Vendors with SEAT contracts

Single Engine Air Tankers

Above: Tanker 466 operated by New Frontier Aviation reloads while working a wildfire south of Angostura Reservoir in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota (and other states) typically have SEATs on contract during the summer. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Here is a list of the companies that currently have Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) under U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management contracts. This list does not include SEATs working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or other federal or state agencies.

USFS, exclusive use:

  • Air Spray USA, Inc.

BLM, call when needed (or “on call”). There are no SEATs under BLM exclusive use contract at this time:

  • Aerial Timber
  • Aero Seat
  • Aero Spray
  • Air Spray
  • CO Fire Aviation
  • Columbia Basin Helicopters
  • Evergreen Flying Services
  • Fletcher Flying Services
  • GB Aerial Applications
  • Henry’s Aerial Service
  • M&M Air Service
  • Minutemen Aerial
  • New Frontier Aviation
  • Queen Bee Air Specialties
  • Western Pilot

BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract

Above: Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

For the previous three years the Bureau of Land Management had 33 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. As we enter the 2017 wildfire season there are none.

In 2014 the agency awarded EU contracts for 33 SEATs that guaranteed one year with a 100-day Mandatory Availability Period and four additional optional years. In 2016 the vendors were notified that two optional years, 2017 and 2018, would not be activated. One of the affected aircraft companies told us that the BLM said the reason was a lack of funds. (UPDATE May 31: Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokesperson, responded today to an earlier mail from us, explaining that the funds allocated in that 2014 contract had been spent, therefore they had to start over again with a new contract.)

In August, 2016 the agency began the solicitation process for a new EU contract. After it was awarded four vendors filed a total of six protests with the Government Accountability Office. As of today, May 30, 2017, four of those have been dismissed and two are still undecided.

Currently the only BLM SEAT contract in effect is a Call When Needed, or On Call contract that was awarded several weeks ago. A couple of days ago there were seven SEATs actively working in the Southwest Geographic Area on an On Call basis.

An aircraft vendor that operates SEATs told us that one of the issues his company is concerned about is the evaluation process for rating and selecting which vendors receive contract awards. He said the BLM places far too much emphasis on the empty weight of the aircraft while not considering enhancements that may add weight, but contribute to effectiveness and safety. The lightest SEAT is automatically favored, he said, while those with a backup radio, single point fueling behind the wing, GPS, a better performing Trotter retardant gate, ADS-B, larger engine, or a larger prop are penalized.

He said, “I just want to see a fair and impartial evaluation”.

One of the factors that almost destroyed the large air tanker industry around the turn of the century was the U.S. Forest Service’s over emphasis on the lowest bid price. This forced potential tanker vendors to resort to discarded aircraft designed for World War II and the Korean War and gave them little incentive to perform routine but expensive inspections and maintenance. In 2002 when the wings literally fell off two large air tankers in mid-air killing five crew members, the USFS started to re-think their lowest cost policy. Over the next 10 years the number of large air tankers on EU contracts declined from 44 to 9. Following that lost decade the USFS contracting process and the vendors’ fleets were reinvented.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the BLM said, “The BLM will ensure that we have adequate SEATs/wildland firefighting resources for the 2017 fire season, regardless of how we contract our aircraft. The BLM will provide an adequate response to all wildfire activity, whether it’s an extreme, normal, or below-normal fire season this year.”

Colorado studying SEAT-dropped water enhancer effectiveness during 2017 wildfire season

Above: State-contracted SEAT T-831 drops sunset orange FireIce HVO-F®. Courtesy photo.

Efforts are underway in Colorado to better evaluate how water enhancers delivered from a single engine air tanker can be more effective than retardants in fighting wildfires.

Colorado historically has only loaded long-term retardant into SEATs. These chemical concentrates are mixed with water and alter fuels so they do not support combustion. Retardant is dropped adjacent to — or ahead of — the fire to create a chemically induced fire break at its perimeter.

Molecular bonds from water enhancers, however, slow evaporation by creating a thermal protective coating. SEAT drops of water enhancers are mainly used in direct attack to slow or halt the fire’s rate of spread long enough for ground resources to access the fireline and mop up or supplement the knockdown process.

These gels have generally been limited in use in recent years, and field testing has been minimal. Information about water enhancers’ availability, use and effectiveness is sparse at best.

