Protests delay awards of air tanker contracts

Tanker 101, an MD-87
Tanker 101, an MD-87 operated by Erickson Aero Tanker, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service (FS) had hoped to have as many as seven additional “Next Generation” large air tankers working under contract on May 30, 2015, but protests filed by two companies could push that date back by several months.

The FS first awarded contracts for Next-Gen air tankers in 2013 at the end of a 555-day process that also included protests which delayed the awards. Next-Gen air tankers are required to have capabilities not present in the previous generation of Korean War vintage machines. They must fly faster, be powered by turbine or jet engines, and have a capacity of at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

Two companies have filed protests about this latest round of potential contracts, Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit, which they are required to do by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s. Both companies later amended their original complaints, which complicates the procedure for the GAO, so it is unlikely that anything will be decided much before those mid-July due dates.

No contracts have been awarded yet, nor has the FS announced what their intentions are about the contracts. The two companies are protesting the terms of the solicitation which was first posted on February 19, 2015, and then amended five times. Responses from bidders were due on April 9, 2015.

In researching this article we reached out to Erickson Aero Tanker and Coulson Aviation, but did not receive replies by our publication deadline.

When the awards were announced for the first round of Next-Gen contracts in May, 2013, Neptune Aviation did not receive one of the seven contracts and filed a protest. A few weeks later Neptune dropped their protest which allowed the FS to finalize the contracts form the other seven air tankers. It was disclosed later that the FS and Neptune had entered into a written agreement under which the agency agreed to award Neptune a sole-source contract for two Next-Gen large airtankers in exchange for Neptune withdrawing its protest.

In December, 2013  the FS awarded the promised sole source contract to Neptune for the two air tankers beginning in 2014. The estimated minimum value of the contract was $141,000,000 and had a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. If those five years were tacked on it would could have brought the value of the contract up to almost half a billion dollars.

The basis for awarding the non-competitive sole source contract to Neptune, according to the FS, was that the company was in danger of going out of business. The agency used the industrial “mobilization exception” to the requirement to conduct a competitive procurement. Their rationale was that without Neptune, the FS could not field an adequate number of air tankers. In March, 2014 we wrote a very detailed article about the sole source award and how it developed.

That sole source contract was protested by three companies, Coulson Aviation, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, and Minden Air Corp. The GAO upheld the protest, writing in their March 2014 decision that the sole-source award to Neptune in exchange for Neptune’s withdrawal of an earlier protest, was not a reasonable basis for the agency’s action. GAO also disputed the claim that Neptune was in danger of going under, and recommended that the FS reimburse Coulson, 10 Tanker, and Minden for their costs of filing and pursuing the protests, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

NTSB report on Tanker 48’s collapsed nose gear

Tanker 48 at Fresno
Tanker 48 lands on collapsed nose gear at Fresno.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released preliminary information about the June 15 accident in which Minden’s Tanker 48, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure, resulting in the nose gear collapsing while it landed at Fresno, California.

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“NTSB Identification: WPR14TA248
14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Sunday, June 15, 2014 in Fresno, CA
Aircraft: LOCKHEED SP 2H, registration: N4692A
Injuries: 2 Uninjured.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.

On June 15, 2014, about 2044 Pacific daylight time, a Lockheed SP-2H, N4692A, was substantially damaged when the nose wheel landing gear collapsed during landing roll at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT), Fresno, California. The airplane was registered to Minden Air Corporation, Minden, Nevada, and operated as Tanker 48 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forestry Service, as a public use flight. The airline transport pilot (ATP) rated captain and the ATP rated first officer were not injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a company flight plan was filed for the local fire fighting flight. The flight originated from Porterville Municipal Airport (PTV), Porterville, California, at 1934.

The captain reported that following an uneventful aerial drop, the flight was returning to PTV. During the descent check, he noticed that the hydraulic pressure indicated 0 and that the first officer subsequently verified that the sight gauge for the main hydraulic fluid reservoir was empty. The first officer opened the jet engine doors successfully as the captain selected gear down with no response. The captain notified base personnel at PTV of the situation and informed them that they would be orbiting to the east of the airport to troubleshoot. The captain and first officer performed the emergency checklist, and extended the nose wheel landing gear successfully. The captain stated that the first officer then installed the pin to the nose wheel landing gear as part of the emergency checklist.

