A sole source air tanker award, how it developed

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
A Neptune BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McCLure.

Today, March 11, the Government Accountability Office will hold a hearing at their office in Washington, DC to consider the protests filed by three air tanker companies over the propriety of the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) noncompetitive contract award to Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., for next-generation large airtankers. The hearing was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. ET, but was a closed session, open only to GAO personnel, attorneys for the three companies that protested the contract, and two individuals from the Department of Agriculture who have been asked to be available to testify, Lisa Wilusz, a Senior Procurement Executive, and Gregory Parham, the Chief Acquisition Officer. Even the owners of the protesting companies are prohibited from attending, to prevent them from being exposed to their competitors’ trade secrets.

Protesting the sole source award for two BAe-146 air tankers to Neptune, are Coulson Aviation (USA), Inc; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; and Minden Air Corp. If only the basic two air tankers are signed up, the value of the contract would be about $141 million. If the options for the five additional tankers are utilized, it would be hundreds of millions.

The GAO is required to make their decision about the propriety of the sole source award by March 28.

Fire Aviation has reviewed almost three dozen documents filed by the protesting companies as well as the USFS’ Motion to Dismiss the protests. The files contain letters of protests, supplementary protests, transcripts of Congressional hearings, “declarations” written by some of the principles, an NTSB report, and an article from FireAviation.com. While it remains to be seen which side the GAO will favor, regardless of the outcome it is clear that after the dust settles the attorneys will probably close shop for two weeks and take their families to Bora Bora.

Most of the documents have redactions, some more than others. One or two are virtually useless as a result, but most still contain a great deal of information. We will elaborate on them, but first, get a cup of coffee–it’s a long story.

The background of the next -generation air tanker contract

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 that can fly faster than “legacy air tankers”, have turbine engines, and can carry at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, almost 50 percent more retardant than the Korean War vintage P2V aircraft that make up the bulk of the legacy air tanker fleet. 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, may have been their problems providing consistent retardant drop patterns with their new BAe-146 tank, and, their crash history. One of the protesters pointed out “FAA data showing three accidents with eight fatalities between September 2008 and June 2012”. This year Neptune has been working to improve the tanks and said that in 2014 their BAe-146s will all have modified versions (revision number three) of the BAe tank system.

The protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30, 2013 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
Tanker 910, A DC-10 at Rapid City
10 Tanker’s Air Tanker 910, a DC-10, at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The final next-gen contracts were signed 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for the next-gen aircraft.

Only two of those seven air tankers have been constructed, passed the certification requirements of the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board, and have dropped on actual fires — the DC-10 and the C-130Q. The other five missed their contractual start dates and in September the USFS issued “cure notices” to the three companies. The USFS contracting officer established new mandatory availability period (MAP) dates of March 30, 2014 (Minden), May 3 and 7, 2014 (Aero Air), and May 20 and 28, 2014 (Aero Flite).

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 there would be a development later in their favor. It happened on December 12, 2013, when  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 protest filed by the three other air tanker companies automatically halted the activation of the sole source contract.

What happened between the next-gen award and the sole source award

On April 15, 2013, a month before the next-gen contracts were announced, Neptune contacted the USFS and requested an advance payment on their existing legacy air tanker contract, adding that they would put up two of their aircraft hangars as collateral. Neptune received the legacy contract on March 27, 2013 to provide seven P2Vs (Korean War vintage aircraft) and two BAe-146 jet-powered air tankers. Neptune said they needed the money because they were under “current financial stress” and had “exhausted all efforts to obtain private financing from financial institutions and individual investors.”

Neptune’s CEO, Ronald Hooper, who until December 2010 worked for the Forest Service as Acquisition Management (AQM) Director in the Washington Office, met with the USFS contracting officer and later Tom Harbour, the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation Management to lobby for the advance payment and a next-gen contract.

From an affidavit by Mr. Harbor:

When Neptune did not receive a NextGen contract, Neptune’s CEO, Ronald Hooper, informed [Tom Harbour] that although Neptune would do everything it could to honor its existing Legacy contracts, if it did not receive a contract for NextGen airtankers, for which it had been acquiring and modifying aircraft for several years, it would wind down entirely its airtanker operations. Mr. Hooper also told [Tom Harbour] Neptune would protest the awards at GAO, which it did on May 16, 2013.

