spending for homeland security, in the form of support for firefighters.
The specifications appear to match Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J.
The U.S. Forest Service is advertising for the purchase of at least one new aircraft that will be used as an air tanker. A solicitation issued November 18, 2016 indicates that the agency intends to buy between one and seven “new production commercial aircraft to operate primarily as airtankers”. This procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.
As far as we know this will be the first time, in recent decades anyway, that a U.S. land management agency has purchased a NEW air tanker.
The seven HC-130H’s that the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard will be operated and maintained by contractors after they are converted to air tankers.
Coulson operates two C-130 type aircraft as air tankers, a C-130Q and an L-100-30 (382G), with the latter being an earlier demilitarized stretched variant of the C-130. As this is written they are both working on firefighting contracts in Australia during their summer bushfire season.
There is speculation that the $65 million appropriation was targeted to buy a new variant of Lockheed Martin’s C-130J, the LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J.
In Fiscal Year 2015 the Defense Department paid $88.9 million for each C-130J. The stripped down LM-130J is expected to sell for about $65 million. Lockheed is planning test flights of the new aircraft in the first half of 2017 with deliveries beginning the following year. Portions of the plane are being made in Marietta, Georgia; Meridian, Mississippi; Clarksburg, West Virginia; and India.
After the appropriations bill passed in 2014, Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert of California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky.
Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said,
…supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.
Some important specifications in the USFS solicitation match those of the LM-100J, including max normal takeoff weight, capable of operating from unimproved airfields, payload, cruise speed, multiple turbine engines, and a door that incorporates stairs.
Vendors can choose to equip the aircraft with two options:
A gravity powered retardant delivery system that would hold at least 3,000 gallons, and,
A pallet-based seating system for 40 passengers that can be installed or removed in less than 2 hours.
The Coulson company has the contract to install retardant delivery systems in the seven HC-130H aircraft the USFS is acquiring from the Coast Guard. It is likely those will be similar to the two systems already in use in Coulson’s two C-130 type aircraft.
Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $522,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.
Tom Harbour, the former National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service who retired at the end of last year has mentioned several times his affinity for the C-130 platform as an air tanker. In what we called his “exit interview”, he talked about it at 9:27 in the video, saying:
I like the 130-J and I told folks before and I’ll tell folks after, I like that 130J.
But he said he had no plans to work for Lockheed Martin after his retirement.
Here is a list of pending, and still unawarded, federal contract solicitations that we are aware of for firefighting aircraft or equipment:
Purchase of one to seven NEW large air tankers. The USFS intends to spend some funds appropriated by Congress that were specifically earmarked for the purchase of at least one brand new air tanker. The specs call for an internal removable retardant tank that holds at least 3,000 gallons. A meeting was held in D.C. with interested potential vendors on August 26, 2015 to talk about the purchase. So far, only a draft synopsis has been issued. The omnibus federal appropriations bill that was passed in December by Congress included a provision to allocate $65 million for the U. S. Forest Service air tanker fleet. This effort may be to spend those funds. And it may never see the light of day in passed legislation, but there has been a proposal to allocate left over firefighting funds each year toward the purchase of new air tankers. That could be why they are talking, here, one to seven new large air tankers which could be spread over multiple years.
Amphibious Water Scooping Aircraft (the USFS refuses to call them “air tankers”). The USFS intends to award contracts for up to two water scoopers. Issued August 20, 2015. Response date: September 11, 2015.
Next Generation V. 2.0 Large Air Tankers. This will be the second batch of awards for next generation air tankers. They intend to contract for up to seven. Issued November 26, 2015. Response date was modified at least once; latest was: April 9, 2015.
Retardant Delivery System. This was issued by the Air Force to obtain retardant tanks for the seven HC-130H former Coast Guard aircraft the Air Force is putting through heavy maintenance and retrofitting as air tankers before they are transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. The solicitation was modified 14 times. Presolicitation was issued July 29, 2014. The response date was changed at least once; latest was May 15, 2015.
Air Tanker Base Facilities Assessment. This is only a Request for Information at this stage, but we assume that an actual solicitation will be issued at a later date. The purpose of the assessment is to determine possible locations for basing, at least in the winter, the seven HC-130H aircraft the USFS will be receiving from the Coast Guard after the heavy maintenance and air tanker retrofitting is complete. Issued September 2, 2015. Response date: September 25, 2015.
These are the solicitations we were able to find at FedBizOpps.gov for firefighting aircraft and related items. If you’re aware of others that are still pending, let us know.
UPDATE, September 28, 2015: In responding to Kenneth’s comment about options for new air tankers, we mentioned Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J (the commercial version of the C-130J) which COINCIDENTALLY sells for about $65 million, the amount appropriated in the legislation. We wrote about the aircraft in December, 2014. In searching for a link to the LM-100J today, we found the following image in a promotional video on Lockheed’s website, which shows the aircraft spraying fire retardant from a pressurized Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS).
