Air tanker availability during this wildfire season

Air tanker availability during this wildfire season

T-131 in hangar door
Coulson’s Air Tanker 131 being pushed out of the hangar at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, March 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Today two newspapers published lengthy and detailed articles about the shortage of large air tankers. The Missoulian’s has an emphasis on their home-town company, Neptune Aviation, while the Arizona Republic’s has several references to last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. You will recognize the names of one or two of the people quoted in the articles.

Below are the introductory paragraphs:


Wildfire season officially begins April 28, and the U.S. Forest Service is heading into it with only three modern firefighting air tankers.

Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has one of those planes on contract. It argues to have two more, but competitors won a protest over Neptune’s no-competition award worth almost half a billion dollars over 10 years. By August, Neptune will have two more jets looking for work.

“We’re still cranking out air tankers,” Neptune CEO Ron Hooper said Friday. “But that’s the state of limbo we’re in. We’re waiting to see what the Forest Service will do.”

Meanwhile, one of Neptune’s six Korean War-vintage P2-V bombers saw seven hours of flying time on a wildfire in New Mexico last week. Of the five companies that received Forest Service “next-generation” contracts to provide seven new fire bombers last year, three have failed to deliver their planes.

Arizona Republic:

National wildfire officials are urgently trying to reinforce an undersized and aged fleet of retardant-dropping air tankers in the aftermath of June’s deadly Yarnell Hill Fire, but as they gird themselves for a potentially treacherous 2014 season, significant improvements may be more than a year away.

Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said drought conditions have dried up the West since last summer, when monsoon rains spawned a bumper crop of fire fuels.

“You bet we’re concerned and worried about what’s going to happen,” Harbour told The Arizona Republic. “This puts us in a precarious position as we head into this new season.”

Harbour noted that numerous unusual winter wildfires already have erupted and been doused in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest and in drought-ravaged Southern California. State officials said on April 2 that 179 wildland fires already had been reported this year in Arizona alone.

The significance: “We could be off to a very early start,” said Harbour.

The Arizona Republic and USA Today are both credited with this video report, uploaded Saturday to YouTube, about air tanker shortages:

Air tankers available in 2014

The following Type 1 & 2 air tankers, commonly called “large” air tankers, will be available on exclusive use contracts this year:

  • 8 — on the “legacy” contract, (1 Minden P2V, 6 Neptune P2Vs, and one Neptune BAe-146)
  • 2 — on the “next-gen” contract (1 Coulson C-130H and a 10 Tanker DC-10)
  • Possible: 5 other next-gen aircraft that received contracts on May 6, 2013 that may or may not become certified. The companies that still have not supplied the aircraft are Minden, Aero Air, and Aero-Flite.

Total: between 10 and 15. This does not include the two Neptune air tankers that were issued the sole source contract. That contract was protested, and the protest was upheld by the Government Accountability Office. The U.S. Forest Service can also call upon up to eight MAFFS military C-130 aircraft and can borrow some old CV-580s from Canada and Alaska if they are available. One additional DC-10 is on a call when needed contract and may be available if needed by the U.S. firefighting agencies.

Requests for air tankers that were unable to be filled

We have read several references recently about the number of requests for air tankers by wildfire incident commanders that were unable to be filled (UTF). We have been reporting on this issue for several years and updating it annually, but just to be sure the latest data is out there, below, again, is a graphic we put together from National Interagency Fire Center reports. The UTF numbers do not include the requests that were canceled, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere.

Air tanker unable to fill requests (UTF)

The actual numbers for the last three years:

UTF data 2011-2013

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10 thoughts on “Air tanker availability during this wildfire season”

  1. Bill,
    I think you will see the other operators put airplanes out this year, I believe they are just getting all of the final paperwork completed along with Fed approval and will be on line soon.

  2. “Cure” notices are issued to contractors for non-compliance of contract terms. Next step is cancellation. Not a great way to start.

  3. Another year, another lack of initial attack Federal air tankers. Is there a reason why the Feds don’t want to return to an effective proven way to stop new fires? Is the “system” so broke that Canada, MAFFS, VLAT (s) and SEATS can’t be put on duty for I.A. until the West is completely on fire? The number of UTF will decrease as orders will be filled; but the expected arrival times will be measure in days. Juggling statistics, it’s been around for years.

  4. This afternoon I’ve seen first VLAT in my life, Brown fire, near Sierra Vista, AZ. Looks like the fire is slowed down instantly. Is this the first assignment of this year?

  5. No mention about Evergreen 747 CWN contract. After checking internet, it appears that Evergreen is in grave financial trouble.

    1. Pat the government hung them in the weeds a few years back on a contract they had with the feds and Calfire.

  6. The air tanker fleet has been shrinking almost yearly to the point that many Firefighters on the ground are seriously concerned about this!

    We are seriously concerned about what happens when or if the west lights up at once..I remember when Abigal Kimball cut loose several air tanker contracts back in 2007. She though she was saving money. Until she needs them in the fall.

    Some serious campaigning needs to be done and quick. This shortage is a disaster waiting to happen.

      1. You are correct the West will light up this summer. Even those fires outside California that may have been stopped during the first two hours will escape and become big news. There seems to be a media push by the Feds “back pedaling” that there fleet for this summer is adequate and ready. Not ever new fire requires a delivery of retardant. However a billion dollars (not counting resource damage) will be spent on fires that could have been contained within the first thirty minutes. Solution: Establish zones of influences for fixed wing tankers and keep those areas (zones) covered for I.A. If a fire escapes into the second burning period let the rotary wing community handle the job.

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