USFS awards sole source air tanker contract to Neptune

One of Neptune’s BAe-146s, Tanker 41, at Missoula, a next-generation air tanker. Photo August 11, 2012 by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.

Today the U.S. Forest Service awarded a sole source contract to Neptune Aviation to supply two next-generation air tankers for the next four to nine years beginning in 2014. The estimated value of the contract is $141,000,000 and has a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. The hourly rate begins at about $8,000 and increases to about $12,000 by the end of nine years.

For the contract, Neptune is expected to use two BAe-146 airliners that are being converted to 3,000-gallon next-generation air tankers. Some of the requirements to qualify as next-gen are that they are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Those two Neptune aircraft would be in addition to the first two BAe-146s they converted which have been active on a “legacy” air tanker contract this year.

Issuing a sole source contract is much more unusual than allowing multiple companies to submit bids. To only consider one source, the federal government has to provide justification, and in this case they used the “industrial mobilization exception”, which includes a necessity to “keep vital facilities or suppliers in business or make them available in the event of a national emergency, or prevent the loss of a supplier’s ability and employees’ skills”.

On May 6, 2013 the U.S. Forest Service announced their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven next-gen air tankers. Neptune was not selected, and the company filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. The reasons Neptune was left out of that contract, according to information Fire Aviation has received, could have been their problems providing consistent retardant drop patterns with their new BAe-146 tank, and, one of the considerations in awarding the contract was crash history. This year Neptune has been working to improve the tanks and said that by 2014 their BAe-146s would all have modified versions of the tank system.

The protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30 when actual signed contracts were finally issued to three companies for three air tankers, which the contracting officers felt were not affected by the protest:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
  • Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q

Then suddenly on June 7 Neptune withdrew their protest which allowed the contracts for the remaining four aircraft to be awarded to:

  • Aero Air, for two MD87s
  • Aero Flite, for two Avro RJ85s

The awarding of the final next-gen contracts came 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for the aircraft.

Only two of those seven air tankers have been constructed and have passed the certification requirements of the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board — the DC-10 and the C-130Q. The other five missed their contractual start dates. In September the USFS issued “cure notices” to the three companies. They responded to the USFS indicating the aircraft would be available between April and June, 2014.

In the sole source justification for the new Neptune contract the USFS wrote they are “not confident that five of the seven contracted NextGen airtankers will be available to fight fires in 2014”.

When Neptune suddenly dropped their protest of the next-gen contract in June neither the company nor the USFS would disclose the reason. There was speculation Neptune felt confident at that time there would be a development later in their favor.

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24 thoughts on “USFS awards sole source air tanker contract to Neptune”

  1. Not confident five of seven would be ready for 2014…

    Really? I am sure the others operators realized they weren’t going to be ready,also.

    USFS, itself, thinking the others could meet the deadline without a serious outlay of their own cash to develop the tanking and meet the the proverbial IATB for larger aircraft (turbofan) larger than RJ’s, I would bet, based on real speculation…that the Neptune folks were really up to this leading up to this …even after protest.

    USFS…feeling a little guilty? That C27J and C130J dream not materializing fast enough…..hmmmmmmm?

    After all the P2V’s are reaching the USFS ideas of 50 to 60 year old iron failing……I am sure Neptune had faith in them…..suffice to say sole source to take the sting out of possibility of taking the P2V out of service….

    Congrats, Neptune!!!! You have earned it!

  2. Oh and that National Response Framework for ESF#4……kind of directing USFS by FEMA to be on task….just may have a little to do with National Response PERFORMANCE

    You know….the embarrassing situation that 11 Studies could not effect. I am sure, by speculation, that seeing this and in the eyes of FEMA and the dinero they are doling out after these large fire seasons……they might just be thinking the IA issues the last few years are in direct relation to some of those large FMAG payouts to the Feds themselves for the facts that mitigation by the Big LMA’s is just NOT paying off….

    Sole source ……for a BETTER IA response …hopefully lowering the bills by actually MITIGATING through a large sole source contract

  3. Aero_Flte Inc’s AVRO RJ is at WJF grid testing this week. Word is it is going well. Word on the street is that Aero Air will follow soon and that the Coulson C-130 now has to do the grid test that was not required of then before… Getting interesting for sure!

    1. Tony,

      Why would Coulson’s C-130 have to grid test? It is already an approved tanks since it is the same tank that was installed in the P-3s and the old C-130A models?

