The U.S. Forest Service announced on October 27 they intend to sign contracts with three companies to add five Next Generation large air tankers (LATs) to its fleet of firefighting fixed wing aircraft. If everything goes as they hope, the FS would have 18 LATs on exclusive use (EU) contracts beginning in 2021.
This contracting process for what the FS calls Next Generation 3.0 began November 19, 2018. The first attempt to award the five LAT contracts on March 26, 2020 was protested, so now seven months later they are trying again. The vendors who did not receive these new contracts will be debriefed, allowing them to ask why they were not selected. Then, if no additional protests are filed within 10 days of the October 27 announcement, actual contracts can be signed with the three contract recipients.
The companies selected for this Next Generation 3.0 contract:
- Coulson Aviation: one B-737, Tanker #137.
- Aero Flite: two RJ85s.
- Erickson Aero Tanker: two MD-87s, two of these three: Tankers 102, 103, or 107
The companies will be given only a one year guaranteed contract, with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.
In a press release the FS claimed to have “met its goal to convert to a fully Next Generation Airtanker fleet with up to 35 airtankers .” The simple math is, there are 13 now on EU contracts, so adding five brings it up to 18. They can bring on additional LATs on Call When Needed arrangements if they are available, but in 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on EU contracts. During this COVID year when the FS needed to boost the number of LATs, they gave about seven companies hybrid CWN contracts for a total of 11 LATs that were basically EU, but for 90 days, rather than the typical 160-day EU Mandatory Availability Period. The rates they negotiated were generally less than the typical CWN rates. For a while they also activated four additional LATs on a true CWN basis, with no guarantee of days worked.
In addition to temporarily adding to the fleet by using CWN aircraft, the FS can under certain conditions use up to eight military C-130 aircraft that have been outfitted with a slip-in 3,000-gallon retardant tank, a Modular FireFighting System (MAFFS). A few more tankers have been borrowed from Canada, for example Convair 580s, Tanker 471 manufactured in 1958, and Tanker 474 manufactured in 1955.
The last year for the six air tankers on the Next Gen 1.0 contract will be 2022, according to my calculations. Since it takes the FS about two years to award an LAT contract, the agency should begin the process for Next Gen 4.0 immediately. If they don’t get it done, there will only be 12 LATs on EU contracts.
Next Gen 1.0 and Next Gen 2.0 were for five guaranteed years with up to five more at the discretion of the FS. The trend of the FS only issuing one year guaranteed contracts is disturbing. Last week in an interview with Fire Aviation, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Neptune Aviation, was asked about the one-year contracts:
“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,” Mr. Snyder said. “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.”
If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer huge fires.
Fighting wildfires is a Homeland Security issue
The US Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that cost $13 billion to build — each with about 80 fighter jets.
Protecting our citizens and forests from wildfires is more important than sending our soldiers and trillions of dollars to fight wars in places that many people could not find on a map. Suppressing wildfires and managing federal forests to reduce the threat to our citizens is a Homeland Security issue and should be adequately funded. Firefighters need to be paid a living wage. You can’t fight fires on the cheap.
50 Type 1 Helicopters
Several years ago the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50.
40 Large Air Tankers
Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use 10-year guaranteed contracts.
We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. Under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we rely more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air. It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and on the ground supporting each other.