Forest Service relying more on Call When Needed air tankers

But the CWN contracts first advertised May 30, 2018 for additional aircraft have not been awarded

(Originally published at 8:40 a.m. MDT October 4, 2018)

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23 testing over McClellan, August, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

This year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts from 20 in 2017 to only 13. There are an additional 11 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts which may be activated — if they are available with flight crews and mechanics to staff them. An analysis we completed in February found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than EU aircraft. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

The Forest Service began the solicitation process for additional large and very large CWN air tankers May 30, 2018, but no contracts have been awarded. The specifications for both sizes of air tankers were changed six times. The last revision on September 7 occurred three days after protests by 10 Tanker Air Carrier for both solicitations were denied by the Government Accountability Office. It appears that the contracts will only be awarded after the fire season in most of the western states has wound down.

Below is a press release issued October 1 by the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association.


A huge number of exceptionally destructive, back to back wildland fires throughout the Western United States this year is prompting some aerial firefighting companies to add resources, assuming that future fire events will be equally frequent and devastating.

At the same time, a few operators see a greater need for long-term, exclusive use contracts with the US Forest Service (USFS)—the domestic industry’s primary customer—in order to assure the funding stability necessary to hire more personnel and purchase additional aircraft, if needed. Awarded on a bid-basis, exclusive use contracts run up to four years in duration, and guarantee a set fee per day, usually over several months, to keep the aircraft available for duty, whether or not it flies. In addition, the customer sets a rate paid for each hour the airplane is flying on a fire.

This year, however, the USFS issued more call when needed contracts, in which a day rate, plus a fee per flight hour is paid only for the duration of the assignment, which could be as little as one day.

“For the fixed wing tankers, the USFS put only 13 aircraft on exclusive use contracts this year, compared to 20 in 2017,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based aerial firefighting industry trade group. “However, the smaller number of exclusive use contracts was the result of the June release of requests for proposals (RFP) from the Forest Service.”

“I would like to see more exclusive use contracts, so we could dedicate more of our fleet to firefighting,” said Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation in Sacramento. Beckham reported that since early April, four of the company’s bucket-equipped CH-47D helicopters worked on fires mostly in Oregon and Montana, and in California, under USFS exclusive use and call when needed contracts; as well as under call when needed contracts with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

One of the busiest years in its history, Helimax had to dispatch extra mechanics and supplies to support the additional hours the helicopters flew. In preparation for next year’s fire season, Helimax, which has three avionics mechanics, plans to increase that number by eight for field repairs, Beckham reported.

For Intermountain Helicopter, a Sonora, California-based operator of a single Bell 212, the 2018 fire season has been its “busiest since 1984, in terms of assignments,” according to company President Rick Livingston. This year, he said, the helicopter has operated in an initial attack mode, solely within California under USFS and CAL FIRE call when needed contracts. One of the assignments kept the aircraft flying for over a month on the Carr Fire, one of the state’s most destructive.

“As a small company, operating a single helicopter, we’ve done all we can to prepare for the future,” Livingston stated. “There’s not much else to do, except quickly react to any mechanical problems. So far, any downtime for the helicopter has involved replacements of timed out life-limited parts.”

While adding a helicopter to its fleet might be viewed as an option, Livingston explained it would be “a tough call” for a small operator. “That’s because you don’t know, from year to year, if there will be enough work for an additional helicopter,” he stressed. “This would be an issue, especially when operating helicopters under call when needed contracts.”

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer, of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, reported that his company, which operates nine BAe 146 fixed wing airtankers, responded to the fires this year, with four aircraft under call when needed contracts, in addition to those under exclusive use.

“If the trend toward call when needed contracts continues, costs may increase,” Snyder cautioned. “As an industry, with call when needed contracts, the utilization is uncertain and the impact of not being able to efficiently perform essential maintenance does cause costs to increase.”

Snyder added that, under exclusive use contracts, it is easier to plan maintenance and training—which reduces costs–since the operator knows how long the aircraft will be needed. “Under a call when needed contract, you have to maintain the aircraft within a tighter timeframe. This means compressing the maintenance period, to get more work done in a shorter period of time.”

Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters deployed a fleet of six helicopters, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, under exclusive use and call when need USFS contracts, according to Keith Saylor, the company’s Director of Commercial Operations. One helicopter, a Columbia Helicopters Model 234, working under a USFS exclusive use contract, operated on the Mendocino Complex fire, which was California’s largest to date.

Because of the heavy fire activity, the company had to escalate both the flight and maintenance support of its operations. “This meant sending additional people and components to support the helicopters in the field,” Saylor remarked.

Saylor called the 2018 fire season an “above average year for assignments to fires”. However, he reported that going forward, the company will do more prepositioning of its helicopters, as they become available for call when needed contracts—which he said have worked out well for the company, given its diversity of work.

“We look at maps and forecasts to determine the most likely places for high fire risk, then position the aircraft in those areas,” he explained.

10 thoughts on “Forest Service relying more on Call When Needed air tankers”

  1. The increasing use of CWN contracts , rather that EU [exclusive use] is a failed ,more expensive way to obtain FF aircraft . No CEO in their right mind would expect their sub-contractors to operate with the uncertainties mandated by the USFS . One could question the motivations of both USFS and BLM!

    1. The Forest Service and the BLM will shoot themselves in the foot down the line. No one in those agencies it seems has worked in the Real Word. In the Real World you get fired for making bad decisions. If you make a bad decision in Government Service and get caught, you get moved up and become someone else’s problem….