USFS contracting personnel asked for Mr. Harbor’s opinion about giving Neptune the advance. He responded on April 22, according to information from the USFS, saying in an email he supported it for the following reason:

[F]or me, the reasoning is simple. Neptune, to this point, is a proven provider of LATs [Large Air Tankers]. I am heading into what looks to be a challenging fire season. We certainly need to go into this with our eyes wide open . . . but bottom line I am willing to take what looks to be a reasonable risk. It sounds to me like if we do not allow the advance, Neptune goes under, and the supply of LATs I currently have is kaput.

Mr. Harbour said in his affidavit,

The fact that Mr. Hooper previously had worked for the Forest Service as Acquisition Management (AQM) Director had no bearing whatsoever on my desire to ensure Neptune received a contract.

The USDA’s senior procurement executive was concerned about the propriety of awarding a sole source contract to a company whose CEO, Ron Hooper, was the former Forest Service AQM Director. However on July 17, 2013, Jack Fisher, Acting Branch Chief for the OE Forestry Ethics Branch, concluded that Mr. Hooper had not violated any ethics laws.

Contracting personnel, after deciding they needed to conduct an audit of Neptune’s finances in order to justify the advance payment, arranged for the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to provide a business analysis of Neptune’s continued viability.

On June 3, 2013, RUS Broadband Division Deputy Director Laurel Leverrier provided her opinion that Neptune would be unable to earn a positive net income over a five-year period if it were not awarded a contract for two NextGen airtankers with a five year base period and five one-year options.

On June 6, 2013, the Forest Service entered into a settlement agreement with Neptune (for two air tankers, with options for five more), under which Neptune agreed to withdraw its bid protest and a related Freedom of Information Act request. At that point it was just an agreement, not a contract.

The size of that agreement, at a minimum of $141 million, exceeded the contracting officer’s authority of $62.5 million, and the approval was elevated to the USDA’s senior procurement executive (SPE), Lisa Wilusz. She decided to hire an accounting firm to determine the financial stability of Neptune. FI Consulting reached the following conclusion on August 2, 2013:

We estimate that Neptune will have the financial capacity to operate and continue performing on its in-place [Legacy] contract with the US Forest Service through, at minimum, calendar year 2016, without any further contract awards from USDA.

The reasons for the different opinions of the accounting organizations is that the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service was provided incorrect information and based their analysis on specifications from an old contract. The provisions of the new next-gen contract, which they should have been considering, were changed from a wet rate, where the contractor paid for fuel, to a dry rate where the government paid for the fuel. And, some of the annual step increases in pricing had not been considered.

The Director of AQM noted that “…the data Neptune provided us when we did our financial analysis; it was faulty.”

In spite of the accounting firm’s conclusions, in September USFS officials continued to discuss in emails their assumption that Neptune was in danger of closing its doors in the near future and all of their air tankers would disappear, reducing the fleet size by about 80 percent.

On September 23, Mr. Hooper told Mr. Harbour in an email that he would be talking with Senator Tester’s staff, and the company “will sue the USFS by the end of the week if we don’t see some positive movement” toward implementing the agreement.

In mid-October, one of the USFS officials wrote in an email:

Potential News Story (ex; toner cartridges) – USDA makes huge sole source contract award to former USDA employee, contractor has a history of getting large contract awards from USDA despite having 4 fatal accidents, company recently lost Next Gen competition but given a virtually identical award non-competitively, settlement agreement based on inaccurate financial data, eccentric owner, company claims financial hardship…

The “toner cartridge” incident the official may have been referring to probably was the unwanted publicity that occurred a few weeks earlier just before the fiscal year ended September 30, when the USDA reportedly spent $144,000 in one day on printer ink. In most cases if federal agencies still have unspent funds at the end of the fiscal year they lose it, so occasionally spending sprees occur in September.

At least a couple of contract offers were made to Neptune which were rejected, and the company said in an email they would:

…file our suit in District Court c.o.b Wednesday [Nov.] 27th [2013] and to grant an interview with L.A. Times and AP Wednesday afternoon. Is there anything you can tell me to avoid this train wreck?

A similar message was also sent on December 3, 2013.

Finally, the Justification and Approval document for the sole source contract was issued on December 9, 2013, the same day that Neptune received approval for its Revision 3 retardant delivery system which is being installed in all of their BAe-146 air tankers. The new contract was announced on December 12.

