Today the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for seven additional large and very large air tankers. The aircraft being added to the exclusive use contracted fleet are four BAe-146s operated by Neptune Aviation, two RJ85s flown by Aero-FLite, and one DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.
The contract solicitation, issued November 26, 2015, is for what the USFS calls “next generation” air tankers, which must be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons, while the others can hold up to about 3,000 gallons.
This brings the total number of next-gen air tankers on exclusive use contracts to 14. There are also seven “legacy” air tankers on exclusive use contracts, all operated by Neptune. Six are Korean War vintage P2Vs which usually carry about 2,100 gallons and are powered by two 18-cylinder radial engines. There is also one BAe-146 on the legacy contract.
These new next-gen awards, which begin this year, are for a five-year period with options for five additional years, with at least 160 days of mandatory availability every year.
The daily rates for Neptune’s BAe-146s, which is paid even if the aircraft is not used that day, varies during the possible 10-year period from $29,000 to $32,640 each day, while the hourly flight rate is from $8,000 to $9,274.
The daily rate for Aero-Flite’s Rj85 are from $28,581 to $35,546, and their flight rate is $7,559 to $9,862 per hour. The daily rate for the DC-10, a Very Large Air Tanker, are from $34,000 to $35,000, and the hourly rate is $13,600.
These rates do not include the cost of fuel, which will be paid by the government.
Most of the contracts the U.S. Forest Service has attempted to issue in recent years for large and very large air tankers have been protested, which suspends the activation of the contract until the Government Accountability Office adjudicates the dispute. This contract has already been protested by Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker even before the closing date of the solicitation. However, the GAO decided in July to deny the protests. But that does not mean that there will not be additional protests now that the contracts have been awarded.
Neptune Aviation, in addition to the six P2Vs and one BAe-146 they have under exclusive use contracts, expects to have a total of seven converted BAe-146 air tankers available by the end of this year. Perhaps some of those additional six will be put to work when the U.S. Forest Service announces the second round of “next-generation” air tanker contracts later this year, or perhaps in 2016. Proposals from vendors were due March 24, 2015.
The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association issued a press release about preparations their clients are undertaking to get ready for this fire season.
While the fire season throughout much of the US does not begin until early spring, the private aerial firefighting industry is—even now–battle-ready for what could be another tough year, thanks to ongoing dry conditions in the Western states.
“I think there is going to be far more fire activity in 2015, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which is a lot drier than it was last year at this time,” said Drew Njirich, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “Although California will also be an area of focus, every part of the west, including Idaho and Montana, could be severely impacted by this year’s fire season.”
Intermountain Helicopter’s single Bell 212 medium helicopter, which is under an Exclusive Use (EU) contract with the US Forest Service (USFS) for the next three years, underwent maintenance and modification work during the winter months to assure its availability for its multi-mission work in support of ground-based fire firefighters, such as ferrying of personnel and supplies to the fire lines. As an additional safety measure for the upcoming fire season, the company installed a Garmin GDL-69 satellite link weather system in order to monitor weather conditions in areas where there is no cellphone coverage. “Being linked to a satellite system means that we can monitor the weather wherever we are, in real time,” Njirich explained. “When it comes to safety, we try to stay ahead of the game.”
At Rogers Helicopters, winter maintenance is nearing completion. “We always prepare for a high level of firefighting, even if it turns out that the fire season is not as severe as those in the past,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of the Fresno, California-based company.
Two of the company’s Bell 212s are being readied for operation under USFS EU contracts, with an additional three Bell 212s committed to EU contracts with the State Of Alaska Department Of Forestry.
“Another Bell 212, and a Eurocopter AS 350B2 A-Star will be under USFS Call When Needed (CWN) contracts,” Rogers noted. “In addition, we have two fixed wing Rockwell 690A twin turboprop Commanders that will be operated in air traffic management roles during aerial firefighting for the USFS.”
Those aircraft will be manned by a cadre of 14 pilots, four of whom will be assigned to the Commanders. All of the pilots are currently undergoing recurrent training, said Rogers, who explained that all of the company’s fixed wing and helicopter training is carried out in house.