      1. Jeff there are those of us that work for the FS and BLM that think this is stupid. The problem is we are not in positions to make those decisions. If we were things would be a lot different.

  2. Some may reason that it would be more cost effective to bring on CWN aircraft for the busiest part of the year, typically July and August, to supplement the Exclusive-use, instead of paying for more aircraft to standby for 6-8 months. Yes, tough on the contractors, but less costly in the long run. CALFIRE does the same thing. I agree there is probably a better ratio of CWN to Exclusive-use available if someone in the FS is looking at that.

    1. Yes CalFire does that but to supplement a full fleet of aircraft. The FS exclusive use number of aircraft is down to only 13 to cover all of the west. So yes CalFire does it but it’s just a “back up” but the FS is using CWN as their main go to.

  3. No doubt the use of CWN is more costly, financially, business, etc.. Through the article though, is a couple of glaring points. The contracts were not awarded because of protests. It is not solely on the FS shoulders. Regardless of how your lawyers we it etc, there was a protest and we cannot move forward until it is responded. Two, the article is covering a myriad of CWN ordering points besides the FS. Three, the FS pays the daily availability on the air tankers on EU… so in theory then, we should only be seeing those aircraft on FS fires, and for that matter, only on the paying departments land right ? Wrong, closest force concept, IA agreeMents, NMAC priorities etc..

    So we love to bash big brother who has all of the toys, yet the smaller units/ cooperators enjoy the luxury of a tool, when needed with zero obligation to help with the actual funding for daily availability. Really ? Is that an all encompassing assumption ? Sure sounds like it.

    A real problem I saw time and again was the blatant misuse of retardant and suppressants. In certain fuel and topographical parameters, NOTHING will stop a fires growth until one of the variables changes. So why do we do it ? A fundamental lack of education in terms of coordinating air and ground? Less requirements for all “ ground “ folks to understand their responsibilities in using retardant or suppressants ? Or the other culprit … politics.

    I certainly enjoy the conversation, thanks for the dialogue. If we all want “ Uncle Sugars “toys, yet we complain about the numbers available, what’s the correct course of action?

    1. I agree 100% on the lack of education regarding retardant use. Retardant application is excessive in my opinion, because of the lack of knowledge by the users on the ground ( and some Air Attacks, by the way). There are too many factors coming off of this to list here, but something needs to change. My other thought goes with another point you made; 13 air tankers on exclusive-use for the FS for 6-10 months should be enough to cover an average (?) fire season throughout the year, covering all regions. With that, supplement with CWN airtankers for 2-3 months during the busy season. The FS also has many helicopters on exclusive-use contracts and supplements those with CWN. Large and Very Large Air Tankers are bigger and faster, so fewer should be needed.
      By the way, if air tankers are bigger, why do fires get bigger? More is not the answer, appropriate fire management is.

      1. No, 13 Tankers is not enough for the areas covered for 6-8 months.
        Airtanker size and fire size has nothing to do w each other.
        I do agree retardant use is not always thought out, but the facts from the field show it is effective when used correctly. How often is that? Depends on where and when.
        The fact is, for suppressing fires the fed needs to model calfire. Retardant used in an IA situation is a best use practice and is not done nearly enough except when the WUI is compromised on fed ground. How many times are those in F&A called out to a fire and fly…then the fire management changes as well as strategy’s…then when the thing is gobbling, it’s back to full suppression and more retardant? Hello?
        If we’re serious about suppressing fires, then tankers will staff multiple locations across the west and a couple eastern states for 6+ months a year and will be used as an IA tool. Prob 20-28 EU LATS w others of course. Hey! Like CalFire.

    2. SC,

      My background is military aviation and military programs but there seem to be some parallels that may apply to fire aviation.

      1. The community lacks an effective bottom-up requirements process where the operators define their total requirements.
      2. The community lacks a requirements validation process that can then differentiate between the “more is better” requirement and the well justified requirement. The process then has to prioritize all the validated requirements because there will never be enough money.

      I have never seen a validated operational requirements document for fire aviation. No one seems to be able to explain and justify with real data how many and what type of aircraft are required for fire aviation, why each is required, and the consequences if requirements are not met.

      The USFS study [AFUE] was a great start because it would have defined air tanker effectiveness and enabled the development of a real validated requirements process. But it looks like AFUE has stalled so instead of defining air tanker effectiveness and generating requirements with facts and real data, a political process is left to define budgets, aircraft requirements, and contracts.

      So I guess my input on the subject is that USFS and BLM need to work together, get AFUE up and running, and then start up a process that will justify their operational requirements with real data and then use it to defend their budget requirements in the D.C. planning, programming, and budgeting process.

      Until USFS and BLM can explain and justify what they need, why they need it, and the consequences of not getting it, the present top down “father knows best” political program will continue to define fire aviation.

  4. The availability portion of EU contracts is paid for out of the preparedness/presuppression portion of the agencies budgets. CWN costs come out of the suppression side of the budget. The agencies have limited preparedness/presuppression budgets and have to make difficult decisions on how to best spend the available dollars. Ground resources, IA helicopters, air tankers, etc. what is the best mix? Dipping into the suppression funds is one way to stretch the budget. The economics of CWN resources make this a “damed if you do, damed if you don’t” situation. And as the article states it puts the contractors in a difficult position.

    When where and how to best use air tankers is another issue. But I have to believe IA is the single best use. Yet how many dispatch offices have “Large Air Tanker” on the top of their dispatch run cards?

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