This year will likely be the farewell tour for P2V air tankers

Above: A P2V air tanker on final approach at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Updated at 8:50 a.m. MST January 12, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service expects to issue a new round of Exclusive Use and Call When Needed air tanker contracts in the “near future”. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the agency, said they plan to solicit proposals for Next Generation 3.0 Exclusive Use and 2.0 Call When Needed air tankers. Next Generation 3.0 is intended for operations in 2018 and Call When Needed 2.0 is for this fire season.

It is very unusual for the USFS to begin a contracting process more than a year before the expected mandatory availability period (MAP). In recent years they have attempted to award the contracts only a few months before the aircraft are needed to begin work. The first Next Gen contract, V1.0, was awarded 550 days after being advertised.

In 2015 we wrote:

The USFS should get their [stuff] together and advertise the solicitation, not the Request for Information, at least one year before the mandatory availability period. Top quality air tankers, crews, and maintenance personnel can’t be magically produced out of thin air.

So this Next Gen 3.0 being advertised about 14 months before the expected MAP is a huge step in the right direction — but only if it takes much less than 550 days to make the awards.

The current “Legacy” Exclusive Use contract issued in March, 2013 under which seven air tankers operated by Neptune Aviation are working includes six P2Vs and one BAe-146. It expires at the end of this year. Dan Snyder, President of the company, told us that as far as he knows there are no plans for the USFS to issue any more contracts for which the Korean War vintage aircraft could qualify — the P2Vs can’t meet the specifications for Next Gen air tankers.

So this year will likely be the farewell tour for the P2Vs. Take pictures while you still can.

The last CWN and Exclusive Use contracts allowed very large air tankers such as the DC-10 to qualify. If that continues to be the case in this next round of contracts there could be a 747 and possibly more DC-10s in the sky. Currently two DC-10s are on Exclusive Use contracts and third on CWN worked for much of the 2016 fire season. Last week the 747 SuperTanker received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board.

And speaking of Neptune, Mr. Snyder said that by the time the Next Gen 3.0 contract is in effect next year they will have a total of nine BAe-146s fully converted and available. The ninth one arrived at their facility in Missoula on November 20, 2016.

In addition to their air tanker business, Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the C-23B Sherpas the USFS received from the U.S. Army which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.

Neptune has completed the work on three Sherpas and has started on a fourth. They “woke up” or serviced an additional seven that were in long term storage to make them flyable again.  A timetable for converting those seven will be determined by the USFS, who expects to use the Sherpas to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

USFS has one fully operational C-23B

The U.S. Army transferred 15 to the U.S. Forest Service

Air Tanker Base Observation team sherpa C-23B
Air Tanker Base Observation Team and Aircrew with a C-23B, August 23-29, 2016. L to R: Shane Ralston (MSO), Billy Phillips (MSO), Abe Fandrich (MSO), Brad Richards (RDD), Matt Huse (IWA), Robbie Cline (BJC), Leslie Casavan (SBD), Frank Castillo (MSO), Marc Durocher (SMX). The team of agency airtanker base and fixed-wing base qualified personnel were tasked by the USFS Washington Office Aviation Division to observe a number of airtanker bases and fixed-wing bases in terms of how they manage the aircraft. They also asked questions about training and experience of the base personnel.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 signed by the President December 13, 2013 not only transferred seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to be converted into air tankers, it also directed that 15 C-23B Sherpas be transferred from the U.S. Army to the USFS. The legislation directed that the change of ownership occur within 45 days of the bill being signed.

Now that over 2 1/2 years have passed, the USFS has one Sherpa that is fully reconfigured, operational, and available to be used on a daily basis. The agency refers to it as the National Logistical Sherpa and is using it this year to haul cargo. It will not be used this year for paracargo or smokejumper missions.

According to an information sheet distributed by the Forest Service, the aircraft has a crew of four, two pilots and two loadmasters. It can carry up to 18 passengers or a payload of 7,280 pounds of fuel and cargo. It has a range of 550 miles (with 4,000 pounds of cargo), a cruise speed of 198 knots, is IFR capable, and costs $2,310 an hour to operate.

The military version of the aircraft is called the C-23B. The civilian variation is variously known as SD3-60, SD-360, and Short 360. 

The Forest Service is calling their aircraft an SD3-60 because they are pursuing Federal Aviation Administration civil certification of the non-certificated C-23B aircraft. This would enable the agency to use them to perform several aerial firefighting missions in addition to delivering smokejumpers and cargo.

These tasks could include transporting fire crews, incident management teams, and other overhead and support personnel to airfields and airports that larger transport planes could not use; transporting cargo and communications equipment; and supporting all-hazards incidents. In the future SD3-60s could also be used for off-season/non-fire personnel/administrative support; interagency cooperative agreements (i.e. DoD jumpers, Air Force Academy, Customs & Border Protection); smokejumper and rappel boost; large fire support; Law Enforcement and Investigations Rapid Response Teams; tactical supply support; infrared mapping; search and rescue; wild horse feeding; and as a training platform.

The USFS expects to bring 9 more of the 15 aircraft into service beginning in 2017 primarily to be used as smokejumper aircraft. One will be used for parts while four will remain in storage for the time being.

The aircraft will be flown by USFS and contractor pilots, under a  Government-Owned/Mixed-Operations (GO/MO) model for the SD3-60 fleet.

C-23B at Neptune
C-23Bs being worked on by Neptune Aviation. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the aircraft which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.