Forest Service has been dithering about a new air tanker contract for 433 days

Our take: The planning for utilization and contracting of air tankers has been broken since 2002

DC-10 air tankers

(Above: File photo of three of the four DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers at Albuquerque, NM May 3, 2019:  Tankers 910, 911, and 914. Photo by Bill Gabbert.)

Two of the four DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) have been working for a while this fire season on exclusive use (EU) contracts, but the remaining two were activated today, August 6, on call when needed (CWN) contracts. The two previously on duty were T-911 and T-912. Called up today were T-910 and T-914.

This begs the question. If there is a need for all four of the VLATs operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, what is the status of the single 747 VLAT? Andrea Avolio, a vice president of the company, said their SuperTanker is available, but presently does not have an exclusive use or call when needed contract with the federal government, but they do have contracts with the states of Oregon, Colorado, and California.

The CWN contract used to activate the two DC-10s has been in effect for at least a couple of years. The U.S. Forest Service has been dithering about a new CWN contract for large and very large air tankers since May 30, 2018 — for the last 433 days. Many vendors submitted bids on the contract.

Our take:

Since that new CWN contract was first advertised, we have gone through one full fire season and half of another.

The planning for utilization and contracting of air tankers has been broken since 2002. After the two crashes of air tankers that killed five crewmen in 2002, the older models were black-listed and the fleet atrophied from 44 down to 9 in 2013, with nothing being done by the federal land management agencies in the interim to rebuild the fleet or plan for the future. In 2014 the Forest Service began very slowly to introduce “next-generation” aircraft, and this year there are approximately 13 large air tankers on EU contracts. An additional 11 are on the existing CWN contracts and can be activated at much higher daily and hourly rates if they are serviceable, available, and have crews to fly and maintain them.

It took the Forest Service 555 days to award the first next generation air tanker contract June 7, 2013. Other contracts have also taken hundreds of days.

Part of the blame for the failure to contract for an appropriate number of air tankers lands on Congress for not appropriating enough funds to protect our homeland. The Forest Service is using a work-around, activating CWN aircraft because paying for them comes out of a different, virtually unlimited fund — emergency fire suppression — even though it costs much more than the exclusive use rates.

An analysis Fire Aviation completed in February, 2018 found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than Exclusive Use aircraft that work for an entire fire season. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

Another issue that could have long term adverse consequences is the Forest Service’s trend to only issue one-year EU contracts, with options for up to five additional years, one at a time.

Air tankers are very expensive to purchase and retrofit. Most of the jet-powered tankers being used today before being converted were retired from their original mission and are decades old, but two models of scooper or large air tankers can be purchased new. The CL-415 amphibious scooper cost about $37 million in 2014 but Bombardier stopped building them in 2015, and the new owner of the business, Viking, has not resumed manufacturing the aircraft. A new Q400 can be ordered from Bombardier with an external retardant tank for around $34 million.

Most air tanker operators in the United States prefer to buy retired airliners like the BAe-146,  DC-10, or variants of the C-130 and convert them to carry and dispense retardant. Retrofitting alone runs into the millions. Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.

Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.

The province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

If the occurrence of wildfires was rapidly declining, reducing the air tanker fleet would make sense. However everyone knows the opposite is happening.

5 thoughts on “Forest Service has been dithering about a new air tanker contract for 433 days”

  1. Bill,
    Great analysis! Problem is as you say ;nothing much is getting done at any level!
    There is a lot of smoke in N.E Idaho and in the Flathead Valley of Western Montana .
    This seems to be a yearly occurrence ,and there seems to be little concern for air quality, and the health hazards therefrom !

  2. Lets be honest about USFS F and A management…they are inept and way behind the 8 ball. From the lead plane program in the toilet, to not enough contracted aircraft. One operator has multiple planes ready to go and yet they sit. Contracting is a joke for all operators now and managers don’t seem to give a s*** about what the folks on the fires need and want in terms of retardant delivery. It’s CYA and move paperwork and memos around. Most managers have no clue about aviation, aren’t pilots, and just try and one up coworkers. It’s a complete shame, their own people feel the same. Most should be out of a job, or should move back to GS9 positions they held previously.

  3. Cost vs reward!
    No “honest” sharp pencile examination of fire suppression can see the light of day with the warped fear saturated public perception. By ineptitude or purpose millions have been saved by not having access to a grossly expensive tool used to delay that which will eventually burn anyway.

  4. Maybe the program is being managed by spreadsheet by the USFS CFO with no good data on asset effectiveness or efficiency.

  5. You forgot to publish the contracted rates of heavy air tankers…those that sit on the ground waiting for a order for slurry and then the rates that change when the wheels leave the tarmac..then the effectiveness of suppression vs. Seats (costs). Limitations such as flight time and hours of operation etc. We all like to see the heavys fly but do the cost/benefit ratio become tax payers burden. If people quit building in high fire risk areas, do effective fuel hazard treatments on their land and allow fuel treatments (rX burn) nearby,maybe the days of seeing heavys in the air are in the past. The pilots are exceptional but flying old planes, not designed to carry/instant drop of weight will cost taxpayers lots of money. Lost too many pilots so far trying to save homes that should have done more to reduce fire hazard. I support engineering design of specific firefighting planes that will protect those brave souls that take the risk when they fly. Their families deserve it.

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