  4. Was there too many zeros in the article above? Regardless, how it gets there 3000 gallons is just that 3000 gallons, if there isn’t a down load. Call me out of touch. I would hope that all new contracts for fixed wing aircraft require seven day coverage for a seven day week.

    1. Johnny,

      From what I have seen last season even the BAe’s need their day off so the mechanic can give the aircraft a good going over. I would rather have the tankers have a day off than have it out for days because of a maintenance issue that could have been fixed on a day off. Just my 2 cents.

      1. No one runs the equipment harder than Cal Fire. Over 200 hours of flying per air tanker, over 300 hours for Cal Fire ATGS and helitack copters per season. The airlines would go broke if they had a “day off” for their fleet. Been on seven day contracts, Cal Fire and BLM routine maintenance isn’t an issue. Who wants to work on an aircraft on the ramp in June at Mesa or Redding during the day?

  5. In response to being excluded from the final next-gen contract award…. Neptune lawyered up and met with key USFS F&S leadership and staff in DC. They outlined Neptune’s intentions to file a protest if a “deal” was not cut to allow them back in the next-gen airtanker game. This was an End-Game move by Neptune. Neptune already had all its fiscal chips on the table betting that they would get a slice of the next-gen contract…it was considered almost an “entitlement” and a sure bet…….their earlier BAe-146 fiscal investments were already so deep that it was making the bankers sweat and forcing Marta to take out a mortgage on her own house just to meet monthly payroll.
    As a result of being excluded from the next-gen award….Neptune was left with only the Legacy tanker contracts and a mountain of looming debt. What did Neptune have to lose? They were going belly up….so Warren Zevon says….it’s time for Lawyers, Guns & Money… .Why not deliver a hard ball ultimatum to USFS F&A? It was an eye ball to eye ball drama played out behind the scenes in the Beltway…with Neptune’s lawyers and key management camping out in the hallways….with key politicians on speed dial…
    The USFS F&A blinked during the eye ball to eye ball showdown with Neptune….and cut a deal…. which was provided in writing via official memorandum from the USFS (under the table) ….. that if Neptune would not file a protest (which was already drafted and ready) they would award Neptune a next-gen contract in the near future. Neptune needed this promise in writing in order to keep the bankers at bay…and keep their house in order…and they got it. So…what’s the moral of the story? Was this legal? Who really cares?
    The next-gen airtanker fiasco has been mismanaged and wrought with criminal mischief (FAR violations) by the USFS from the start….this is just another chapter to this pitiful melodrama…
    Now with Neptune back in the game…all the hogs are back feeding at the government trough wagging their curly tails… won’t hear anymore squealing…. well…maybe… stay tuned for the next chapter…
    Congratulations to Neptune for fighting the evil empire and winning in the second round…. as did Coulson in the first round…. Well done!!
    Tom Harbour & his sycophants….. who are solely responsible for this interminable fiasco will soon all get together at their mutual-admiration society meeting and congratulate themselves for resolving another self induced crises they created for themselves…
    Vendors & contractors only want a fair and level playing field….and under the current USFS F&A regime this has been repeatedly denied to them…so kudos to them all for taking on the Gang-That-Couldn’t-Award-Straight….. and winning.

  6. Well,well well

    I have no reason to doubt Brian, at all.

    Further CONFIRMING, in one instance, that these folks with Harbour at the helm have NO concept what it takes to run a Multi million dollar operation

    Again, this would be one expensive confirmation……that this outfit does not deserve to own the upcoming C130 operation and maybe when it does happen all contracting for aircraft services through GSA and not USFS monkey works

    This PROVES that USFS still plays games even after then1990’airtanker debacle

    This is the stuff that needs reporting in Aviation Week just to keep the USFS in line

  7. Matt

    What you state is true and a number of us here had all along mentioned the level of maintenance needed by the RJ and BAe series aircraft coming from the Regional world…….

    To the nooooobs in the LMA world of aviation……this may came of as a suprise
    Not surprising to the mechanics and pilots flying these aircraft.

    If and when the next bunch of Next Gen aircraft come on,bespectacled the same….

  8. So a half BILLION dollars in tanker contracts and the Forest Service tankers still need a day off, ridiculous! Its all about hiring a few extra pilot as relieves. Helicopter contracts are seven day? Unlike airplanes these machines (helicopters) are always trying to self-destruct. Fly during the day, maintenance at night.

