Today, March 11, the Government Accountability Office will hold a hearing at their office in Washington, DC to consider the protests filed by three air tanker companies over the propriety of the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) noncompetitive contract award to Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., for next-generation large airtankers. The hearing was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. ET, but was a closed session, open only to GAO personnel, attorneys for the three companies that protested the contract, and two individuals from the Department of Agriculture who have been asked to be available to testify, Lisa Wilusz, a Senior Procurement Executive, and Gregory Parham, the Chief Acquisition Officer. Even the owners of the protesting companies are prohibited from attending, to prevent them from being exposed to their competitors’ trade secrets.
Protesting the sole source award for two BAe-146 air tankers to Neptune, are Coulson Aviation (USA), Inc; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; and Minden Air Corp. If only the basic two air tankers are signed up, the value of the contract would be about $141 million. If the options for the five additional tankers are utilized, it would be hundreds of millions.
The GAO is required to make their decision about the propriety of the sole source award by March 28.
Fire Aviation has reviewed almost three dozen documents filed by the protesting companies as well as the USFS’ Motion to Dismiss the protests. The files contain letters of protests, supplementary protests, transcripts of Congressional hearings, “declarations” written by some of the principles, an NTSB report, and an article from FireAviation.com. While it remains to be seen which side the GAO will favor, regardless of the outcome it is clear that after the dust settles the attorneys will probably close shop for two weeks and take their families to Bora Bora.
Four air tanker companies are protesting the non-competitive contract that the U.S. Forest Service gave to Neptune Aviation for two BAe-146 air tankers on December 12. As we reported that day, the contract, with a potential value of at least $141 million over four to nine years, justified the refusal to allow competition because of a necessity to “keep vital facilities or suppliers in business or make them available in the event of a national emergency, or prevent the loss of a supplier’s ability and employees’ skills”.
The Missoulian reported the information late on Tuesday. Below is an excerpt from their article:
Four aerial firefighting companies have protested the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to award two next-generation air tanker contracts to Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.
Neptune received the $8.7 million annual contract for two BAe-146 jet fire bombers on Dec. 13. The challengers, Coulson Aviation USA, Minden Air Corp. and 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC, each filed a protest on Dec. 23 with the Government Accountability Office.
GAO attorney Gary Allen said he could not discuss the protest claims Tuesday, because they contained “protected information” that couldn’t be disclosed until after a decision was rendered. That decision is due by March 28, but Allen said he expected a resolution would be reached before then.
An earlier version of the Missoulian article incorrectly reported that we had written at Fire Aviation that the Coulson gravity-assisted RADS retardant tank was going to be installed in the seven C-130H aircraft being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service, to convert them into air tankers. We had only said that “It would not surprise us if the U.S. Air Force will be calling [Coulson] for a quote” for the tank system. We thank reporter Rob Chaney for making the correction.
Tanker 131 was dispatched to its first fire today, September 20, near Santa Maria, California.
(Originally published September 13, 2013)
Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, a converted C-130Q, has been fully certified by the FAA, the Interagency AirTanker Board, and the U.S. Forest Service. The 3,500-gallon aircraft was carded on Tuesday and the pilot check rides occurred Wednesday. Its first assignment was to report to the San Bernardino airport, which ironically is where it spent the last several months while going through the conversion process.
Wayne Coulson, President and CEO of Coulson Aviation USA Inc., said, “This C-130Q has been outfitted with a Coulson RADS-XL Constant Flow tank and a state-of-the-art drop controller system that will enhance the accuracy of retardant drops by using GPS speed and other inputs.”
T-131 becomes the second air tanker to be certified and activated, of the original seven that were awarded “next generation” contracts.
As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The contracts were for exclusive use and for five years, with options for the USFS to extend them for an additional five years. Another option allows the addition of more air tankers from the vendors. The activation of the contracts was held up by two rounds of protests in 2012 and 2013 from Neptune Aviation, 10 Tanker, and Coulson, but the awards, after over 500 days of dithering, finally went to:
Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 (later changed to a 90-day exclusive use contract) and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.
The mandatory availability period for the six next generation air tankers was supposed to begin in the first part of August, 2013. Other than the DC-10, none of them made that date. Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite are still working on their conversion projects.
Conair Group of Abbotsford, British Columbia has started flight testing their BAe Avro RJ85, identified as Tanker 160, which is being converted from a jet-powered airliner into an air tanker. Conair is building two of them for Aero Flite. The RJ85 is a derivative of the BAe-146, but with improved engines. The 146 first flew in 1981 while the RJ85 was first delivered in 1993. Conair is the largest air tanker operator in the world with a fleet of around 50 fixed-wing special mission aircraft, including Convair 580s, Conair Firecats, Douglas DC-6s, and Lockheed Electra air tankers.
Minden Air Corp. has been working on their conversion of a BAe-146 for several years and began flight testing it this summer. A second BAe is under development and eventually these aircraft will replace the venerable P2V Neptune currently in service with Minden.