The Forest Service argued that the protests should be dismissed

The USFS in their motion to dismiss the contract protest, put forth a number of arguments. The agency still quoted the first accounting analysis by the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service which concluded that Neptune was in danger of going out of business and would need a shot in the arm, that is, another contract, to continue to supply 80 percent of the air tanker fleet. They did not mention the second analysis by FI Consulting which reached the opposite conclusion after considering more accurate information.

The USFS also pointed out that of the seven line items that received next-gen awards, only two of the aircraft became fully certified during fire season, and one of them missed the target mandatory availability period which was 90 days after the award. The agency expressed great concern that additional next-gen air tankers could be made available in the near future, other than Neptune which they said has been a very reliable supplier.

Another USFS argument was that on December 9 the day the sole source contract was awarded, three companies who originally protested the award, Aero Air (who later dropped out of the protest), Minden, and Coulson did not have an air tanker ready to drop on fires, therefore they have no standing in the protest. The companies point out that on May 6, 2013, the day the next-gen awards were announced, only one of the seven line items had an aircraft ready to fly, which was acceptable in the specifications of the contract. They were supposed to be ready 90 days later.

The USFS said the protesters’ allegations that the Neptune contract has the appearance of impropriety are not borne out by the facts, and that the USFS did not act improperly by promising Neptune a sole source contract in exchange for the withdrawal of its bid protest.

The three protesting companies argued the sole source contract should be terminated

Hundreds of pages were submitted to the GAO, listing dozens of reasons why the sole source contract should be terminated.

The Coulson company argued that on several occasions they told the USFS that they could supply more than the one C-130, but were told that the funding situation was too uncertain to commit more air tankers. Then a few months later, the USFS issued a contract potentially worth at least $141 million.

Coulson's Tanker 131. Photo by Dan Megna.
Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q. Photo by Dan Megna.

10 Tanker made similar offers, and in fact had a second DC-10 fully certified and on a call when needed contract that they would have liked to convert to an exclusive use next-gen contract. They also said they are working on retrofitting a third DC-10 which they expect to have ready to go by the end of calendar year 2014.

In one of the protest documents there were several references to a report issued by the air tanker Technical Evaluation Board (TEB) which reviewed the proposals submitted by the air tanker companies when they applied for the next-gen contract. All of the actual quotes from the document were redacted, but it is clear from references to them that the TEB had negative comments about the safety record of Neptune.

Long range planning was brought up by one of the companies, which mentioned that the USFS felt pressure to issue a sole source award due in part to their lack of planning for an air tanker fleet over the last 15 years. The fleet declined from 43 in 2000 to 11 in 2011. Studies in 1996 and 2007 reflected the need to increase the number of air tankers. There was a “generous time-frame available for procurement planning” one company said. And, “the agency’s own lack of advance planning is the cause for the current sole source award and provides a strong basis for sustaining the protest.”

42 thoughts on “A sole source air tanker award, how it developed”

  1. Going to be interesting…….The USFS and understanding costs of aviation…..

    After all all those accounting machinations…..it is easy to see that they do NOT have a firm grasp of aviation as they have been purporting for the last 60 plus years….

    It really is time for someone to take those seven C130’s away before they can screw that one up………maybe send it off to GSA……could not get any worse than it is now….

    1. It is obviously a sign of an under financed procurement process when the FS wants to maximize the number of airtankers and companies mitigate each other from providing aircraft. Reading Bill’s article underscores how airtanker contracts are not the best way to provide retardant delivery to a fire (although it is most cost effective). The amount of back-stabbing and other BS generated by contractors because they are not paid sufficiently is incredible.

  2. Great summary Bill.

    Sounds to me like a private company made an operational decision to put all their eggs into a basket that didn’t perform as required. And when that decision resulted in negative consequences, said company made threats in order to latch onto the public teat. It’s all well & fine that Neptune provided decent service for x number of years. But they came to the Next Gen table with an inferior product. I can’t see why they should be rewarded with a sole source contract. The other operators are right to protest (even if one or two of them don’t really pass the smell test themselves).

    1. Neptune has four ready to fly, everyone else has promises, Neptune has put their money where their mouth is.

      1. They put their money where their mouth is and delivered a platform that is subpar. Let’s not forget the entire reason Neptune was left without a contract was because they delivered what wasn’t wanted. I’ll go ahead and say what everyone else in the industry is too polite to say- their delivery system sucks.