  9. Airlines have a schedule, know when a plane will hit a maintenance limit, and can schedule the maintenance needed. The earlier tanker contracts had a home base that they actually spent time at. With the current ping pong ball model of bouncing tankers all over the place, a day off is needed just to let the mechanics catch up to the plane! Maybe if we get enough tankers back in the loop and go back to the home base model like Cal Fire uses, 7 day a week coverage may be an option. Personally I feel this has played a roll in a couple recent tanker accidents.

    1. Thank you for explaining the six day flight schedule. So this is the carnival model of air tanker management. Chase the crowds (fires) and let other fire resource agencies worry about initial attack.

    2. Johnny,

      Hoss has hit the nail on the head. You give the tankers home bases then 7 days a week should be no problem. There were days last season where at my base a tanker would show up and the truck and trailer of spare parts would be 2 days behind.

    1. I have friend that worked on them at PSA in San Diego when the 146 first started in the airline game. he told me they were changing an engine a night when they first started flying them. I know that since Honeywell took over the ALF program from Lycoming that they have gotten the reliability up on those engines. My only time around the ALF’s was when I was working on Challenger 600’s. I not gotten a chance to talk to any of the Neptune folks to see how the engines are doing for them.

    2. The earliest versions of the BAe-146 had some problems with the ALF 502 turbofan engines, prompting the nickname Bring Another Engine, but those issues were resolved.

  10. Avionics and electrical techs used to Boeing and Douglas planes at PSA hated the Killer Bee. The floor of the E&E bay was sloped and slippery. One tech had his arm behind a rack when his feet slipped, and he hanged by his arm. He was disabled for months. Instead of Burndy blocks, the 146 used wiring distribution boxes that were fed by miniature multi-pin connectors and solder sleeves, no less. AirCal handled their 146s like B-24s back from flak attack. They just spliced and ran new wiring around the trouble spots in the boxes.

    Then there was Aviacsa taking off one night in 1992 from Merida when #3 aft section exlpoded, taking out #4. That killed the fuel to 1 and 2, so they landed dead stick at Campeche.

  11. If I am reading this article correctly, Mr Hooper, former USFS Director of Acquisition Management (not too long ago) and now the CEO of Neptune Aviation has just received a $140M sole source contract from the USFS for the services of two NextGen Air Tankers. The article also says Neptune was not awarded a USFS contract in May 2013 due to inadequate retardant delivery of the BAe-146 and a company history of aircraft crashes. The article reads that, to date, those BAe-146 aircraft still have not demonstrated adequate retardant delivery, but I guess the $140M contract is awarded on the hope that they will one day “perform” and also expecting the crash history to not continue. The article does not say that no company other than Neptune can perform the mission to justify the “sole source” award, simply that the sole source is justified as “a necessity to “keep vital facilities or suppliers in business or make them available in the event of a national emergency, or prevent the loss of a supplier’s ability and employees’ skills”. So if the major intent of the “sole source” is to keep Neptune in business then why did they not get awarded a contract back in May to keep them in business? I guess I just won’t ever understand how USFS contracting works — maybe I should talk to Mr Hooper’s replacement in the Acquisition Management Office. At the same time I will find out what they are going to do with those seven HC-130H aircraft being given to the USFS. I wonder who is going to operate them???

    1. Mark,

      This season I was talking with a few of the Neptune guys when they stopped at the tanker base I was working at. The tank system in the two new BAe-146s is different than the tank system in 40 and 41. I was also told that 40 and 41 are being re-tanked this winter. As far as the crash history. When Aero Union lost their contract Neptune held up the tanker industry in the country, sure Minden had both of their neptunes in the mix but both operators flew their tankers longer and put more hours on them because there were less aircraft and more fires. To top all this off it put more stress and fatigue on the both flight and maintenance crews.

  12. Mark, very well stated. I would imagine many of the air tanker operators are having the same thoughts. An insult to air tanker companies who have a proven track record, some over four decades.

  13. So with several air tanker companies moving forward with development and testing of their “next generation” tankers if I read the numbers right with a day off every 7th there will only be at any one time in the wild west, 10 which includes one VLAT. (that is if no one is broke down)

    1. There is no reason that the tankers, especially nextgen,
      cannot provide 7 day a wk coverage. As said above,
      It is pilot scheduling and proactive maint. That’s it. Two yrs ago AU provided 7 day coverage at the beginning of the season. I think it’s good for all involved.

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