(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MT, March 28, 2013; updated at 2:15 p.m. March 28, 2013)
On Wednesday the U.S. Forest Service awarded contracts to two companies for what they are calling “legacy” air tankers, for a total of eight aircraft in 2013. Minden will receive a contract worth $17.1 million and Neptune’s contract will total $180 million.
Minden will have their Tanker 48, a P2V, working under this new contract for one year, with options for four additional years, according to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the USFS in Boise.
Dan Snyder, President of Neptune Aviation, told Fire Aviation today that their company will have five P2Vs on contract for five years. Two other Neptune aircraft, one P2V and one BAe-146, will have a one-year fixed contract, with options for four additional years. The optional years will be totally up to the USFS — if they have the need, desire, and the funds, they could activate the additional years, one at a time.
These awards mean that the USFS will have eight air tankers working this year under this “legacy” contract. Beginning in 2014 if the optional years are not activated, there will be six, if the information we have been provided is correct.
Mr. Snyder said they expect to have their signed contract in their hands within the next two days.
We attempted to talk to Tim Christy, Director of Flight Operations for Minden, but he was unavailable. Minden had one P2V on contract last year after their other one, Tanker 55, was damaged June 3 while landing on disabled landing gear, the same day that Neptune’s Tanker 11 crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots. For the last two or three years Minden has been working on converting a BAe-146 into an air tanker.
We are still waiting to hear from the U.S. Forest Service about contract awards for next-generation air tankers powered by turbine, turbofan, or jet engines. That solicitation was first issued 484 days ago. Recently U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers.
Also pending are contract awards for very large air tankers, such as a DC-10 or 747, which can carry 11,600 and 20,000 gallons, respectively. The P2Vs usually hold about 2,000 gallons while the BAe-146 has a 3,000 gallon capacity. The P2V cruises at about 225 mph. The BAe-146 more than doubles that speed, at 498 mph.
While it may seem surprising that a jet-powered BAe-146 received a contract through a solicitation for “legacy” air tankers, Mr. Snyder of Neptune said they were allowed to put any air tanker they wanted on their proposal as long as it met the specs in the solicitation. He said the USFS was looking more at cost than technical specifications, and wanted “best value”.
Neptune still has the two fully operational BAe-146 next-generation air tankers that worked on fires in 2012, Tankers 40 and 41. They will operate them for one more season, Mr. Snyder said. After they they may be modified. The company is also finishing the conversions of two more BAe-146s that will have a much improved tanking system that Mr. Snyder said will fix some of the issues uncovered in their first two converted aircraft, including trail-off of retardant, consistency, and constant flow. The new systems will still hold approximately 3,000 gallons, but the exact capacity has not been determined. The tanks will be internal, and from the outside will look very similar to Tankers 40 and 41. But the redesign is so different that the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) is requiring that they go through the expensive grid tests, in which retardant is dropped over a grid of hundreds of containers to determine the consistency and volume of the retardant when it reaches the ground. Neptune is negotiating with the IATB on the date and location of the test. If the IATB certifies the new tank design, Mr. Snyder expects that Neptune’s third and fourth BAe-146s could be available in the Spring or early Summer.