Colorado Senator calls for the government to override Neptune’s protest of air tanker contracts

Coulson's C-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q undergoing tank installation and inspections earlier this month in San Bernardino, California. Coulson photo.

A Colorado Senator wants the federal government to override a protest that could delay the acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers this fire season.

Following the May 6 announcement by the U.S. Forest Service of their intention to award exclusive use contracts to five companies for the use of seven air tankers over a five to ten year period, one of the companies that failed to receive an award, Neptune Aviation, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. Unless the GAO grants emergency authority, Neptune’s action could delay by up to 100 days, until August 26, the date by which the new contracts could take effect.

Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the GAO protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake:

…”Wildfire season is coming, and I refuse to force Colorado communities to watch as preventable and containable wildfires are allowed to threaten lives and homes simply because of contractors’ squabbles. Make no mistake about it: This is an emergency, and this shortsighted protest will leave the U.S. Forest Service with outdated, Korean War-era air tankers to fight modern mega-fires,” Udall said. “That’s why I am calling on the U.S. Forest Service to override the protest filed this week and move forward with its next-generation air tankers contracts. Lives and homes are at stake, and I refuse to stand idly by as red tape suffocates any chance of the U.S. Forest Service finally acquiring these much-needed air tankers.”

Following the contract awards earlier this month, Udall cautioned private contractors that “Needless and costly delays will leave the Forest Service to fight modern mega-fires in the coming months with Korean War-era planes.”

Neptune’s protest is the second time awards for next-gen air tankers have been protested. The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrierprotested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012. And on May 6, 2013 the USFS announced, again, their intention to award contracts.

The protest process worked during Round 2 for Coulson and 10 Tanker; they lost out in Round 1 and their protests led them to awards in Round 2. Neptune no doubt figures they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by their protest. The company has invested heavily in converting BAe-146s; conversions on two are complete and were used on fires in 2012. They have two others that they hoped to convert this year.

Neptune knows the contract protest backwards and forwards, since Ron Hooper, their CEO, as recently as November, 2010 worked for the U.S. Forest Service as the Director of Acquisition Management for the agency. His name is also mentioned in a summary of the 1987 U.S. Forest Service “airtanker scandal”. When qualified as a contracting officer, he reportedly made a determination after the transfer of the 28 aircraft to private companies that the transfer was void and they should be returned to the government. At the time Mr. Hooper was the staff assistant to the Forest Service Deputy Chief for Business Operations. (More information about a GAO bid protest.)

Neptune will have five P2Vs and one BAe-146 working this year under a new “legacy” air tanker contract announced in March.

Of the five companies that are slated to receive the new contracts for the faster, more dependable, and higher retardant capacity next-gen air tankers, only one has aircraft that are close to being ready to drop retardant on fires. 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers which carry 11,600 gallons have been used on fires for years and should be ready to go. The other vendors are still in the process of physically converting their aircraft into air tankers and then have several hurdles to overcome.

After the contracts are actually signed and awarded, the companies have 60-90 days to complete the process of outfitting their aircraft with a tank design; prove the tank design in a controlled environment (dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground); be issued a Federal Aviation Administration Type Certificate; develop a maintenance and inspection program (Structural Integrity Program) for use of the aircraft as an airtanker and receive approval of it from the FAA; and be approved for a field trial (dropping retardant on real fires) by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB).

It would be surprising if all seven of the aircraft can meet these requirements in the time allotted. Coulson Aircrane, which is slated to receive a contract for a C-130Q, appears to be the closest other than 10 Tanker’s DC-10. Coulson is installing a retardant tank designed by Aero Union that previously had been approved by the IAB, however Coulson made some modifications. And various models of C-130s have been used as air tankers for decades.

The other companies, Minden Air, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, are converting, respectively, a BAe-146, two MD87s, and two AVRO RJ85s, all of which may be using new tanking systems that have not been tested until this year, at least on those models of aircraft.

For example Aero Air, also known as Erickson Aerotanker, may have problems with retardant being ingested into the MD87 jet engines mounted behind the wings. Designing and installing new tank systems on aircraft that have never before been used as an air tanker, such as the MD87 and AVRO RJ85 can expose some challenges that have to be overcome.

The Colorado Springs Gazette also has an article about this issue.


Thanks go out to Matt & Kelly.

13 thoughts on “Colorado Senator calls for the government to override Neptune’s protest of air tanker contracts”

  1. The MD-87 might overcome the retardant issue due to the nature of
    density of retardant vs. water.
    But. We now have the possibility of another shortage of available tankers

    1. Honestly we’d still be looking at a shortage even if Neptune didn’t protest the award… we’re already seeing fire season start in many places, and it would appear that the DC-10 is the only “next-gen” tanker that is ready to go when (if) the contract is signed. To my mind, as a boots on the ground firefighter, contracting for an aircraft that’s still being built and tested is pretty silly, and probably a politically driven move by the USFS. It seems very unlikely to me that we’d see all of the aircraft with awards flying fires this season even if everything is sorted out ASAP.