        1. I was under the impression that this blog would not publish derogatory comments about ANY person/organization. Apparently not. For the record Neptune’s tank system is the only new tank system that is IAB approved to the new standards. Not Coulson’s not Ten tankers. Old technology, old airplanes, NOT Next Gen by any means!.

        2. To be fair, Johnny Carwash, I have not read a single derogatory comment about any person or organization (OK, there is a universal backlash against the USFS, granted). There has been criticism, some of it mine, directed towards Neptune’s choice in retardant delivery and another statement that the system “sucks”. That is a valid, if not eloquent, comment that adheres to the forum etiquette.
          I agree that there is not a single new airplane in the entire large airtanker industry. Keep in mind, we should judge the condition of aircraft not upon age, but in terms of component life and other factors. The newest “Next Gen” airplane (the RJ-85) is two decades old, and is based upon an airplane that first flew more than thirty years ago. The MD-87 is a derivative of a 35-yr old airplane and the DC-10 will celebrate its 45th birthday next year. Slapping “Next Gen” decals onto a C-130Q does not make it Next Gen either. But I will make mention of your comment about the new Neptune tank: it will not be the only brand new tank design in service in 2014. The AeroFlite clean-sheet design will join that list, inserting a highly touted tank into a more capable airplane. We will soon see which system performs the best. Not that it will make any difference…

        3. Anthony- As stated previously Neptune has the only, I repeat only IAB approved tank system (new standards not rads 1 standards) in the industry.

  3. To continue…..

    To be brutally honest……the US has always depended upon a contracted system….no re ways about it ……Canada and European nations seemed to have mastered the socialized medicine of airtanker operations.

    We can bitchin here allllll day about contractors and how they are lawyering up, how many eggs in one basket…..ETC ETC

    How about remembering there is NOT a !@#%%&& purpose built Airtanker out there and now there is this “Next Gen” stuff that all of us in the pro aviation industry KNOW none of those ships are “Next Gen”

    It is only “Next Gen” to the folks who have made a mockery of the Airtanker program through 11 studies and antiquitated contract system and the very fact that owner operators are putting their eggs in one basket because they see a demonstrated need to serve….

    How much has the USFS contributed to the entire Airtanker program as far as hard outlay of cash and capital

    Contractors do a job that government can not or won’t or do not have the kahones to even get off of center

    Simply put …..USFS and USDOI could not even claim an aerial program WITHOUT contractors

    How much simpler could I or anyone put it …huh??

    1. First, I agree, great work Bill.

      Second, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but if I remember correctly, Neptune started developing the BAe platform long before the USFS put the call out for new tankers. There are bound to be problems with a new tanking system…I don’t mean to start a debate on whether or not the USFS should or should not have given them an advance payment, but to be fair it seems that Neptune knew their planes were past their prime and set out to do something about it before being asked by the Feds – a rather expensive endeavour without any guarantee of reward.

      My two cents…

      1. MD, I concur that Neptune has shown great initiative by investing in developments that will enhance the industry without the promise of a contract. But many other current & former operators (10 Tanker, Aero Union, Conair, Air Spray, Flying Tankers, Bombardier etc) have taken great leaps beyond bolting a basic tank on a military surplus airplane available for a dollar. It’s called free enterprise and is not at all uncommon. So, kudos to Neptune for finally breaking their history of rescuing warplanes from the desert. But…they decided to invest in a tanking system that is the easier and likely less expensive alternative to installing a gravity-based tank in a BAe product. And that’s where the wheels fell off. Nowhere is it implied nor accepted that spending millions of dollars in R&D will result in a guarantee of a return. Business comes with risk, and sometimes it pays off handsomely and other times it leads to financial ruin. Neptune offered an ‘ok’ product. Their competitors offered a superior product. Granted, Neptue was the first to the party in that they had their airplanes flying in time to meet the contract start dates. But those start times were optimistic at best and not reflective of how long it takes to design, build and certify a new product. The nature of a highly-regulated industry such as aviation is that timelines move at a snail’s pace, in no small part due to certification delays. But what we will likely see in 2014 is a product (or two) that will be exactly what the customer requested and that will meet all contract requirements. Generally, in a contract environment, you should be rewarded for being the best, not necessarily the first. And you should not be awarded a multi-million dollar contract after competitors are excluded from a bid process.

        1. You will see from Neptune, maybe one or two or three or four airplanes that will be exactly what the customer requested and meet all contract requirements.