Keith Saylor, Director Of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that the operator has just submitted a proposal to make 19 helicopters available under state and federal CWN contracts. Those aircraft will include former US Army CH47D helicopters, acquired by Columbia last year, as well as Columbia Model 107s and Model 234s. At the same time, three of the company’s Model 107s and one Model 234 will be commencing the final year of a four year USFS EU contract beginning in May.
“We put our aircraft through some contractually mandated avionics changes, along with our routine winter fleet maintenance,” Saylor pointed out. “We also carried out initial training of the pilots we newly hired, along with recurrent training for those already on staff.” Columbia Helicopters, he added, is anticipating a “moderate to severe” fire season for the Pacific Northwest.
Neptune Aviation Services, the largest operator of fixed wing aerial tankers, expects to wrap up all heavy maintenance in May, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company. “Since last fall, we will have invested nearly 18,000 man-hours to prepare our aircraft for the 2015 fire season, which is about average for each year,” he said.
Currently, Neptune Aviation Services has seven aircraft under EU contracts with the USFS for 2015, which includes six P2V Neptunes and one BAe146 jet. However, Snyder stressed that other aircraft are available as needed. In fact, by the end of this year, the operator expects to have a fleet of seven BAe146 jets reconfigured for aerial firefighting, in addition to its legacy fleet of P2Vs.
“We began flight crew training on both the Neptunes and BAe146s starting in January of this year,” Snyder reported. “That includes ground school, simulator, in-aircraft training; as well as mission specific training.” The BAe146 simulator training, he explained, is conducted in Australia and in the United Kingdom. “We use a generic simulator for the P2V instrument training,” said Snyder.
Although he did not want to speculate about the coming fire season, Snyder did point out that the company has received inquiries from the USFS about deploying some of the contracted aircraft early due to concerns about the fire potential in California. The first aircraft, in fact, has been mission ready since March 5, with deployment of the remaining five by May 30.
Now that we have summarized the evolution of the federal large air tanker fleet over the course of 2014, it’s time to look at what is in store for 2015. There could be between 14 and 21 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts this year. Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist with the U. S. Forest Service in Boise, told us that the list should include these aircraft:
1 DC-10, 10 Tanker Air Carrier
1 C-130Q, Coulson
2 RJ-85s, Aero-Flite
2 MD-87s, Erickson Aero Air
1 BAe-146, Neptune
6 P2Vs, Neptune
1 C-130H, U.S. Forest Service
In 2014 a DC-10 and three more BAe-146s were brought into service as “additional equipment” on a 1-year temporary basis under exclusive use contracts awarded in 2013. Due to a change in Department of the Interior procurement policies, this will not be done again in 2015.
The USFS expects to award another “next generation” contract for up to 7 more air tankers in 2015. We will be watching to see how long it takes the agency to advertise and award the contracts. Last time it took 555 days.
The USFS will also have one CL-415 water scooping air tanker on contract this year. And, eight military C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) are expected to be available if needed.
The National Transportation Safety Board probable cause report on the June 3, 2012 crash of Tanker 11 concluded that while preparing to drop retardant on the White Rock fire near the Utah/Nevada state line, the flight crewmembers “did not properly compensate for the wind conditions while maneuvering”. The aircraft impacted the ground before it reached the location for the intended drop, causing the death of pilots Todd Tompkins and Ron Chambless.
A photographer got some pictures of the tanker as it was attempting to make the drop (below). It is likely that the pilots jettisoned the retardant when it became obvious they were too low.
The P2V, operated by Neptune Aviation, was about to make its second drop on the fire that day. Shortly before the crash it made a dry run over the target area, then when lining up for the drop on the next pass took a different path, which was lower, and made a wider right turn, according to the report.
The same day that Tanker 11 crashed, another P2V, Tanker 55 operated by Minden, had a mechanical failure and landed at Minden, Nevada with a main landing gear not fully extended. The aircraft was heavily damaged, but there were no serious injuries. The landing was recorded on video.
