USFS Chief Tidwell testifies about next-gen air tankers

USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, 5-22-2013In addition to talking about the C-27J in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell discussed at length the air tanker program, especially the contracting process for the next-generation air tankers.

During the hearing, which was primarily about the USFS budget, Senators Jack Reed (Rhode Island) and Jon Tester (Montana) asked many questions about the air tanker program. The entire hearing lasted almost two hours; you can watch a video of it HERE. You will see that there were three people in the audience, and only about five or six senators were present, out of the 30 that are members of the committee.

Chief Tidwell said he has the authority to override the protest filed by Neptune for being passed over for the next-gen air tanker contracts. If he does, it would be within the next couple of weeks and would be based on an “emergency” — a shortage of air tankers. On May 17 Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake.

In reading between the lines of Senator Testor’s statements and questions, he appeared to be chiding Chief Tidwell for not awarding any next-generation air tanker contracts to a particular business in his state, Neptune Aviation. Neptune has two BAe-146s with at least interim approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board, and two more that the company expects to have ready to go later this summer. Neptune did, however, receive contracts on the “legacy” air tanker solicitation for some of their P2Vs and one BAe-146. [UPDATE May 23, 3013; Neptune was recently able to add a second BAe-146 to the contract as “additional equipment”.]

I transcribed some sections of the dialog:

At 43:28, Tidwell: “We will have an adequate air tanker fleet this year. We are anticipating between 24 and 26 planes to be available. We currently have nine aircraft under what we call a legacy aircraft which is seven P2s plus two BAe-146As that are currently on contract. We are in the process of awarding contracts for seven more aircraft which we call our next generation which are the faster planes we are trying to move forward to, that carry larger payloads. In addition to that we continue to work with the Air Force and Air Force Reserve to make sure the MAFFS units, the C-130Js and Hs are available again this year as a backup. We’ve also taken steps to be able to work with Alaska and Canada to bring down their [Convair] 580 planes if we need those aircraft.

So based on everything we’re moving forward with this year I feel confident that we will have a set of aircraft that we can respond.

In addition to that we are anxious to see what the Air Force, the decision that they make, if the C-27s are surplus and they become available, and we would definitely like to have seven more of those aircraft to be part of our overall fleet. They would be government owned but contractor operated. We are moving forward to actually look at what it would take to take our MAFFS units and modify those to fit into the C-27s so if those planes become available that we will be able to move as quick as we can to build those MAFFS units for those C-27s. ”

Senator Jack Reed
Senator Jack Reed

(Senator Reed asked a question about next gen contracts. Are you confident that you will have those next-gen aircraft under contract and useful this fire season?)

Tidwell: “Mr. Chairman, we are working through the process of the contract for the next generation and we have received a protest, that we will work through that protest. I do have the authority to override that protest and as we go through the process I’ll make that determination to ensure that we have the aircraft we need to be able to respond to fires this year.

We estimate that with the C-27s it would cost about $3 million per aircraft to build the MAFFS units and then to make some changes on the aircraft to make them usable for our mission and take some of the military equipment and armor off those aircraft that is no longer needed for our mission.”

Senator Jon Tester
Senator Jon Tester

(At 1:03 Senator Tester asked about the status of the aircraft on the next-generation contracts:)

Tidwell: “Once we work through the protest and actually award the contracts it is our expectation that those contractors that have the new contract awards will have their planes ready to go withn 60 days for testing.”

(Senator Tester asked, after the tests, when will they “be ready to fly?”)

Tidwell: “It’s our expectation that when they complete the tests they will be ready to fly. The aircraft that are being considered they are all FAA certified already so there isn’t that problem, they don’t have to deal with that. So they have to get their tanking systems to be able to use our performance tests.”

Senator Tester asked if they took into consideration when evaluating the potential contractors if they would be ready to fly this summer. Tidwell said, yes, they were expected to be able to be ready in 60 days. The contingency plan, he said, is to bring down the [Convair] 580s from Canada and to use the MAFFS.)

