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.

8 thoughts on “USFS Chief Tidwell testifies about next-gen air tankers”

  1. I wonder where they are going to find QUALIFIED pilots to fly anything. Those of us with many years of experience are becoming frustrated and moving on the other endeavors, not of choice, but necessity. I have dedicated my life to flying fire. The pay has never been great, the danger enourmous, and the working conditions horrible. Yet I did it for almost twenty years because of the committment I have had for fighting fire and supporting ground personnel. I am now flying for Southwest airlines, not by choice, but by necessity. Any pilot with two brain cells to rub together can see the writing on the wall. Become a tanker and you are choosing a life of instability, poverty, and early brutal death. Any takers?

    Years ago, I was SURE there would always be work as a tanker pilot. Good luck to all and AMFs.

  2. 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.”

    There is a very good chance that this statement is false. Yes all the aircraft are certified by the FAA to fly in US airspace hauling freight and passengers but how many of these next gen aircraft are FAA Certified to fly as Air tankers? Only 4 aircraft that I am aware of. Both of Neptune’s 146s are FAA Certified as Air tankers which are not on the next gen contract. Both DC-10s are FAA Certified as Air tankers but only one is on the next gen contract. As far as I know none of the other aircraft on the next gen contact have been certified by the FAA as Air tankers.

  3. 1800 gallons is not much better than an S-2T and a whole lot more expensive…
    53 Mil could put P&W 100’s on a DC7 and zero time the airframe, IMHO

  4. Well stated Tanker Pilot and Mr. McCoy. It is obvious that the situation is no better this looming fire season than last, maybe worst. IF everthing went somewhat on “schedule” (whatever that means) with the C27 project after ten years (2023) you might have a grass and light brush tanker, after hundreds of millions of dollars are dumped into this project to convert and train crews.

  5. A DC4 built in 1943 can carry 2000 gallons… where’s the progress???

    Put Turbines on Dougs!

  6. Yep

    FAA certification for turbofan and turbojet aircraft for civilian use aircraft

    We will see how the FAA certifies the “Next Gen” series

    The next holdup will be IATB and see much time that will flesh out. I can surely see why the FAA can “drag its feet” on certain issues. But the IATB surely can not take as long as engineering studies needed to be conducted when using standard passenger aircraft in non standard environments.

    After the DC10 FINALLY came on Exclusive Use….how long did that take, huh?

    Can’t blame the FAA on the length of time it took to get the ’10 in place.

    Blame that squarely on the illustrious contract process that has not evolved in better than 50 years. That process needs professional aviation help and professional aviation folks running that shop.

    When everyone “gets on the FAA” here on these fire websites….I laugh….because like the LMA’s ….they too have budgets and not enough personnel to cover every safety aspect and non standard aviation mission, like the USFS likes to purport and brag about.

    The entire process has been a joke and these hearings and the leadership sure have not helped in any sense. NATO!!!

    No matter what the politicians or the Tom twins would like you to believe!!

  7. It wasn’t the FAA that dragged on the DC10. They approved the STC years ago — 2006?

  8. Thanks DC

    I may have spoken out of turn. But I know the FAA gets tagged with a number of issues.

    If the FAA engineering types issue an STC, it usually is a good reason.

    The other stuff….you know after the STC……the contracting issues and the “testing” by the IATB, you know the folks that usually do not fly the DC10, BAe146, RJ85, MD87….heck even the old piston aircraft…..sure have a lot to say about a “Next Gen” aircraft series that they know little about as far as operating parameters.

    The typical delay is the USFS contracting world with its myriad of its “myriadness” that creates the delay in many a airtanker program……

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