Air tankers to be cut by one-third in 2018

The large air tankers on Forest Service exclusive use contracts are being cut from 20 to 13.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

(Originally published at 4:29 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)

The U.S. Forest Service is cutting the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year from 20 to 13.

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues are affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner. Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased. This means less funds available for our crucial restorative work on your National Forest System lands to prevent large fires.

exclusive use air tankers contract 2018

Ms. Anderson is correct about the severity of wildfires. The number of acres burned and the average size of fires have grown exponentially over the last two decades.

average acres burned wildfires united states

The air tanker vendor that is most affected by this change is Neptune Aviation. Last year the company had 11 air tankers on EU contracts, seven BAe-146’s and four P2V’s. This year they have only four aircraft — all BAe-146’s. But compared to the competition, Neptune has done very well over the last five to six years. (A phone call to Neptune was not immediately returned.)

Ms. Anderson said the Administration’s plans for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins October 1, 2018, call for 18 EU large air tankers. However, Congress has not passed a budget for FY 2019 and based on their recent history, it may or may not happen. Continuing Resolutions which freeze spending at previous levels, have been enacted more frequently than conventional full-year budgets. And if it is passed, there is no guarantee that the Administration’s recommendations will be honored.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on EU contracts, but after the wings fell off two aged military surplus air tankers in mid-air that year killing five aviators, many of the older aircraft were eliminated for safety reasons. Little was done to restore the fleet during the following 11 years and by 2013 there were only 9 on EU contract. In 2013 a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” aircraft began. Eventually over the next few years we saw the introduction of retired jet-powered airliners that were not as old as the 50+ year-old aircraft they began to replace.

By 2016 there were 20 large air tankers on EU contracts, plus one Coast Guard HC-130H that worked from 2016 through 2017. It was one of seven being transferred to the Forest Service that since 2013 have been going through a very, very lengthy convoluted process of being converted into air tankers. The one flying then was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods. Later we will have an article on this website about the fact that the Forest Service wants to abandon the HC-130H program.

Call When Needed air tankers

In addition to the 13 large air tankers on EU contracts, 11 are signed up on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis in 2018. The companies on the list are Aero Flite, 10 Tanker, Coulson Aviation, and Neptune. If the Forest Service thinks more than 13 are needed at any one time, they can start calling around to see if any of the four companies have any that are available — not working for a state, another country, or tied up in maintenance. Or, mothballed for financial reasons. The rates for CWN aircraft are much higher than EU resources. The business model for keeping an aircraft and crew in tip top shape but sitting idle for much of the fire season, is a difficult one for most private companies to pull off.

Walt Darran, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away in 2013, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker and crew ready to go.

call when needed air tankers contract 2018

Scoopers cut to zero

The number of scooping 1,600-gallon CL-415 air tankers is being cut from two in the first part of 2017 to zero the rest of this fiscal year, FY 18, which ends September 30, 2018. The CL-215/415 scoopers are beloved in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and other countries, but the Forest Service has always appeared to have a bias against them.

The 2012 RAND air tanker study ran simulations with from 8 to 57 scoopers being on contract. They found that at least two-thirds of historical fires have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible body of water. The report had several different models, assumptions, and variables but generally recommended more than 40 scoopers be on contract, with a lower number of conventional air tankers. The Forest Service decided to keep the taxpayer-funded report secret and not release it, even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Ultimately the RAND Corporation released the document.

Acquisition of $65 million air tanker may be cancelled

In December, 2014 the President signed legislation that included  $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. At the time, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calve, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior & Environment, said the funds would be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”.

We asked Ms. Anderson about the $65 million:

The President’s FY 2019 Budget proposes the cancellation of the $65 million for the new aircraft. The USDA Forest Service issued a solicitation to purchase Next Generation Airtankers in November, 2016. The agency cancelled the solicitation in June, 2017 after it yielded proposals with costs higher than the appropriated funds.

We thought the funds were intended to buy one of Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J’s, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million. Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door.

Reduction in helicopters continues

In 2017 there was an 18 percent reduction in the number of large Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts. That will continue in 2018.  For several years the U.S. Forest Service contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.

The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters last year was close to average, but the orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) were almost double the number of filled orders. Sixty percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

A study completed in 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

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15 thoughts on “Air tankers to be cut by one-third in 2018”

  1. Yes, yes, the budget looks bleak, but please remember that this is the President’s PROPOSED budget. It is not a real thing until the Congress passes it. It all depends on on lobbying and awareness campaigns.

  2. I wonder if a “proposed” budget has ever included a dollar figure for the USFS annual funding that actually came back substantially LARGER than the proposal.

  3. Were the LAT numbers changed by 7 because of the end of Next Gen1.0 and Legacy? Neptune had 6 line items on legacy last year, I think maybe Erickson had a MD87 on 1.0? So there are your 7 planes, no actual “cut” per se, but simply contracts that have come to an end. 3.0 is still in the works, so those 7 haven’t been replaced.

    When it comes down to it, companies will make more money when they come out for long periods on CWN. The government just doesn’t have the money allocated up front for New EU contracts. My interpretation is that they can only issue EU contracts if they have money on hand to fulfill the full length on the contract before the contract begins. So instead, they can get the aircraft in an urgent and compelling state on CWN, utltimately costing more to the government/tax payers in the end.