  4. Correction…..CL215/ 415 and the Beriev are purpose built…….no other purpose built in the US system

  5. So if their ranking sucks, MAFFS sucks, this and sucks…..is RADS the saving grace?

    What is happening at USFS SDTC and MDTC to ” solve the airtanker delivery” problems? Probably nothing.

    Put it all on the contractor and then blame them that everything sucks. Maybe opening the cabin doors and the rear airstairs on some “Next Gen” aircraft would be the answer, huh?

    Maybe if these systems suck….what is the perfect system?

    Next thing people will expect is a absolutely perfect descent to final profile with absolutely no wind conditions……maybe a fire that puts itself out…hmmmmmm??????

  6. Too much PC and CYA in USFS to ever fix this.People with years in fire and tanker ops become worried about their pensions and are hesitant too speak up and I can’t blame them.The lead plane pilots,fire bosses etc know what has worked and what hasn’t.Hauling retardant to a fire,applying it effectively and doing it repeatedly is the job.IMHO certain people in the USFS are hoping all vendors fail thereby justifying total gov takeover of tanker ops.But of course we know that blacker forest make greener pockets so why fix the problem.

  7. Bob

    With that thought in mind…..

    The old addage…….working from within an organization to make improvements and efficiencies……is well, a misnomer….

    Thought so……all my past supervisors had me snowed til I saw through it and thought they were some sort of “subject matter experts!”

    Life is simpler now…..

  8. One thing I’m unclear on; does Neptune’s sole source contract replace the May 2013 contract or is that still in effect as well? If the May contract was voided because the other companies did not have a/c available for the MAP, then I don’t think they have a leg to stand on. If those May contracts are still active, then perhaps there is reason to protest. Bottom line, in my opinion, is if you have a contract and meet the terms you’ll get paid and probably will get extension and a new contract when the yours expires.

  9. I was a P2 and 4Y pilot at H&P back “in the day.” I have watched as 8 studies have been conducted to find a solution to the problem that the A model Herc were to be a stop gap measure until a more permanent solution was found. That was 1992.

    I now have cancer. It appears as if I will die before a solution is ever found.

    The lack of integrity by all involved is discouraging. From petty, entitled bureaucrats to greedy unethical contractors, I have seen more of the underbelly of humanity than I wish to acknowledge.

    It makes me sad

  10. Ima goner

    I am sorry to read about your cancer and I can relate as my father had it.

    By you writing about H&P…….indicates a lot ……a lot of time has passed.

    Which goes to prove and what you have been and what you have stated about the program. Sure, there are problems with some contractors but the Guv still has to prove they run an aviation program….sure they can run singles and light twins, recon, SJ, bug an pests, etc…but they have never actually had actual operational experience in running anything as large as an LAT program where you H&P folks, Butler, T&G, ARDCO, etc…

    You can bet there are some of us out here that appreciated your work and many of your brethren. Plenty of communities have.

    You can bet that there us staunch supporters of folks like you that KNOW what you have accomplished. You can feel good about that.

    Good luck with everything, Sir

  11. Interesting read for sure. The newly contracted next gen tankers not being ready sure put the FS in a spot. Neptune is sitting there with the Legacy fleet which still makes up a large percentage of the available tankers but is in deep financial trouble from what it looks like. This sole source contract was meant to keep that legacy fleet around and ensure the company is around to meet the needs. I guess to me, even as bad as it looks both from Neptune’s actions and the FS, the sole source contract is there for that purpose and was applied correctly. Not much a protest can do.

    I don’t know if it’s right or not in the big picture though. Neptune has unquestionable shouldered the load of the LAT business for several years. However, when they invested in a new platform they weren’t the only one. The 10 folks put themselves out there on the line too. I guess you can argue the first Neptune tank was a failure, but lets be realistic here and realize that sometimes new technology needs tweaking. It’s easy to say a constant flow tank was a no brain answer but if Neptune’s system would have worked well (without the need for massive airframe changes and huge costs) everyone would be singing them praise.

    The whole process is just really, really disappointing. Makes a person wonder how many other government contracting operations are just as laughable.

  12. Eric

    More reason the USFS ought not be in the LAT business at all.

    The folks that put themselves out there by investing in the mission did so because in the entirety of things……the large USFS could no find a solution other than contracting Canadian operators and trying to lowball operators and get more value at the conveinience (sp) of the government got the program in to the jam from 44 to 11 or less LAT’s.