    2. TG, any idea what kind of clay is in the retardant? Jet engines don’t do well with stuff other than water going thru the hot section. Real small cooling holes in the turbine blades get plugged. Not like volcanic dust, but still a concern if it is ingested.

  2. Just seems a bit wrong that the company that has shouldered much of the load over the past several years got shunned completely. Without Neptune and Minden what would there have been for the last few years? Obviously the contract prices were a little bit high from Neptune, but they have developed aircraft that are ready today. 10TAC deserved a contract and Coulson has a great platform coming too. The Erickson MD87 aircraft look promising too, as well as the other BAE or RJ aircraft. But, who is ready today??

    1. Eric to answer your question about who is ready today. That would be Neptune with 2 146s ready a 3rd almost complete and a 4th that is also somewhere in the conversion process. next is 10TAC with 2 DC-10s that have a good amount of flight time on actual fires. 3rd in the list would be Coulson with their C-130Q. There is only one thing in question with Coulson. Is their tank system still IAB approved since it is the old Aero Union system with some modifications? I would have to say next is Minden with a 146, then Aero Flite with 2 Avro RJ85s, then Aero Air with the MD-87s.

  3. Bean, I’d say any amount of water ingestion in a normal drop is a disqualifier. Turbulence or a steep pullup could increase the ingestion by a lot. Fire retardant is just that; not what you want in an engine. However, the JT8-217 engine in the MD-87 does not have a history of flameouts.

    A Southern Air DC-9 with JT8-7 engines had dual flameout near Atlanta in 1977 after hitting rain and hail. They crash-landed on a hiway, killing many.

    In 1988, a two-week old TACA 737-300 had a dual flameout on approach to New Orleans after flying through heavy rain and small hail. The plucky one-eyed genav trained pilot set it down on a grass levee. Boeing test pilots flew it off the levee after replacing one engine. Turns out the CFM-56 engines couldn’t handle as much water at low power as at FAA-required full power test, and needed many mods. This was on Smithsonian Channel’s “Air Disasters” recently.

    1. Wasn’t so concerned with mass ingestion flameouts. Here’s a paper that addresses some of the potential issues of retardant ingestion.

      [link no longer works]

      The problem is more of ingestion of small amounts over time. Depending on severity, engine hot section replacement costs might be prohibitive.

  4. Good call on this, bean

    Read it a few minutes ago and it reminded my of some serious issues back in the daze of tearing down T53L13B and ‘703 engines from UH1 Huey and AH1 Cobra helicopters

    Reminded of the old daze of coking buildups due to dust, ash, poor fuels and needing to run a few buckets of walnut shells through the inlet sections of running helicopters.

    An engine teardown and before that teardown begins…….a lot can be told by a nasty looking inlet section due to soils, dust, manmade products, cheap low grade fuels/ bad lots of fuel, bad maintenance or no maintenance, etc etc etc etc

    SOOO we will see how retardants, like dust, get “baked on” to inlet guide vanes and hot sections due to temperature at the inlet and combustion section…..

    Sure sounds like increased bid costs at the front end, in the future, when these aircraft (turbofans and turbojet)

    Sure, the RJ ‘s and BAe 146 were short field machines and quite possibly unimproved strip machines……………………..

    But I know most RJ, BAe 146 and heavy jet operators before they ever got into the fire game, were looking at costs at the engine level and were planning ahead for MX scheduling and thinking that LMA’s are not going to see increased costs in the future, after the trial periods, are smoking cheap stuff

    After all, without engines hung on are planes and helicopters………….they become expensive static displays….

  5. I suppose it would make too much sense to give Neptune an interim contract until the MD-87s and other vapor paper airplanes come on line..

  6. The bulk of the aerial firefighting fleet in terms of total numbers is composed of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs); primarily Air Tractor AT-802’s carrying 800 gallons.

  7. There will be no challenges for the RJ-85 that won’t affect the BAe-146. It’s essentially the same platform, but with better numbers that can actually perform as advertised, unlike the -146.
    Coulson has a shiny support vehicle and lots of flash, but they are putting an old tank into an older airplane that has no OEM support. How has the choice of installing a discontinued tank into a museum static-display aircraft advanced the industry beyond the state in which it was in before the contracts were announced? Who else notices that “next-gen” happens to be my father’s gen?
    Finally, the notion of pressurised tanks in any airplane, and especially of scaled-down MAFFS units into USAF surplus aircraft, demonstrates the absolute lack of comprehension of aerial firefighting product delivery by decision makers.

    1. GeeBee, please backup your opinion that Coulson’s Aero Union-designed tank that has been successfully used for a long time is “old” and “discontinued”. Coulson built it from scratch, making a few modifications. As far as I know it is state of the art, one of only a handful of designs that have been successfully used in recent years.

  8. The aero union tank design has a proven record of making good drops at any coverage level! The C130 is a much more suited to the task at hand than some of the other acft.IMHO that combination could be the most effective and usable tanker of all the next-gens,we shall see.

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