  4. This reduction is insanity wit the West Coast facing one of the worst fire seasons on record.

    1. It’s not insanity. 6 of the 7 tankers “cut” were On Legacy contracts. Those contracts ended at the end of 2017. Everyone knew those contracts were ending at the end of 2017 four years ago. All of the aircraft used last year will be used this year, but the ones not on next gen 2.0 will be used as CWN. Contractors are coming out with additional aircraft, which we will most likely see this year if it’s anything like last year. So essentially, nothing is going to change, other than possibly seeing additional tankers this year.

  5. The seven air tankers that are no longer on EU contracts in 2018 are four P2V’s and three BAe-146’s. All of them were operated by Neptune. Only one of the BAe’s was on a legacy contract that expired December 31, 2017.

    Whatever the reason, failure to award new contracts or cuts in the funding, or both, the fact is there are seven fewer large air tankers on EU contracts this year. Having almost half of the potential air tanker fleet on CWN status is not the best management option. One way to prevent a new, small fire from becoming a megafire is to attack it with overwhelming force from both the air and the ground. An investment at the initial attack stage can save tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. After fires escape, air tankers are less effective.

    You can’t fight wildfires on the cheap.

    If only a small fraction of the trillions of dollars that have been appropriated for our adventures on the other side of the world had instead been spent in our homeland in defense against fires, we would not be having this discussion.

    1. But do you think it will be any different this year number wise, in the end? The USFS can activate tankers without current CWN’s as well when emergency funding kicks in, correct? They were talking about making the CWN’s 30, 60, or 90 day minimum contracts also, to fill the void. I think we’ll see the same fleet from last year (minus p2v’s Obviously) plus some, ultimately. Neptune simply couldn’t support the P2V’s anymore, anyway. Might have been able to get by with one or two. But everything lost on the legacy contract is kind of a moot point because the contracts were completed.

      As far as 3.0 goes, of course it was originally protested, but after that, the best the USFS could offer was a 1 year guarantee with a 4 year option, vs what I think was 5 and 5 with previous contracts. Of course vendors wouldn’t be happy with that. Whatever their base guarantee is, they have to have money on hand for the length of that contract is. They don’t have the money for 5 years right now, hence the talks of 1 year with the option. But they know when things get busy, they can use emergency funding for CWN, so they can get all the aircraft as long as they want, even though they know it will cost more than EU. But that’s just the way government funding works, I guess.

    2. “One way to prevent a new, small fire from becoming a megafire is to attack it with overwhelming force from both the air and the ground. An investment at the initial attack stage can save tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. After fires escape, air tankers are less effective.”

      Bill makes a great point on this. TWO Rand reports recommended this approach. Something has to give. Keep small fires small through the use of Initial Attack aircraft (lighter/less costly fixed wing & helos) giving time for ground forces to get to the fire and really knock it out. Obvious, right?

  6. “You can’t fight wildfires on the cheap.”

    Have we forgotten about drip torches?

    If the federal US agencies would practice disciplined and thoughtful airtanker management, they’d be able to achieve the same results at much less cost using the reduced number of airplanes. It will require a drastic yet simple shift in mindset from ICs and air attack folks on the fireline. They just need to be better at filtering wasteful requests and at shutting off the tap when the mission has been achieved.

  7. Kelly makes a good point. With drastic cuts “proposed” that would prevent mission success, the agency will end up with something less than it needs. Bill is also right that the agency will attempt to operate at the proposed level. When the fires get really bad, somehow emergency funds will be found. Someday the voters will realize that firefighting, weather, hydrology, and even disaster relief are the same thing as defense, or at least that is my hope. Maybe, I’m too much of an optimist?

  8. Still no output from the USFS AFUE study so there is little definitive information on air tanker effectiveness except for Australian studies. Still no really good idea how many / what kind of tankers or what kind of tanker-ground crew mix is “good enough” or a way to assess the impact of proposed inventory cuts so the USDA can defend a budget.

    What has changed since this GAO report in AUG 2013?

    … “we identified the following key elements as important for understanding firefighting
    aircraft needs:
    •Aircraft types – aircraft manufacturer, model, and size classification;
    •Basing options – potential locations for aircraft bases;
    •Acquisition models – options for obtaining aircraft, including purchasing aircraft or using vendor-owned aircraft;
    •Aircraft capabilities – required capabilities of aircraft, such as retardant capacity and speed;
    •Suppression methods – how to use aircraft to suppress fire, including initial attack and extended attack; and
    •Aircraft performance and effectiveness – the results of using aircraft to support fire suppression activities.”…

  9. USA is the most powerful country on the planet. For fifty years USFS has been struggling to set up a federal aerial fire fighting fleet.
    This is embarrassing.

  10. It’s a little short sighted to assume that all those aircraft (and crews) which are no longer on contract will just be sitting around on a ramp waiting for the phone to ring. The owners of those aircraft will be busy trying to find customers for either their services or to purchase the aircraft themselves. After the mess in Europe last summer, they’re bound to be players in the availability market.

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