Tidwell: “We’ve been asking for the C-27s so that we at least have part of our fleet that is government owned so there is a guarantee that we will have some aircraft. So this has been an ongoing problem with these contracted aircraft.”

Tester: “My problem is not with the contracted aircraft per se, and I’m not for privatizing government, but my problem is that there were better options on the table that could be taken up by the Forest Service from my perspective and they didn’t do it. And you know exactly what I’m saying and all that.”

Tidwell: “We have a set of procedures that we follow when we award contracts. I can guarantee that there has been a high level of oversight provided and the process of being able to protest and have another level of review, that’s the process that we have to follow. And because of that our folks go to great lengths to be able to make sure that we are making right decisions based on what the contractors provided us and we have to make our best decisions.”

Tester: “The bottom line is we need to get the biggest bang for the buck and I’m not sure that because of the fact that we don’t know if these planes are going to be operational or not, whether we got the best bang for the buck.”

Tidwell said that “within the next week or so” he will make a decision about overriding the protest or not.)

At 1:39, Tester questioned again whether the seven next gen aircraft have FAA certification. Tidwell said it is his understanding that six do, and one made some air frame modifications, so it may not have the FAA certification. Tester asked Tidwell to confirm and get back to him.

Tester asked about the status of the C-27 transfer. Tidwell said it is his understanding that the Air Force is doing a study to determine if they want to do the transfer or not. The study could be done by September.

Tidwell anticipates the payload of the C-27 to be 1,800 gallons. Maintenance would be contracted. He said it would cost between $21 and $26 million to convert seven C-27s into air tankers.

Senators urge USFS to convert C-27Js into air tankers

The three-person congressional delegation from South Dakota sent a letter to the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service on April 16 encouraging Chief Tidwell to acquire military surplus C-27J aircraft to be converted into air tankers. The Defense Department may be getting rid of all of their C-27Js, and legislation has given the Secretary of Agriculture the first right of refusal if that occurs.

C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

At least three other Senators have been pushing for this since last July. This newest letter was signed by Senator John Thune, Senator Tim Johnson, and Representative Kristi Noem. In spite of the fact that their letter shows a lack of understanding of how air tankers are managed in the federal government, they offered some advice, suggesting that “one or two” of the C-27Js be stationed at Ellsworth Air Force base in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The Senators and the Congresswoman failed in their letter to indicate that they would introduce legislation to appropriate dollars to maintain and operate the aircraft or supply funding to convert them into air tankers, which would require many millions of dollars. Talk and letter writing is very easy to do. Using their powers as elected officials representing taxpayers to actually facilitate change on this matter is something that they have not done, and can’t delegate to the intern that may have written the letter.

The C-27J is an interesting aircraft and appears to be a baby brother of the C-130J. It uses two of the same turbo-prop engines as the C-130, which has four of the 4,640 hp Rolls-Royce engines. If converted into an air tanker, at only five years old they would be by far the youngest large air tankers being used in the United States. The P2Vs that currently comprise most of the large air tanker fleet on exclusive use contracts are over 50 years old. Even Tanker 40 (N146FF), the recently acquired jet-powered BAe-146 operated by Neptune, is 27 years old.

The C-27J has a short but spotty history, with some reports of maintenance problems and difficulties in acquiring parts from the Italian suppliers. According to Wikipedia:

On 23 March 2012, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will cut the C-27J from its inventory in fiscal year 2013 after determining that its per-aircraft lifecycle costs are higher than those of C-130 aircraft performing the same combat resupply mission.

It is difficult to estimate how many gallons of retardant a C-27J could hold, but it could be between 1,800 and 2,300. This compares to an average of 1,948 for a P2V, a little less than 3,000 for a BAe-146, and 11,600 for a DC-10.

 

Thanks go out to Jim

Journalism students write about air tankers

A P2V air tanker being reloaded at Rapid City
A P2V air tanker reloads at Rapid City while working on the Myrtle fire, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Four students studying journalism at Washington State University have written an article that summarizes the state of the federal air tanker program. It is interesting in that it quotes several knowledgeable people who have close ties to management of the fleet, including Jim Hall, former Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Ron Hanks, head of aviation safety with the U.S. Forest Service. They also interviewed Dick Mangan, past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Mr. Hall, who chaired the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel following the crashes of two air tankers that killed five aviators that year, continues to lament the current state of the air tanker program, much as he did earlier this summer.

