Neptune Aviation’s five BAe-146 air tankers

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Neptune’s five BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo.

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.

A sole source air tanker award, how it developed

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
A Neptune BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McCLure.

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.

Most of the documents have redactions, some more than others. One or two are virtually useless as a result, but most still contain a great deal of information. We will elaborate on them, but first, get a cup of coffee–it’s a long story.
Continue reading “A sole source air tanker award, how it developed”

Neptune to have 11 air tankers available this summer

T02 arriving at Missoula 2-2-2014
Tanker 02 arriving at Missoula for the first time, February 2, 2014. Photo by Bill Moss.

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.

Tanker 01 at Missoula 2-2-2014. Photo by Bill Moss.
Tanker 01 at Missoula 2-2-2014. Photo by Bill Moss.

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 protest Neptune’s new contract

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
Neptune’s BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McClure.

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.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Scott and Dick

USFS awards sole source air tanker contract to Neptune

Tanker_41
One of Neptune’s BAe-146s, Tanker 41, at Missoula, a next-generation air tanker. Photo August 11, 2012 by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.

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 protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30 when actual signed contracts were finally issued to three companies for three air tankers, which the contracting officers felt were not affected by the protest:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

Then suddenly on June 7 Neptune withdrew their protest which allowed the contracts for the remaining four aircraft to be awarded to:

  • Aero Air, for two MD87s
  • Aero Flite, for two Avro RJ85s

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.

Another BAe air tanker takes flight

Conair RJ85 first flight
The first flight of Conair’s BAe Avro RJ85, which is being built for Aero Flite. Conair photo by Jeff Bough.

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.

Tanker 160 first flight
Conair’s Tanker 160, a BAe Avro RJ85 after first flight, August 21, 2013. Photo by Coastal Pacific Aviation.

Tanker 160 reminds me of one of the “Guppy” type aircraft heavily modified to carry large cargo items. Aero Union sold the Mini Guppy below to Erickson in 1988 who then used it to haul heavy equipment until 1995, when it was retired to the Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon, where it resides today.

Erickson Air Crane Mini Guppy
Erickson Air Crane’s Mini Guppy

BAE Systems Regional Aircraft is making specialist engineering contributions to Conair and three other aircraft conversion programs underway in North America.

Neptune has acquired two BAe-146s which were converted by Tronos in Canada. Tronos has four more in progress for Neptune.

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.

Air Spray Aviation Services of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada which currently has a fleet of Lockheed Electra turboprop air tankers has established a US base at Chico, California and has acquired a BAe 146-200 for conversion.

Interior of Neptune’s BAe-146 revealed

The Santa Maria Times ran an article with photos that featured one of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers when the aircraft was working out of the Santa Maria Air Attack Base while the White Fire was burning north of Santa Barbara, California. The interesting thing about the article is that it includes a photo of the interior of the BAe-146. It is the first photo I have seen of the interior.

Only the end of the tank is visible, and it is round. You can’t tell if the tank is cylindrical like the MAFFS tanks, or a series of nearly spherical tanks, like in the 747 Supertanker.

We asked the Santa Maria Times for permission to replicate the photo, and they refused, which is of course their right.

 

Thanks go out to John

31,000 gallons in the BAe-146? No

BAe-146 31,000 gallons? no
A screen grab from the NBC Los Angeles TV station video report, exaggerating the capacity of the BAe-146 by over 28,000 gallons.

In a video report Thursday about Tanker 41, “the latest weapon in the firefighting arsenal”, Neptune’s BAe-146 air tanker is described by the news reader and text on the screen (above) as having a “31,000 gallon tank”. That figure is off by a factor of 10 — they missed it by over 28,000 gallons. T41 can carry just under 3,000 gallons, maximum, and usually carries less due to density altitude limitations. If the 31,000 number was meant to be pounds instead of gallons, at 9 pounds per gallon for retardant it would still overstate the capacity by at least 400 gallons.

The air tankers that come closest to carrying 31,000 gallons are the 747 with 20,000 gallons, and the DC-10 at 11,600 gallons. All of the others flying today have a capacity of 3,000 gallons or less. The P2Vs usually carry less than 2,000. Coulson’s C-130Q that was awarded a contract this week will always carry 3,500 gallons when it begins dropping on fires in a few months.

The video shows T41 dropping on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. The second time they show the drop near the end of the video, the news reader did not mention how the volume of the retardant trailed off at the end. The two BAe-146s have been criticized for having a consistent drop pattern for only the first 2,400 to 2,500 gallons, while the remaining 500 to 600 gallons dribbles out. Neptune has said they are outfitting their third and fourth BAe-146s this summer with an improved tank design which will fix some of the bugs with the tanking system. Then next winter they will modify the tanks in the first two BAe-146s, T40 and T41.

I watched some of the aerial firefighting Thursday while it was being streamed live, and saw an air tanker drop unlike any I have seen before. The same air tanker, T41, made two separate drops on the same pass. The ridgetop target was not straight. It had two straight sections but had an oxbow in the middle. The ridge was too crooked for the aircraft to make two sharp turns and treat the entire ridge in one long drop, so it flew a straight line and dropped maybe 1,000 gallons on the first straight section, stopped dropping while it passed by the crooked section of ridgetop, then when it was over the second straight section, opened the doors again and dropped another 1,000 gallons or so. Either T41 or another air tanker probably came back later and treated the oxbow section skipped before.