We attempted to contact all four of the vendors that received contracts for next-generation air tankers that are still working to convert their aircraft into air tankers. We wanted to get updates on how close they are to being ready drop retardant over fires. Minden and Coulson returned our phone calls. 10 Tanker had their two DC-10s ready to go and fully certified when the contracts were announced, so their status is obvious.
As you may know, the USFS announced on May 6 that exclusive use contracts were going to be awarded for seven next generation air tankers. The activation of the contracts was held up by a protest from Neptune Aviation, but the awards finally went to.
Only one of the five companies had their air tanker fully certified and ready to go when the awards were announced — 10 Tanker Air Carrier and their DC-10. They put Tanker 910 to work around June 1. In fact, their second DC-10, Tanker 911, was activated on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract June 14 and both of them have been flying fires since then. The two DC-10s, which always carry 11,600 gallons, dropped approximately 698,000 gallons of retardant in the month of June.
The other four companies are finishing the tank installations and still have to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the FAA and have to pass a static test, dropping while parked on the tarmac; then, finally a grid test during which they drop actual retardant from the air into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground which will determine the volume and consistency of the drop pattern. As far as I know none of the four remaining companies have scheduled a grid test yet with the Interagency AirTanker Board, which must certify all air tankers under contract with the federal government.
Minden Air Corporation
We talked with Len Parker, the CEO of Minden, who told us that they are making good progress on their BAe-146, Tanker 46, and that they expect to make the deadline for full certification, which is in the first part of August. Their tank design is very different from Neptune’s design for their BAe-146 which uses cabin air pressure to assist in forcing the retardant out of the tank. Mr. Parker told us their tank totally relies on gravity, having more than 10 feet of vertical head pressure. When asked if the door system was constant flow, he said yes and no, explaining that it is more advanced than a typical constant flow system, and uses advanced technology.
The tank holds about 3,100 gallons, he said, and when empty weighs about 2,000 pounds less than other tanks that may be used on BAe-146s, meaning they would not have to carry reduced loads of retardant as often when density altitude is an issue on hot days at high altitude.
Tanker 46 has passed the static test and meets the required flow rates, Mr. Parker told us. They are still working on the STC, but expect to select a date for the grid test by July 12.
Minden has purchased a second BAe-146 and has already started converting it.
Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.
Britt Coulson sent us these photos that were taken June 28, 2013. He told us the aircraft, which holds 3,500 gallons, has been painted and they will apply the wrap, which we ran a photo of earlier, later this month. He said on July 2:
…most of the tank is now installed, gear and all flight controls are checked, tank doors are going on this week, hydraulics are being finished this week as is the floor to complete the tank install.
As you can see in the photo, there are wheels attached to the tank. Mr. Coulson told us they can remove or reinstall the tank in about 30 minutes.
They still have to obtain the STC and the other certifications.
The other two companies
We called and left messages at Aero Flite and Aero Air, but the calls and emails were not returned.
Aero Flite photos?
We received the two following photos from someone who told us that they show Aero Flite’s RJ85 (Tanker 160) external retardant tank being attached to the belly and sides of an aircraft last week. We can’t independently verify they are genuine, so for now we’ll just call them an artist’s conception of what their RJ85 may look like.
The notification of the imminent awards comes 548 days after the USFS began the solicitation for next-gen air tankers. Two of the three companies told Fire Aviation that they have the awards in their hands. Bruce Palmer, a spokesperson with the USFS in Boise told us the awards and the award letters were sent Thursday.
The contracts will allow the companies to add an additional air tanker each year for up to five years, IF, and that’s a big IF, the USFS decides to add the aircraft and IF the agency has the funds to grow the air tanker program.
The other four line items on the pending next-gen contracts that are on hold because of Neptune’s protest are two MD87s provided by Aero Air, LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., and two Avro RJ85s from Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.
The contracts to be issued to Minden, Coulson, and 10 Tanker, will require that the air tankers be fully certified and approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker board by August 1, 2013, when their Mandatory Availability Period is scheduled to begin.
The DC-10 is already approved and has been dropping on fires for years.
It is thought that Coulson should be able to meet the deadline, since they are using a previously approved 3,500-gallon Aero Union tank system. The conversion of the C-130Q is nearing completion in San Bernardino and will be designated as Tanker 131, with a registration number of N130FF. Like the DC-10 (which always carries 11,600 gallons, however the new contract may change that), Tanker 131 will never have to reduce their retardant load due to density altitude. Future Coulson C-130 air tankers, if they are built, will have 5,000-gallon tanks, but on hot days at higher altitudes will occasionally have to fill at less than maximum retardant capacity.
Minden has recently been conducting flight characteristics tests of their BAe-146 supervised by an FAA pilot, as well as static tests on the ground to evaluate the tank system. Leonard Parker, Minden’s CEO, told us that they are close to obtaining the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and expect to begin the airborne drop tests for the Interagency AirTanker Board very soon. He said the airtanker, designated Tanker 46, should be ready to drop on fires in 60 to 90 days.
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.