Talking tankers – Industry executive talks about large air tankers in an era of record wildfire, budgetary uncertainties, and COVID-19

Interview with Dan Snyder of Neptune Aviation

Tanker 02, a BAe-146, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire
Neptune’s Tanker 02, a BAe-146, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.

By Paul Seidenman
for Fire Aviation

For aerial firefighters, 2020 is shaping up as a year of nonstop deployments as wildland fire events continue to shatter records for destruction, increasingly measured in square miles.  As those fires raged, large air tankers (LAT), as in years past, proved themselves as essential for the firefighting tool box.  To appreciate that, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services—an LAT operator—agreed to a wide-ranging interview with Fire Aviation.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fire Aviation – What changes have you seen with wildland fire events today, compared to a decade ago?

Dan Snyder – A decade ago, fire seasons were much more predictable.  Since then, we have seen many more fires yearly, particularly in California.  Along with that, wildland fires, today, have become much more destructive with respect to property and loss of life.

FA – At the same time, what changes have you seen with the fixed-wing air tanker fleet during that time?

DS – First, in 2010, there were three LAT service vendors—Aero Union, Minden Aviation, and Neptune Aviation Services. Neptune is the only one of those still in business.  Secondly, there has been a complete change in the LAT fleet mix.  The majority of the LAT fleet, prior to 2010, was propeller driven—mainly former military P-3s and P2Vs.  Today, it’s almost entirely jets, with just a few propeller driven LATs remaining.  And the number of companies offering LAT services has increased from three to at least seven.

Also, the contracting model has changed.  We have gone from 100% of the LATs under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts, to less than 50% under EU, with the remainder under Call When Needed (CWN) contracts.

FA – Neptune Aviation Services currently operates nine BAe-146 LATs.  How do LATs fit into today’s wildland aerial firefighting environment, given the proliferation of single engine air tankers (SEAT), the few very large air tankers (VLAT), and, of course helicopters?

DS – The LATs are the central pillar of USFS fixed wing aerial firefighting tactics, and the air tanker bases are built to support them.  The very large air tankers (VLAT) only fit into a handful of the tanker bases throughout the US.  Each aircraft in aerial firefighting—helicopters, SEATs, Scoopers, VLATs and LATs—are all tools in the toolbox and have roles that each does well. As an example the VLATs are great for building long fire retardant lines; scoopers work well when large bodies of water are near the fire.

Also, LATs are well suited for initial attack which requires rapid response time, and a high degree of maneuverability.  This allows them to operate over all North American terrain types.  For example, in mountainous areas, they are very effective in dropping retardant over a variable terrain profile.  With a retardant upload rate of at least 500 gallons per minute, they can get back in the air within 10 minutes.  Also, with 3,000-4,000 gallon capacity tanks, LATs carry roughly 3-5 times the retardant of a SEAT making one large airtanker more effective in most initial attack situations.  And, they can operate from more bases closer to the fires, and away from large airports where commercial traffic congestion can be a problem.

FA – Have you seen any changes that have made LAT and VLAT tankers more effective in wildland firefighting?

DS – Yes.  For example, this year (2020), those tankers were used to great advantage, even as the US Fire Service (USFS) had to react to the reality of firefighting fighting within COVID-19 restrictions.  Specifically, the USFS activated a large number of aircraft and placed them throughout the western US for initial attack purposes.  This resulted in less of a need to move people around, and led to more assets available at the outbreak of—and closer to—the fires, which I believe led to a higher success rate in initial attack.  It also made more aircraft available for large fire support.  In fact, this was the first time since the late 1990s, that there were 40 LAT/VLAT tankers, that this kind of deployment was done on such a large scale, and it was all COVID-driven.  We caught a lot of small fires and kept them from becoming large fires.

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Neptune’s Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire near Santa Barbara, California Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

FA – How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability of the industry to move people and assets to where needed?

DS – It has gotten better.  At the start of COVID in the US, airline schedules were severely reduced, and hotels and restaurants were closed.  Today, restrictions are not as bad, so moving people around is not as significant an issue as it had been.  Now, that’s just in the US.  With international operations, there are still significant issues.

FA – Since fire seasons are only projected to get worse, and fires more destructive, do we need even greater numbers of fixed wing tankers—both LAT and VLAT?  If so, by your estimate, about how many more does the country need?

DS – The number of large and very large air tankers operated by private industry today—about 38—is about the same as we had in the late 1990s.  The aircraft are faster, more reliable, and carry larger quantities of retardant, but costs have increased, putting even more strain on firefighting agencies’ budgets.  The Rand report–(Air Attack Against Wildfires — Understanding U.S. Forest Service Requirements for Large Aircraft)–which was released in 2012, indicated an optimal fleet under exclusive use contracts would be 18-28 LATs.  We have exceeded that, so there are enough aircraft for a normal or average fire season, as well as surge capacity for an above normal fire season.