On June 26, 2010 air tanker 44, a P2V operated by Neptune Aviation also experienced a hydraulic failure upon landing, had no brakes, and went off the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado (map). Both pilots self-evacuated and were walking around when the fire apparatus arrived to put out a fire in one of the engines. Neptune repaired the aircraft and put it back into service.
The NTSB released a nine-page Factual Report on the crash of Tanker 11. Below is the complete text of the one-page probable cause report, released September 24, 2014:
14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Sunday, June 03, 2012 in Modena, UT
Probable Cause Approval Date: 09/24/2014
Aircraft: LOCKHEED P2V-7, registration: N14447
Injuries: 2 Fatal.
NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.
Tanker 11 departed the tanker base to conduct its second fire retardant drop of the day in the same location. Upon arriving in the fire traffic area, Tanker 11 followed the lead airplane into the drop zone, which was located in a shallow valley 0.4 mile wide and 350 feet deep. The lead airplane flew a shallow right turn onto final and then dropped to an altitude of 150 feet above the valley floor while approaching the intended drop zone. While making the right turn onto final behind the lead airplane, Tanker 11’s right wing tip collided with terrain, which resulted in a rapid right yaw and subsequent impact with terrain. The wreckage created a 1,088-foot-long debris field, and a postimpact fire ensued.
Two witnesses took photographs of the accident sequence photos, and an examination of these photographs showed that the lead airplane was positioned ahead of the tanker throughout the flight; however, the orientation of the lead airplane compared to the orientation of Tanker 11 indicated that Tanker 11 did not directly follow the lead airplane’s path to the final drop course. Rather, it was about 700 feet left of the lead airplane’s path and made a wider right turn as it attempted to align with the final drop course. The accident flight crewmembers had previously flown nearly the same exact drop and the lead pilot cautioned them about tailwind conditions during the flight; however, the wider turn suggests that they did not properly compensate for the wind conditions while maneuvering. In addition, the previous flight was conducted at an altitude above the ridgeline. GPS evidence indicates that the accident flight was conducted below the ridgeline, which would have made it more difficult to detect the rising terrain during the wider turn. A review of the airplane’s cockpit voice recorder audio information revealed that the flight crew did not recognize or attempt to correct the reduced clearance between Tanker 11 and the rising terrain until about 2 seconds before impact.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The flight crew’s misjudgment of terrain clearance while maneuvering for an aerial application run, which resulted in controlled flight into terrain. Contributing to the accident was the flight crew’s failure to follow the lead airplane’s track and to effectively compensate for the tailwind condition while maneuvering.
Thi above video shot at the Courtney Fire three miles southeast of Oakhurst, California shows slow motion drops from a DC-10, P2V, S-2, and a couple of other aircraft that are too far away to determine the model. And, check out what appears to be an explosion at 0:29.
Kristin Biechler sent us these photos that she and Dave Clemens shot at the Medford, Oregon Airport (map) over the last few days. She said her house is directly under the tankers’ flight path to the Happy Camp and Beaver Fires in northwest California. The planes depart MFR, she explained, bank west, and mostly follow Highway 238 toward Jacksonville and out to Applegate Reservoir and into California.
We are honored to present a photographic essay of air tankers by professional photographer Joe Cupido. He tells us below about his career in photography.
I grew up in a military family and acquired the love of aviation early on. When I was in high school I started photographing aircraft. Then later while in the military I became a Combat Photographer / Photojournalist and continued photographing aircraft professionally. I specialized in Air to Air photography working with the military and for some of the major aircraft companies. I was lucky enough to finish my career with about 5,500 hours in over 100 different airframes, 7 books and over 2,000 magazines articles on aviation subjects.
I’ve always enjoyed chasing fire-fighting aircraft whenever I had the time. The images below were captured over time and with a lot of cooperation from a lot of good people in the Air Tanker business. Without their help I could not have captured the images that I did and I thank all of you. Hope you enjoy!