The study, lasting throughout the 2017 wildfire season in Colorado, has the following objectives, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control:  

  1. Observe and evaluate drops of water enhancers on wildfires and record information about 1) whether the water enhancer stopped or slowed the forward advance of the fire; 2)whether the water enhancer reduced fire intensity to a sufficient level for ground crews to manage the fire; and 3) whether the water enhancer persists on the surface fuels long enough to prevent hotspots from redeveloping or the fire from burning through the drop.
  2. Determine whether water enhancers delivered from a SEAT are effective on wildfires in Colorado. Effectiveness will be viewed in terms of how effective the products were in achieving the desired suppression objectives.
  3. Collect as much data as possible regarding the effectiveness of water enhancers used during initial attack and on emerging fires.
  4. Share lessons learned from the evaluations with interested parties, including cooperators and researchers.
  5. Test and evaluate newly developed ground-based mixing/batching equipment to assess the efficiency of the mixing and loading processes and the ability of the equipment to reduce response times.

“SEATs loaded with water enhancers will respond to fires on State and private land, as well as to fires under the jurisdiction of BLM, the National Park Service, and USFS. Mixing will be at the recommended ratios in the USFS Qualified Products List for each product on all drops. For the first load on each fire, State and Federally contracted SEATs will respond to the incident with water enhancer unless the ordering unit clearly specifies the need for LTR instead.

Decisions regarding where, when and how to apply a particular aerial retardant or suppressant are typically under the discretion of the Incident Commander, so if at any time the Incident Commander or the Air Tactical Group Supervisor feels that the enhancers are not performing as desired, the Incident Commander can immediately order that the SEATs be loaded with retardant.

The three water enhancers being evaluated in the study are: FireIce HVO-F, BlazeTamer 380, and Thermo-Gel 200L — each is approved by the U.S. Forest Service for use in SEATs.

The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, with support from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Aviation Unit and the Bureau of Land Management, is conducting the study.

After weighing input from researchers and firefighters, investigators will compile a preliminary and final report about the project’s findings.

Air tanker strikes powerline

A single engine air tanker (SEAT) struck a powerline while on final approach for a water drop on a fire in northern Idaho. At the time the pilot was not aware of the strike but after making the drop noticed that there was some damage to the left wing. The accident occurred July 28, 2016.

You can read the entire Rapid Lesson Sharing report here. Below is an excerpt:

****

“…New Approach Brings SEAT Over an Undetected Powerline

The SEAT, based out of McCall, was dispatched to the fire near Kooskia, Idaho at 1529 hours. The line strike occurred on the SEAT’s second load delivered to the fire. The first load was split and applied on two different runs prior to a Lead Plane arriving on scene.

map SEAT wire strike

On the second load, the SEAT was a little off of the line set by the Lead Plane and the SEAT Pilot was unsure of exactly where the Lead Plane wanted the drop. This prompted the SEAT Pilot to make a dry run.

At this point, the ATGS, who was circling overhead, instructed the Lead Plane to give the SEAT a target and let him work his own approach. The SEAT came back around in a fairly tight circle which created a different final approach than had previously been used. This new approach of the flight line brought the SEAT over a powerline that had not been identified prior to the strike. The Pilot identified the location of the known powerline across the draw and concentrated his attention on the approach as he was lining up for the drop.

Pilot Informs ATGS He Might Have Hit Something

The angle of the bank caused the nose and the right wing of the plane to create a blind spot, obscuring Power Pole 2 from view. The angle of the sun and the dark color of the powerlines would have made them basically invisible against the backdrop of the terrain. The Pilot was unaware of the strike at the time it occurred with the only indication being a brief sound that was not part of the “normal” sounds experienced in the aircraft. The flight was bumpy due to turbulent air that is normal on hot summer days in canyon country. Following the successful drop, the Pilot informed ATGS that he might have hit something.

Pilot Notices Vortex Generators Missing from Left Wing

The Pilot flew back over the drop area and confirmed that the known powerline was still intact. He did not locate the poles from the line that had been struck. As he was heading back to the dip location, he looked out at his left wing and realized that numerous vortex generators were missing. The vortex generators are glued on the wing and have been known to come off in flight, but normally only under extreme cold or hot weather conditions. Normal flight is not affected by missing vortex generators. Their purpose is to add stability, lift, and performance during dipping and dropping maneuvers. All controls of the aircraft were functioning normally.

At this time, it had not been established that a wire strike had, in fact, occurred. The Pilot was initially going to return to the dip site for another load when the ATGS recommended that the SEAT fly to the Lewiston Air Tanker Base to check for possible damage (56 miles with crash/rescue services). The Pilot informed ATGS that he was returning to base at McCall (83 miles without crash/rescue services).

diagram SEAT wire strike

The wire strike was first confirmed when the Pilot was on the ground in McCall and was able to see the black marks from the wire on the wing. At this time, the Tanker Base Manager in McCall alerted Dispatch to notify personnel on the fire that a wire had been struck and of the potential for hot wires on the ground…”

SEAT base at Hot Springs, SD was busy in July

By Ed Jensen, Airport Manager, Hot Springs Municipal Airport, South Dakota

Hot Springs Single Engine Air Tanker Base
File photo of SEAT Base Manager Wes Cadotte at Hot Springs operating the reloading equipment for Air Tanker 466 that was working the Sheep Wagon Fire near Newcastle, Wyoming, August 20, 2011.