FA – The USFS has moved more toward CWN and away from exclusive EU contracts, as you indicated earlier.  Could this ultimately impact the ability of the industry to invest in more aircraft, support staff, pilots and maintenance infrastructure, degrading the industry’s ability to respond to what could be a new normal with fire seasons?

DS – Yes. If we see several below average fire seasons, I believe we will see a negative impact on the air tanker industry under the current contacting model.  The Blue Ribbon Task Force report, which was published in 2004, suggested longer term contracts to assure vendor capability to maintain high standards in maintenance and training.  While the industry has made great strides–through significant financial investments in higher quality aircraft, better maintenance, and crew training–my concern is that going to CWN contracts, could begin to undermine the strides the industry has made.

FA – The USFS also wants to move toward one-year guaranteed contracts, with additional years as options at its discretion.  For now, what is the standard USFS EU contract length?  What are the potential consequences for LAT/VLAT operators should one year guaranteed contracts become standard?

DS – NextGen 1 and NextGen 2 contracts were 5-year contracts with five one-year options.  NextGen 3.0 is the one-year contract, with option years.  If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved.  It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.

FA – There has been talk about the need to conduct aerial firefighting at night.  In your opinion, are equipment vendors offering avionics which would make this possible for LAT/VLAT operators?  In fact, is it even practical and safe?

DS – The technology exists for aerial firefighting at night, but it’s expensive, and there is no cohesive package you can purchase and install on a fixed wing aircraft to make it practical and safe.  I think it is much lower risk for helicopters, but not ready for the fixed wing world just yet.  Will we get there?  Yes, but I’m not sure when.

FA – In recent years, the private aerial firefighting industry has been concerned about government becoming more involved in the business.  For example, CAL FIRE has configured ex-Coast Guard C-130s for tanker operations.  Is this still a concern today?  Do you see more State fire protection agencies getting into aerial firefighting?

DS – CAL FIRE has always had its own program, and it is increasing its aerial firefighting capacity.  However, I do not see other States following the CAL FIRE model.  The USFS has given up on it, because it has seen private industry creating the capacity, and it no longer sees a need for its own program.  Also, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is not interested.

FA – Air tanker operations demand special flying skills.  How has the industry done with respect to pilot recruitment and retention?

DS – The industry has done well with pilot retention and training  Turnover tends to be low, because it draws a very unique subset of individuals that get into the industry and stay long-term.

Tanker 02, a BAe-146
Tanker 02, a BAe-146, at Missoula during winter maintenance May 25, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

FA – Pilots and mechanics in aerial firefighting are constantly on the road and away from home during busy fire seasons.  Does that impact retention?

DS – Yes.  In fact, some 10 years ago, at Neptune, we addressed that by increasing the number of employees and instituting a rotating schedule, so that our people are not away for very long periods.  For example, we try to provide a work schedule for our mechanics of one month on, one month off.  For pilots, the goal is three weeks on and three off.  It has worked out well, and we have seen a lower turn-over rate as a result.

FA – LAT and VLAT operators have modernized their operations through acquisition and modification of former commercial jets.  In your opinion, will the next step be some type of purpose-built tanker?  What are the challenges and issues that might prevent that from happening anytime soon?

DS – Cost is a big factor.  If the wildland management agencies are interested in a purpose built aircraft, budgeting models will have to change significantly.  A brand new CL 415, which is a purpose-built scooper, is about $38 million.  A new C-130 is about-$50-60 million, but a used C-130 can be had for $10 million or less, depending on condition and number of flight hours.  The industry can tank a half-life commercial airliner for a fraction of a purpose-built aircraft cost.  So, while a purpose-built tanker would be great, I don’t know that it could do anything more for the industry than a repurposed commercial aircraft.

Tanker 02, a BAe-146
Neptune’s Tanker 02, a BAe-146, at Missoula during winter maintenance May 25, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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3 thoughts on “Talking tankers – Industry executive talks about large air tankers in an era of record wildfire, budgetary uncertainties, and COVID-19”

  1. No questions about the AFUE Study? Probably the biggest research effort by the Forest Service in 7-8 years on the topic of aerial firefighting effectiveness since the Rand report. The two models run by the Rand report recommended 9 LATs at most and 40-50 super scoopers….maybe I missed it 18-28 LAT part of the report……regardless of those two issues inconsistencies, the article does correctly identify the biggest disconnect between the country’s need for more and more suppression capabilities and the fire agencies unwillingness/inability to provide contracts that allow operators to invest in fleets that can safely meet the increasing demand…

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