Montana Public Radio looks into the reasons for the delays in air tanker contracts

Neptune's air Tanker 41
Neptune’s Tanker 41, a BAe-146, at Boise, July 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Edward O’Brien, a reporter with Montana Public Radio conducted interviews with three people about the reasons for the protests and delays in awarding the exclusive use contracts for another seven next-generation air tankers. He talked with Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation; Tom Harbour, Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service; and Bill Gabbert, of Fire Aviation.

Some of the interviews were recorded about a week ago, but the piece was not published until June 19, the day the USFS announced awards for 22 Call When Needed (CWN) air tankers. The seven exclusive use contracts probably will not be awarded for about a month at the earliest because of the protests that were filed over the contracting process before any awards were announced.

Mr. O’Brien’s commentary and snippets from the audio interviews can be heard at the Montana Public Radio website, where you can also read the transcript, a portion of which is below:


“A contract dispute has created uncertainty and potential lost revenue for the companies that supply firefighting air tankers, including Missoula’s Neptune Aviation.

The conflict is over long-term contracts for jet engine, so-called “next generation” planes that bring more to the table than the Korean War-era prop-driven tankers firefighters have been using for decades.

“These are larger, faster aircraft capable of carrying at least 3,000 gallons of retardant and (flying) at least 300 miles per hour, designed to better take the stresses and strains of what we ask these airtankers to do these days.”

That’s Tom Harbour, Forest Service Director of Fire and Aviation Management. The agency currently has at least six “next generation” tankers ready to go this fire season and hoped to have up to another seven planes contracted for by now.

But that’s plan’s now on hold.

Two out-of-state air tanker companies – Coulson Aviation, and Erickson Aero Tanker – protested provisions of the government’s airtanker contracting process.

Details of those complaints filed with the Government Accountability Office aren’t public.

The managing editor of, Bill Gabbert, says those protests have since been amended.

“It slows things down a bit. The GAO has 100 days in order to adjudicate these protests, but when a company files an amendment and then later, another amendment, that throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings.”

The GAO is now forced to go back to square one.

“And I’ve talked to a representative of GAO who told me that they’re probably going to need the entire 100 days in order to figure out what’s going on with these protests.  That puts it into the middle or the end of July,” Gabbert says.

In other words, the heart of fire season in the Rocky Mountains….”

Read or listen to the rest at MPR.


More information:
Protests delay awards of air tanker contracts
CWN contracts awarded for 22 next-gen air tankers

7 thoughts on “Montana Public Radio looks into the reasons for the delays in air tanker contracts”

  1. It’s not surprising that Erickson, not among those listed in the new contract award, might protest, but why is Coulson protesting a contract in which they are a beneficiary?

    1. Chris, be sure you don’t mix apples and oranges. There are two contracts up for discussion:

      1. The Next-Gen 2.0. This contract has not been awarded, therefore, there are no beneficiaries. The contract was protested by two companies, Erickson and Coulson, over the terms of the contract before the USFS announced the names of any companies that would be receiving contracts.

      2. Call When Needed. This contract has been awarded, and amazingly, there were no protests. Not yet, anyway — but it’s only been out four or five days, so who knows what will happen. Coulson received one of these CWN contracts but Erickson did not. We don’t know if Erickson submitted a bid on this contract.

      1. Yep, I mixed up the fruit here, thanks for the clarification. Hardly surprising I suppose, I’m sure even the most astute of us are having trouble keeping up with this convoluted saga.

  2. So why hasn’t the “Next-Gen 2.0 been awarded? Surely many factors costs factors, and I would imagine “the process” is just as cumbersome and cocamamie as last year.

    Bill, could you prove to us how the process is better this as opposed to last year? Then we could trulyt SEE and READ what is the problem

    CWN…no protests? MAYBE something is better than nothing waiting for the “deciders” to “decide”

    Really…how does Congress or better yet ….USFS allowed to continue this type of system, Bill

    BTW…reading tall the standard schtick Jennifer Jones, company line

    Gets old after awhile….like reading the same thing every year

    Reasons for protests? Many

  3. From what I’ve heard on the flightlines, certain Loads Monitoring equipment was made a contract requirement. That equipment however, is unavailable from the FS. So the FS says, you need to have this equipment, but there’s nowhere to get it, so you’re out of luck.

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