Mr. Hanks apparently told the student reporters:

Right now, we have 17 aircraft, and that includes the Canadian aircraft that we have borrowed.

That puts an extremely favorable spin on the fact that as the fire season ends there are nine large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus two BAe-146s that were put on temporarily as “additional equipment” on Neptune’s contract. The Canadian air tankers and lead planes that Mr. Hanks referred to were borrowed for a month or so last summer. In 2002 we had 44 large air tankers.

Here is a video that illustrates the student’s story;

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Photos of aircraft on Fern Lake Fire

Minden's Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer
Minden’s Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer

Paul Filmer took some excellent photos of aircraft working on the Fern Lake Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park west of Estes Park, Colorado, December 4, 2012. The photo above is the first one I can remember seeing of an air tanker dropping with snow in the background.

We thank Paul for allowing us to use his photos. You can see a couple of dozen more that photos he took December 4 at his web site. More information about the Fern Lake Fire can be found at Wildfire Today.

Air-Crane drafting water from a "pumpkin" on the Fern Lake Fire, Photo by Paul Filmer
Helicopter Transport Services’ Skycrane drafting water from a “pumpkin” on the Fern Lake Fire, Photo by Paul Filmer
HeliQuest Aviation's KMAX on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer
HeliQuest Aviation’s K-MAX on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer

Two air tankers still on active duty

Tanker 48 at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21
Tanker 48 at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(Revised at 7:37 a.m. MT, December 4, 2012)

The mandatory availability periods for the nine large air tankers on national contracts ended in August, September, and October, but two P2Vs are still working today due the warm, dry weather that some areas of the country are experiencing. Tanker 48, operated by Minden, and Neptune’s Tanker 43 are the two that are working on a day by day basis through “optional use” provisions in their contracts, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise.

Air tankers were requested early Saturday morning, December 1, for the rapidly spreading Fern Lake Fire that was moving toward structures west of Estes Park, Colorado. Fire managers were told that the only large air tankers sill working were in California but were unavailable due to weather in the Bay Area, according to David Eaker, a spokesperson for the Fern Lake Fire.

Today two large air tankers were supposed to be parked on the ramp at JEFFCO air tanker base northwest of Denver after being ferried in from California, but only one made it, Tanker 48. The other one, Tanker 43 had to stop in Durango, Colorado, unable to climb over the continental divide due to weather. We’re thinking the old P2V does not have de-icing equipment.

If the USFS is going to keep air tankers working into the winter, maybe a better choice of which ones to keep on would be a couple of the BAe-146s, which I assume have de-icing equipment.

The one tanker at JEFFCO, 48, has not been used on the Fern Lake Fire yet due to strong winds over the fire. Mr. Eaker told Wildfire Today that they may be used very soon to pretreat some areas where large burnouts are planned, thanks to improving weather forecasts indicating decreasing winds.

Tanker 43 was responsible for closing the Rapid City Airport for 40 minutes on June 20 when an engine failure on takeoff resulted in the crew jettisoning the 2,000-gallon load of retardant on two runways and a taxiway.

Tanker 43 landing at Rapid City Air Tanker Base
Tanker 43 landing at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

 

(This article was edited to reflect the fact that one of the air tankers was delayed ferrying to JEFFCO. Thanks Rob.)

Air tanker drops, as seen from a lead plane

747 dropping
A still image showing Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” dropping on a fire (from the video below).

The video below which shows dozens of air tanker drops is very interesting. Most of the video was shot from a lead plane, with views rarely seen by most of us. The technical quality of the video is not great — low resolution and a little shaky — but it’s very worth viewing. Occasionally you can see the smoke generated by a BLM lead plane which marks the target for the air tanker.

Some of the aircraft include: P-3, P2V, S2T, DC-10, C-130 MAFFS, and an air tanker that is very rarely seen, Evergreen’s 747.