The flight diverted to FAT due to a longer runway and emergency resources as both pilots briefed the no-flap landing procedure, airspeeds, and approach profile. As the flight continued toward FAT, the flight crew informed Fresno Approach Control of the hydraulic system failure and continued to perform the emergency gear extension checklist. The first officer extended the main landing gear using the emergency gear release, which resulted in three down and locked landing gear indications in the cockpit. As the flight neared FAT, the first officer added two gallons of hydraulic fluid to the main hydraulic reservoir while the captain attempted to extend the flaps unsuccessfully. Subsequently, the flight landed on runway 26R. During the landing roll, the nose wheel landing gear collapsed and the airplane came to rest nose low.

Examination of the airplane by representatives from the Forest Service revealed that the forward portion of the fuselage was structurally damaged. The airplane was recovered to a secure location for further examination.”

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Below is photo of Tanker 48 after landing on all three wheels at Rapid City, July 21, 2012, while working the Myrtle Fire.

Tanker 48 at Rapid City. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Tanker 48 at Rapid City. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Tanker 48 lands on collapsed nose gear at Fresno

Tanker 48 at Fresno
Tanker 48 lands on collapsed nose gear at Fresno.

Minden’s Tanker 48 experienced a hydraulic problem while working the Shirley Fire in California and diverted to Fresno, California where upon landing, the nose gear collapsed. Thankfully there were no injuries. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, described it as “a minor mishap”.

More details are at Wildfire Today, along with a history of similar air tanker accidents.

Number of air tankers increases for the first time since 2007

Conair RJ85 first flight
The first flight of Conair’s BAe Avro RJ85 in September, 2013, built for Aero-Flite. Conair photo by Jeff Bough.

The large air tanker fleet in the United States is on track to have more than double the number that were flying at the beginning of the summer in 2013. Last year there were nine large air tankers available near the beginning of the western fire season, and by mid-July this year there are expected to be 20 on contract that are fully certified, flyable, and ready to assist firefighters on the ground. Air tanker UTF In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, but that number as been generally in a downward spiral since then until it reached the low point of nine in 2013. Thanks to the the U.S. Forest Service adding three additional jet-powered BAe-146s to the “legacy contract” temporarily this year, and with nine other air tankers being on five-year or temporary one-year “next generation” contracts, we expect the air tanker fleet to be the largest since 2009.

Large air tankers-2014

Five of the 20 air tankers are on temporary one-year contracts added under the “additional equipment” provisions of the contracts that Neptune and 10 Tanker Air Carrier have for their BAe-146s and DC-10s. Unless the USFS decides again next year to award them another one-year contract (if they have the funds to do so) those five may disappear and the total number could decrease to 15.

Within the next week or so 16 large air tankers should be fully activated and on duty. There are still four that have contracts but are still going through the final stages of conversion, live drop tests, or approval of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In addition to the 20 large air tankers, there will be 33 single engine air tankers (SEATs) on exclusive use national contracts.

10 Tanker Air Carrier is converting their third DC-10. It has all of the necessary approvals and is expected to be ready to fight fire in July.

Aero-Flite has the approval of the Interagency AirTanker Board and is waiting on the STC before their two RJ85s can begin work. They hope to have everything all squared away by mid- to late June.

Minden has been working on their BAe-146 for several years and has scheduled their airborne drop tests, the “grid test”, to begin the week of June 16. They are waiting for the FAA to issue their STC. The FAA representative who was working on it had to leave the country on an assignment, slowing down the process.

By mid-summer there will be three additional air tankers that that the U.S. Forest service could activate on one-year additional equipment contracts. Neptune, Erickson Aero Tanker, and Aero-Flite will each have one additional approved air tanker sitting on their ramps.

The U.S. Forest Service could have, with the stroke of a pen, a total of 23 large air tankers flying this summer. The states in the far west are expected to have an above normal wildfire potential this summer. If that turns out to be accurate and houses are burning and residents are being killed, some questions will be asked if those three recently converted next generation air tankers are still cooling their wheels on an airport ramp because a bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture decided to look the other way.