The Hot Springs Municipal Airport has been a busy place this last month. The single engine air tanker (SEAT plane) based out of the Hot Springs Airport during the summer months has been especially busy. Just in the month of July alone, the Wildland Fire Division crew operating it has flown over eighty fire missions within western South Dakota. Wildland Fire was also quite busy with the Indian Canyon Fire by Edgemont, having four planes flying out of our airport to assist in putting that fire out. We are really glad to have them based here in Hot Springs for immediate the fire protection of our area.

Switching gears from firefighting operations at our airport, we also saw an increase of recreation users this last week during the Oshkosh, WI fly-in. Many planes traveling to Oshkosh for the fly in chose to land in Hot Springs for fuel with some renting hangar space for the night. Many also stopped again on their way home to refuel their planes. Separate of the fly-in, we were lucky enough to see a 7/8 scale P-51 Mustang land here on July 30th. For those familiar with aircraft, you know this was a sight to see.

Hot Springs Single Engine Air Tanker Base
File photo of Tanker 466 at the Hot Springs Single Engine Air Tanker Base, August 20, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

View of a SEAT from another SEAT

single engine air tanker
Tanker 855 flown by Dave Bright, as seen from Tanker 873, piloted by Fred Celest. Photo by Fred Celest.

Fred Celest sent us this photo he took with his cell phone while he was returning from the 16 Mile Fire in eastern Pennsylvania for a load and return. Both planes are operated by New Frontier Aviation out of Fort Benton, Montana. The single engine air tankers are Air Tractor 802s with Garret-14 engines.

We’ve written about T-873 a couple of times before.

Thanks Fred.

Northwest Territories to buy 8 single engine air tankers

AT-802F
Air Tractor 802-F. Air Tractor photo.

The Northwest Territorial government has ordered $26 million worth of single engine air tankers, an acquisition that will add new eight Air Tractor 802 Firebosses to their fleet.

Below is an excerpt from an article at CBC News:

…This is the first time the territorial government has bought new water bombers, which are used to fight fires. It inherited the current fleet of Canadair C-215s, which were introduced in 1969, from the federal government for $1.
The minister of environment and natural resources, Wally Schumann, says it makes more sense to buy the new Air Tractor 802 Fireboss aircraft than to upgrade the old fleet.

“I think the cost of doing that, from everything I’ve seen, would have been four times or five times the cost of purchasing these new Firebosses,” he said.

The government plans to issue a request for proposals this spring for the operation and maintenance of the fleet.

It could have asked contractors to provide a fleet of aircraft as well as operate and maintain them, but Schumann says many northern companies would not have been able to bid on it.

“The biggest benefit of us, the GNWT, owning a fleet of aircraft is the larger chance of Northern aviation companies to participate in the operation of the tanker based fleet,” Schumann said…

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Doug.

Interesting aircraft at Burns Air Tanker Base

A Blackhawk and a Homeland Security surveillance aircraft are staged at Burns.

Above: file photo of Department of Homeland Security’s Beechcraft Super King Air 350 (N50056). FlightAware photo.

As we reported on January 10, the FBI has been staging equipment at the Single Engine Air Tanker Base at Burns Municipal Airport four miles east of Burns, Oregon. Initially a large truck with numerous antennas showed up that is probably used as an incident command post.

The airport is 21 air miles north of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where armed domestic terrorists broke into and seized the facilities at the site.

In the last few days additional equipment arriving at the tanker base included about half a dozen armored vehicles, a Blackhawk helicopter, and a Beechcraft Super King Air 350 surveillance aircraft (N50056) with very obvious external accoutrements, sensors, and communications gear.

The King Air, registered to the Department of Homeland Security, has a logo that appears to be “U.S. Customs and Border Protection”. According to FlightAware records it flew in from Boise on January 27 after having been at St. Augustine, Florida on January 25. 

The Bureau of Land Management operates the SEAT base independently of the city-owned airport which remains open. The base, which cannot handle air tankers larger than a SEAT, has one pit for loading aircraft and parking for three.

The FBI’s Blackhawks are rarely seen. Below is an excerpt from Wikipedia about aircraft operated by the agency’s Hostage Rescue Team:

The HRT’s Tactical Aviation Unit is staffed by FBI special agents. The Tactical Helicopter Unit, a sub-unit of the Tactical Aviation Unit, contains a variety of specially modified helicopters. These helicopters include military converted Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk tactical transport helicopters and tactically enhanced Bell 412 and Bell 407 helicopters. The HRT’s tactical aviators are required to fly daily.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matt.