Above: One of the few CAL FIRE helicopters that still has “CDF” painted on the tail. The photo was taken March 24, 2016 at the CAL FIRE facilities at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento, California by Bill Gabbert.
It’s not often that we see a federal or state agency with wildland fire responsibilities purchase a fleet of brand new aircraft. More typically they are forced to dig through the boneyard of discarded war birds in the Arizona desert hoping to cobble something together that won’t kill their pilots and firefighters.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CAL FIRE, hopes to create a new paradigm with a fleet of helicopters right off the assembly line. The agency issued a solicitation to buy nine helicopters — about three a year for three years, with an option to spring for an even dozen.
For decades CAL FIRE has been using Huey helicopters they salvaged from the military scrap heap. The 12 they have today have been meticulously cared for by skilled professionals and upgraded in many ways, morphing into “Super Hueys”. We heard one pilot say he loves flying them. Many people will tell you that just because an aircraft has a couple of wars and a handful of decades on its Hobbs meter, that does not necessarily disqualify it from being a very useful and safe piece of equipment. But after rebuilding, replacing, and rehabbing a large percentage of the machine, and finding that you sometimes have to make your own parts because they have not been manufactured for 20 to 50 years you can reach a point of diminishing returns.
When CAL FIRE received the bids on their helicopter solicitation, they found significant differences in how the potential vendors interpreted the contract language. One company was bidding on what they assumed were apples, while another was picturing oranges. So the solicitation and bids were all thrown out. It’s back to the drawing board where they hope to develop clear instructions and will be sure they are understood.
But they don’t have the luxury of time. The state’s Administration has set aside the money pending the Legislature’s approval but there is concern within CAL FIRE that if they don’t commit it very soon, it will disappear. Their plan is to rewrite the solicitation, advertise it, receive bids, and award a contract all within a period of weeks. In other words, they do not plan to dither for 555 days like the U.S. Forest Service did in 2012 and 2013 when they went through the excruciating process of contracting to lease seven “next-generation air tankers” v. 1.0. And that was for LEASING — not buying a fleet of new aircraft. After watching that painful USFS process for more than a year, we placed a timer in the side bar of our website, counting the number of days that had elapsed since the solicitation had been issued, but no contract awarded.
CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program Manager and Chief Pilot, Barry C. Lloyd, is working with the state’s contracting specialists, the Department of General Services, to get this procurement done. It’s unknown how this task compares to his being shot down twice over Vietnam, but he will undoubtably be relieved when it is brought to a peaceful resolution.