Tanker 41
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, flyover May 21, 2014 at the University of Montana during the Large Fire Conference at Missoula. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Update on next-gen air tankers

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 160 at the retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Five companies received contracts on May 6, 2013 for seven “next-generation” air tankers. Of those seven, only two have met all of the specifications in the contracts and received the required certifications from the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) for a supplemental type certificate, a static drop test on the ground, and an airborne test of dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups. The two that have passed and have flown on fires are 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s 11,600-gallon DC-10, and Coulson Group’s 3,500-gallon C-130Q.

Here is what we learned this week while talking with aviation professionals at Cheyenne.

Minden Air Corp, who received a contract for one BAe-146, has passed the static test. They have not attempted a formal monitored grid test. The retardant system they are building has some impressive capabilities, including a high flow rate and a great amount of flexibility in the flow rate. It has the ability to select two different flow rates on one drop, for example, going from coverage level 5 to coverage level 8. (The numbers refer to the number of gallons of retardant that lands on 100 square feet of flat terrain.) That feature could be used when there is a change in vegetation or topography, moving, for example from grass to timber, or flat terrain to a steep slope. In each case it would be helpful to increase the coverage level.

Erickson Aero Tanker, received contracts for two MD-87s. One of the aircraft participated in a grid test in January, and the Interagency Air Tanker Board is still reviewing the results. Even though they added a fairing to modify how the air flow affected the performance of the aircraft and the retardant flow near the fuselage, the aircraft experienced some problems in qualifying at the higher coverage levels. The engineers may need to enlarge the retardant door openings to increase the flow rates.

Aero-Flite has two RJ-85s, an aircraft similar to the BAe-146. It has passed the grid test and the company is working on obtaining dual “citizenship”, supplemental type certificates for the retardant system from Transport Canada and the United States FAA . It is likely that the aircraft will be certified very soon by the IATB for an 18-month interim approval, which will be the new standard operating procedure for air tankers that receive an initial blessing from the IATB. The interim approval provides an opportunity for field trials, to determine if anything surfaces that was not apparent during the static, STC, and grid tests.

Bonus coverage:

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” was not part of the next-gen contract, but the company did have a couple of call when needed contracts (CWN), with the last one being issued June 14, 2013. After receiving the contract Evergreen scheduled a needed C check which would have started August 2, and depending on what was found during the process would have been ready to fly in mid- to late September — about the time the western wildfire season begins to wind down. The cost of the C check is over a million dollars. But a few weeks after receiving the contract, Bob Soelberg, the Vice President of Evergreen Supertanker Services, told Fire Aviation they reconsidered and decided to postpone the C check since there was “insufficient fire season remaining to justify the expense of an expedited C check as well as several system or component upgrades.”

A matter of weeks after Mr. Soelberg gave us that update the company filed for bankruptcy. The change in ownership made the CWN contract void. As of now, the 20,000-gallon 747 Supertanker is not covered by an air tanker contract.

Neptune has one BAe-146 working on the “legacy” air tanker contract, even though it now meets the criteria for a next-gen, including the required air speed and a 3,000-gallon retardant capacity. Before they modified the tanking system for the third time last fall, the tank held about 2,900 gallons and there was a problem in coverage level of the last 400 gallons exiting the tank, so the Forest Service restricted it to only carrying 2,500 gallons. The modifications increased the tank size to 3,000 gallons and made other changes in the system. At another grid test last fall it showed improved consistency for all 3,000 gallons, and in the flow rate at all coverage levels. As a result the Forest Service has now certified the tank system to carry 3,000 gallon of retardant. Their new design is innovative in that it uses GPS to measure the aircraft speed and then can automatically modulate the retardant flow rate to maintain the desired coverage level. They also have a sensor on the drop tubes which measures the actual flow rate. They system can then direct the valves or doors to change the size of the opening in order to maintain the coverage level as other factors change, such as the head pressure in the tank or if the aircraft encounters turbulence. Neptune expects to have a total of five BAe-146 air tankers available by later this summer.