    Maybe the GAO will put the hammer where needs to be applied. Apparently there was enough dinero in the past for 44 LAT’s and there is not enough current dinero for, Hell, 20 airtankers? Sure seems the there is a problem even if sole sourcing was correctly applied.

    With all the problems…….seven C130’s in the USFS ownership ought to be monitored buy a third party even if it becomes contracted out.

    IF the USFS contracts it ought to be governed by current established military and FAA maintenance standards and not some cockamamie rules set by them, as they haven’t been able to solve many LAT problems without industry or military help!!!!

    1. The land owner/manager must run the airtanker industry, Leo, there is no other way around it; you can’t have the protection of a public land base managed by a private company. One of the issues is that for some unknown-to-me reason, the USFS takes primary responsibility for the large airtankers. I have no idea why the BLM, BIA or any other federal agency can’t do it and are allowed only to manage SEATs and helicopters. The latter agencies are likely more nimble and may be able to inject less bureaucracy?

      Why is there a difference between SEATs, LATs and VLATs? An airplane is an airplane is an airplane. The size, weight and carrying capacity has absolutely no bearing on how it’s managed. It takes just as much effort to manage the contract of a Cessna 150 as it does to manage the contract of a 747. Solution: devise a single fleet of mixed assets and run it as one big happy program for all federal lands.

      Yes, the USFS has made a dog’s breakfast of this industry, and has spent years demonstrating how not to manage a fleet of airplanes. But, there are plenty of state and federal governments elsewhere that do a very good job of managing their airtanker fleets – no matter of the aircraft are publicly (agency) owned and operated, or privately owned contract fleets, or a combination.

      Finally, you do realize Leo that the USFS has never, to my knowledge, contracted a Canadian aircraft? All the Canadians that have come down have been contracted by LA County (CL-415s), Cal-Fire (Martin Mars) or have been under contract to the state of Alaska or the three western Canadian provinces and deployed to the US under a mutual aid agreement (Convair 580s). Ironically, Next Gen contracts have been awarded to two companies that are owned by Canadians and who have hired many American pilots, mechanics and office staff. Rather than complain about their help when we most needed it, let’s be grateful and acknowledge they are world leaders in fixed-wing aerial fire suppression.

      1. wildfiretoday.com/2009/04/01/martin-mars-contracts-with-usfs/

        USFS contracted Coulson for the Mars….

        1. Well, there’s only five of them: 10 Tanker, Aero Air, Aero Flite, Coulson and Minden. Six if you include Neptune on legacy and sole-source contracts. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the casual observer to determine who’s who.

          And I stand corrected on the Mars contract in 2009. I knew that, but obviously erred in my post above. Thanks.

      2. You made one of the better points I have read here. It would make much more sense to have DOI and USFS pool their collective resources and create the “fire air branch” or some thing like that. I think(don’t quote me on this) that at one time BLM did contract LAT’s(I could be wrong, going off memory here). Some of the other organizations have done a very good job at managing their aircraft and at this point probably don’t want to be tied up in the snafu. Also they don’t have the financial leverage. Lastly, and more importantly it would mean loss of control for USFS. They want to be in full control and not have to share or abide by anyone elses rules.

        On the issue of their being money for 44 tankers at one time is a mute point. Since that time the cost of many things has drastically increased, along with decreasing budgets. The USFS is spending millions upon millions of dollars on “climate research” that could be used other places. Along with that the cost of doing business in the industry has risen greatly. Remember the reason for the decline was multiple crashes which were caused by poor maintenance. So more rigorous maintenance is now required = more money. Insurance companies realize there is more risk than first determined = more money. Companies have to pay more for workers comp/insurance/minimum wage = more money. Pilots require more training, and have more stringent requirements = more money. I should,(but am too lazy to do) go back through FS budgets for AT’s for the 90’s, 2000’s and now and I would bet they are about the same if not more now for less aircraft.

        1. LTP – The BLM has no more of an aviation organization capability than the FS, and the DOI most definitely does not want to manage a large airtanker program. It’s also pure assumption that the BIA could manage a large airtanker program based on what I’ve observed of their fire management organization for 20+ years. And contrary to what anyone says, all agencies (FS, BLM, BIA, State Fire) have a high degree “of wanting to be in full control and not have to share or abide by anyone elses rules”.