Keep in mind that Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government in 2009 through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the Forest Service to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $432,000 by Lockheed Martin, according to Open Secrets.
The U.S. Forest Service has recently posted multiple solicitations or Requests for Information (RFI) for fixed wing and rotor wing firefighting aircraft — Next Generation air tankers, scooping air tankers, various call when needed aircraft, helicopters, and one for the purchase of a new air tanker.
Since a requirement is that it haul cargo and personnel in addition to dropping retardant, this restricts it, as far as aircraft types being used in wildland fire today, to a C-130-type or the new civilian version of the aircraft, the LM-100J which is expected to sell for about $65 million. Coulson’s C-130H has a 3,500-gallon retardant tank that can be easily removed to haul cargo.
However, the LM-100J is not configured for carrying passengers, since it will not have a flush toilet or sound-deadening and temperature-controlling insulation blankets used on C-130s. If the USFS wants to use an agency-owned aircraft for hauling passengers, a better choice would be the 22 other aircraft soon to be added to the fleet — seven C-130Hs the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard, or the 15 Sherpa C-23Bs transferred from the military.
The aircraft must have a 3,000-gallon retardant capacity. The solicitation states, “Aircraft with less than 3000-gallon dispensing capacity will not be considered”. It is interesting they specified all 3,000 gallons must be “dispensable”. The first BAe-146s provided by Neptune could not adequately dispense all 3,000 gallons, especially on downhill runs.
The minimum cruise speed required is 300 knots (345 mph).
Like the next-gen contract, the USFS expects to begin this contract in a matter of days, weeks, or months after first mentioning it on FBO.gov. That is very optimistic, since the first next-gen contract took 550 days before it was finally awarded.
Here’s a tip. The USFS should get their sh*t together and advertise the solicitation, not the RFI, at least one year before the mandatory availability period. Top quality air tankers, crews, and maintenance personnel can’t be magically produced out of thin air.
…for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such aircraft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National Forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the Forest Service…
Over a couple of days we attempted to find out what, exactly, the Forest Service is going to do with this $65 million that is now burning a hole in their pockets. We checked with the agency last week after the House approved the bill and were at first told they would not discuss it until the bill passed. Then the Senate approved it on Saturday, December 13 and the President said he would sign it this week. In response to our inquiry, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the Forest Service said on December 14:
We are continuing to work towards bringing 18 to 28 modern airtankers into service as outlined in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy we submitted to Congress in 2012. If this bill passes and is signed into law we will use the funding to further those efforts and we will be happy to provide specifics once we have them worked out.
To summarize, the official word is, the Forest Service says they don’t know how they will spend the 65 million in taxpayer dollars. This would tend to indicate, if true, that the request to place the provision in the appropriations bill came from somewhere other than the agency or the administration. That leaves congressmen and senators.
We began checking with the usual suspects, the Senators who have been vocal over the last two years about rebuilding the atrophied air tanker fleet. No one in the offices of John McCain, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, or Lisa Murkowski wanted to take credit for the proposal. Next we called the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, and struck pay dirt in the House.
Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert from California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers.
Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said, “supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.”
A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, Jennifer Hing, had a similar response, saying, “The funding is for the acquisition/purchase of new aircraft.”
If it is actually true, that the Forest Service will buy one or more new aircraft to serve as air tankers, it will be the first time in 40 to 50 years, if ever. Historically since the 1960s anyway, they have contracted with private companies to supply and operate air tankers and have not owned outright any, to our knowledge. This was known as a Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated (CO/CO) system and was the paradigm until seven used C-130Hs were “given” to the Forest Service by the Coast Guard earlier this year. They are undergoing maintenance and retrofitting by the Air Force, and are expected to begin entering the USFS fleet in Fiscal Year 2018. The aircraft will be Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO). A joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. This is probably a wise decision since the Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics.
What kind of new, next-generation air tanker will $65 million buy?
It would probably buy a couple of Russian designed Be-200s. They might even be made by a Colorado company, although who knows if the aircraft will ever be certified to operate in the United States.
In FY 2015 the Defense Department expects to pay $88.9 million for each C-130J. However, Lockheed Martin has started selling a less expensive civilian version, the LM-100J, which will be priced at around $65 million. Coincidence? Well, keep in mind that Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $380,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.
If the Forest Service and their Inspector General’s Office have the balls to buy an aircraft at the request of a lobbyist who was the former boss of the Chief of the Forest Service, then the agency might end up with a brand new LM-100J.
Maybe Mr. Rey will autograph it as it rolls off the factory floor in Marietta, Georgia.
What are your thoughts about how the Forest Service should spend their $65 million, which according to the legislation is supposed to go toward “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation air tanker fleet”.