Neptune Aviation arranged for Tanker 41, a BAe-146, to fly over the University of Montana at Missoula yesterday during the lunch hour. Many of the attendees at the Large Fire Conference came outside to enjoy the display.
Three more of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers are being brought into the current fleet. Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, confirmed today at the Large Fire Conference in Missoula that two BAe-146s came on in the last few days and a third will be on board by June 1.
The three aircraft are being added to Neptune’s “legacy” air tanker contract using the “additional equipment” provision.
These three air tankers are being added to the fleet along with the two additional DC-10s that were announced last week. 10 Tanker Air Carrier had one DC-10 already working on a next-gen contract and a second was converted last week from a call when needed contract to exclusive use, using the additional equipment provision on their contract. 10 Tanker is converting a third DC-10 that will also be on the next gen exclusive use contract when it is complete this summer.
Neptune Aviation assembled their five BAe-146 air tankers on the tarmac at Missoula for picture day. It is a pretty remarkable photo — five jet-powered air tankers that meet the basic U.S. Forest Service criteria to qualify as “next-generation” air tankers, which 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.
Only one of these five air tankers has a confirmed contract with the federal government, the USFS. It is on a “legacy” contract. Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now for the USFS are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.
A very unlikely option would be for the USFS to allow competitive bidding on an additional contract. All of the existing valid legacy and next-gen contracts allow for up to four additional aircraft to be added as “additional equipment” to each line item. The vendors that won the awards for those contracts are all hoping to add more aircraft down the road, and would most likely be very distressed if another company came in that lost competitive bidding previously, and basically took away their opportunity to supply more air tankers.
But, it is painful to see four recently retrofitted, freshly painted, jet air tankers sitting on the tarmac — with a rather bleak future.
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.
Neptune Aviation received their fifth BAe-146 February 2 when it arrived at Missoula on a snowy Sunday. The aircraft is still painted in the colors of United Express it had when the aircraft was operated by Air Wisconsin, but will soon take on Neptune’s white with red trim color scheme, and will have a big 02 on the tail. The work to build the tank system began even before it arrived in Missoula but there is still much to do before it can drop retardant over fires. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, told us that they expect to have it ready to go by the first of August this year.
Tanker 02 will receive the new, upgraded tank system that has already been installed on two of their other BAe-146s, Tankers 01 and 10. The modifications will help to correct some of the bugs in the first generation of the BAe-146 tank, which was criticized for inconsistent flow rates, especially when dropping downhill and for the last several hundred gallons in the tank. Neptune is calling the redesign the “Rev 300”. Mr. Snyder said it has received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA, and in August it also passed the new more stringent requirements introduced in 2013 for static and grid testing required by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). The air tankers with the Rev 300 will have interim approval from the IAB to operate without restrictions.
In addition to the three air tankers above, Neptune’s other two BAe-146s, Tankers 40 and 41 are also getting the redesigned 3,050-gallon tank system installed.
Mr. Snyder described the tank:
In addition to meeting the new 2013 IAB criteria, Neptune fielded a lot of new technology in this system that has never been used in large airtanker tanking systems to date. The systems have been significantly changed from the original tanks seen during operations last year. Additional exits have been added to give the tank excellent performance in all pitch attitudes, including down-hill drops.
The new gating system has the ability to be adjusted during a drop. Enhanced computer sensing and control have taken constant flow tanking to a new height, “Active Control”. Active Control allows the computer to actively monitor the flow performance and modify the exits to maintain the selected coverage level, based on aircraft ground speed, tank flow-rate, g-loading, and aircraft pitch attitude.
The new sensing and control system has yielded a tank that has a very high level of repeatability and consistency under all flight conditions. All these enhancements are significant improvements over the concept of Constant Flow tanking systems of years past.
Neptune will have six P2Vs and one BAe-146 on contract in what the U.S. Forest Service calls the “legacy” air tanker category this year. A second contract that the USFS awarded without competition to Neptune on December 12 for two BAe-146s is being protested by four other air tanker companies. Until it is settled, which should happen by March 28, it is unclear what Neptune will have in the air this year other than the seven air tankers on the legacy contract. In addition to those seven, Neptune will have at the beginning of the summer, three other BAe-146s ready to fight fire, with a fourth coming on line by the first of August.
This latest protest, which has become routine in the USFS air tanker contracting process, and the recent acquisition by the agency of seven, 27+ year old C-130s discarded by the Coast Guard which will be converted into air tankers, makes it difficult for Neptune and other vendors to make long range plans about the acquisition of millions of dollars worth of aviation assets that may or may not be wanted by the federal government.
Mr. Snyder said that if there is a need, they can acquire additional BAe-146s and convert them in about four months — several airframes concurrently if necessary.
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.
Today the U.S. Forest Service awarded a sole source contract to Neptune Aviation to supply two next-generation air tankers for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014. The estimated value of the contract is $141,000,000 and has a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. The hourly rate begins at about $8,000 and increases to about $12,000 by the end of nine years.
For the contract, Neptune is expected to use two BAe-146 airliners that are being converted to 3,000-gallon next-generation air tankers. Some of the requirements to qualify as next-gen are that they are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Those two Neptune aircraft would be in addition to the first two BAe-146s they converted which have been active on a “legacy” air tanker contract this year.
Issuing a sole source contract is much more unusual than allowing multiple companies to submit bids. To only consider one source, the federal government has to provide justification, and in this case they used the “industrial mobilization exception”, which includes 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”.
On May 6, 2013 the U.S. Forest Service announced their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven next-gen air tankers. Neptune was not selected, and the company filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. The reasons Neptune was left out of that contract, according to information Fire Aviation has received, could have been their problems providing consistent retardant drop patterns with their new BAe-146 tank, and, one of the considerations in awarding the contract was crash history. This year Neptune has been working to improve the tanks and said that by 2014 their BAe-146s would all have modified versions of the tank system.
The awarding of the final next-gen contracts came 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for the aircraft.
Only two of those seven air tankers have been constructed and have passed the certification requirements of the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board — the DC-10 and the C-130Q. The other five missed their contractual start dates. In September the USFS issued “cure notices” to the three companies. They responded to the USFS indicating the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014.
In the sole source justification for the new Neptune contract the USFS wrote they are “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014”.
When Neptune suddenly dropped their protest of the next-gen contract in June neither the company nor the USFS would disclose the reason. There was speculation Neptune felt confident at that time there would be a development later in their favor.