  13. Here is an idea, Anthony, that will get NO traction…

    Contract through CalFire with an MOU with GSA or God forbid, the USFS itself

    It is time the US demand better from an organization that purports land management and LAT prowess at the same time….

    But we all know the truth to both areas of emphasis, don’t we??

  14. Agreed to LTP’s post about “control issues.”

    BUT I think in listening to Bill’s post on Tom Harbour at SAC…….well let’s just say with all the C130 issues and the dreams of 2014 fire season and seeing the big red machine from the big green machine are dashed til 2015-2017 time frame.

    Amazing when knowing so much about aviation and promising things you can not deliver due to operations bigger than yourself or the organization, it is amazing to see that these folks are in a position that they can not control other than contract procurement and USFS and USDOI need to just stick with their lane of land management and dream about control of anything larger than they can already handle

    Yep, control, in roles and rules that they want everyone else to play by and relying upon delays and standards set by them…..

    I thought the FAA was bad about control issues……LMA’s have ’em beat and still not understanding the depth of aviation while “wanting to be in control.”

  15. Reading all the comments it seems some of those folks are not well informed on Neptune’s delivery system history.
    I live close to Missoula International (KMSO) and have for some reason gotten interested in Fire Aviation and have witnessed most of the Neptune cup drop tests since the beginning…I posted one of Tanker 40’s (Bae146) first tests on YouTube and have provided some photos of Neptune’s aircraft for Fire Aviation, I have no connection to, or do I personally know anybody at Neptune so this is not a defense of Neptune just trying to point out some facts and observation I’ve made and heard locally here in Missoula by snooping around along with what Bill Gappert has posted.
    1- Yes the first drop system wasn’t the best, the last few hundred gallons didn’t cooperate and pending on the angle of attack seemed to be worse, (So I was told). I don’t think Neptune early systems passed the first few test as there were quite a few drop test made over a period of time I believe before the USFS awarded the first conditional contract. Since the cup drops test are conducted on a test range to the South of KMSO’s main runway there needed to be some type of contract to allow Neptune to test the system in a real live fire condition and this is where the shortcomings were noted. I noted the 1st delivery system use 4-holes aft of the main landing gear. Easy for me to observe as every flight arriving KMSO fly’s over my house on approach to runway #29
    2- Neptune developed a second delivery system which now used three large holes aft of the main gear. while it was an improvement other ideas were to follow.
    3- System three was first installed on Tanker 10 (I believe) which included larger tanks 3000+ gal and has once again gone through the cup dispersion tests and has now passed and mets the USFS IAB standards. The delivery is now 3-hole outlet aft main gear and 2-holes forward main gear from my observation on pass-overs.
    Neptune has or will be configuring all four of their Bae146-200’s (Tanker 01,10,40 & 41) to the new system 3 standard as reported by Bill in an earlier article on Neptune. This should eliminate the past delivery problems.
    I don’t understand if some of the contractor have not met contract delivery dates why there is an issue on the noncompetitive contract award to Neptune Aviation Services to make sure we are covered for the fire season, Maybe I just don’t understand what a contract is???????…it seem to me we are still short the number of tankers needed and Neptune with the new system is ready with four ready to fly and a fifth (Tanker 02) on the ramp waiting for conversion.
    I’m only guessing but I don’t see the other new systems that have not meet their contract deadlines not experiencing their own delivery problems since they have zero drops on a live fire situation…remember Neptune first system passed before they were able to test on an actual fire and witness the problems.
    While I may not have every detail exactly correct it’s pretty close to what I’ve heard and witnessed here in Missoula.
    Last…thanks to all the companies willing to spend the extreme amounts of dollars developing these new delivery system aircraft with no help from our government and not knowing if you’ll be awarded a contract, you deserve better treatment…and try to get along…we need all you guys.
    Thanks for listening

  16. Any update to this statement from the article:

    “The GAO is required to make their decision about the propriety of the sole source award by March 28.”


    1. Barry, we just checked with the GAO who told us that on or before Monday March 31 the decision will be released to the US Forest Service and the attorneys for the three companies that filed the protest. Occasionally a public summary will be released at the same time, but it is unknown if that will occur in this case. The attorneys may ask the GAO to redact portions of the written decision, which the GAO will consider, and then later the redacted written decision could be released to the three companies and the public.

      The purpose of the redactions would be to protect proprietary or trade secret information.

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