GAO releases details of air tanker contract protest decision

GAOThe General Accountability Office has released their 23-page decision documenting why the agency sustained the protest filed by three companies over the sole source air tanker contract that the U.S. Forest Service awarded to Neptune Aviation December 12, 2013. The non-competitive contract, worth $141 million to $496 million, specified that Neptune would supply two or more next-generation air tankers, BAe-146s, for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014.

In our previous article about the decision we included the text of a press release issued by the GAO, but this 23-page document provides much more detail.

GAO sustains protest of air tanker contract

Neptune's Ait Tanker 41
Neptune’s Tanker 41, a BAe-146, at Missoula, August 11, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 3:15 p.m. MT, March 31, 2014; updated at 8:40 a.m. MT April 1, 2014 with the text of a statement released by the GAO, and again at 11:20 a.m. MT April 1, 2014 with a response from the USFS.)

The Government Accountability Office announced today that they sustained the protest filed by three companies over the sole source air tanker contract that the U.S. Forest Service awarded to Neptune Aviation December 12, 2013. The non-competitive contract, worth about $141 million, specified that Neptune would supply two or more next-generation air tankers, BAe-146s, for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014.

A spokesperson for the GAO said their review concluded that the U.S. Forest Service “could not reasonably justify” the non-competitive process used in awarding the contract to Neptune.

The three companies that protested the sole source contract were Coulson Aviation (USA), Inc; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; and Minden Air Corp. If only the minimum two air tankers were signed up, the value of the contract would be about $141 million. If the options for five additional tankers were utilized, it would be hundreds of millions.

The protest automatically halted the activation of the sole source contract when it was filed in December.

We asked the USFS for their reaction to the GAO decision, and if other air tankers will be brought on, either by activating options under existing legacy or next-gen contracts, or will additional contracts be pursued? We received the following statement issued by their Washington office Tuesday morning:

The U.S. Forest Service is committed to ensuring that we have all of the resources we need to fight wildland fire and protect the lives and property of the American people. Airtankers are an important part of our efforts and we are currently reviewing the GAO recommendation.

In the protest filed with the GAO, hundreds of pages were submitted, listing dozens of reasons why the three companies felt the sole source contract should be terminated.

The Coulson company argued that on several occasions they told the USFS that they could supply more than the one C-130, but were told that the funding situation was too uncertain to commit more air tankers. Then a few months later, the USFS issued a contract potentially worth at least $141 million.

10 Tanker made similar offers, and in fact had a second DC-10 fully certified and on a call when needed contract that they would have liked to convert to an exclusive use next-gen contract. They also said they are working on retrofitting a third DC-10 which they expect to have ready to go by the end of calendar year 2014.

This was the third USFS air tanker contract that has been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO, the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.

Neptune will have six Korean War vintage P2Vs (2,082 gallons each) and one jet-powered BAe-146 (3,050 gallons) on exclusive use contract this year in what the U.S. Forest Service calls the “legacy” air tanker category. The company expects to have four additional BAe-146s ready to fight fire this year that are not currently on contract.

10 Tanker Air Carrier has one DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker on exclusive use contract and another on a call when needed contract. The company is in the process of retrofitting a third DC-10. They each carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant.

Coulson has one 3,500-gallon C-130Q on exclusive use contract and hopes to acquire and convert a second C-130.

Minden has a contract for a BAe-146 but it has not yet been tested or approved by the Interagency AirTanker Board.

The complete text of a statement by the GAO about the decision is below. It was written March 31 and released April 1, 2014.

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The following is a statement from GAO regarding today’s decision resolving bid protests filed by Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc., 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC, and Minden Air Corp., B-409356.2 et al., March 31, 2014.

On March 31, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) sustained, or upheld, the protests filed by Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc., of Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Minden Air Corp., of Minden, Nevada, challenging the sole-source award of a contract by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Forest Service, to Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., of Missoula, Montana, for airtanker services to support wildland firefighting.  The contract contemplates Neptune providing at least two modern large airtankers for up to 9 years (the contract also contains options to add up to five additional aircraft in each year).  The total estimated value, based on all possible aircraft over all years, is approximately $496 million.
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