Perimeter

Forest Service makes major changes in helicopter contracts

One vendor said new requirements could reduce the number of helicopters on contract

White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June 29, 2012
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for awarding federal contracts for large air tankers and firefighting helicopters, is proposing a number of very significant changes to the helicopter contracts. The agency has posted a second draft of a new Request for Proposals (RFP) and will hold a virtual meeting about the contracts on September 29.

SAM.govOne of our readers whose company has been providing helicopters on the previous contracts has some opinions about the changes the Forest Service is pushing. They requested to remain anonymous in order to avoid retribution from the agency. Here is what they wrote. It has been lightly edited.


The Call When Needed (CWN) “Parent Contract” is a 1 year with 9 option years contract, with Exclusive Use (EU) contracts being bid *through* the parent contract for 1 year with four option years. In each case, only the first year is guaranteed.  They claim that 2 times throughout the 1/9 year parent contract, they will allow onboarding of new vendors/equipment.  But only when they decide, of course!  Sounds like a great schedule to buy a “next gen” helicopter.

This draft RFP is such a massive and violent change from what has been requested in previous contracts that most operators aren’t going to be able to handle it.  We operate Type III helicopters and are now faced with 40lbs+ of equipment (costing over $60k per aircraft) to meet minimum requirements – things that we really don’t need like a Traffic Avoidance System (but the ADS-B they required last year isn’t good enough) and a loudspeaker (because yelling at the fire helps?).  Oh, and don’t glance over the cockpit camera, which they want even on restricted category bucket ships.  The cheapest camera we could find is $10,000.  How’s about an STC for personal electronic devices, only available from one company, nobody else in the industry even knows what the hell the STC is or is for!  But you better pay for it, USFS says!

Once we get all of that figured out, turns out that the increase in performance specifications at 7,000′ / 30°C combined with the added equipment pretty much eliminates legacy ships from meeting performance requirements.  They essentially want a Sky Crane to do a Jet Ranger’s job… and guess who they were calling last year when our state was in a firestorm?  A lot of the operators that will get pushed out because of this RFP do a lot of irrefutably safe work when fire season peaks, or when resource work is needed, with excellently maintained legacy platforms at great value to the taxpayers.

Add to this that they are wanting us to throw all of this money into our aircraft to get on the contract (which is now a 10 year contract!) while simultaneously saying that they fully intend on moving to “modern” helicopters that are built after the year 2000 and are all twin engine.  But they won’t tell us when they are doing that, just that as we bid on EU work within the CWN contract eventually they are going to want “modern helicopters”.  The only modern type III helicopter we can find that meets the requirement is $6.4m which is triple the value of our 5 type III helicopter fleet (and we own a Type III light twin, it’s just too old for the Forest Service’s liking).  Type II’s?  There are only 2 options and they are well in to the 10’s of millions of dollars.  Say goodbye to the 205 and 212, its brand new 412EPX’s or nothing.

The biggest issue overall is that this contract is a prerequisite for our other federal and state work such as state fire and wildlife survey, etc.  Without a federal contract, we can’t get carded – and without cards, we can’t work for the state.  So, because the Forest Service wants to push all but the “top tier” of their options out, they are essentially putting every government agency’s resources at risk.  We can only hope the upcoming DOI on-call helicopter RFP due out later this year isn’t so crazy.

We are all for the push for better equipment for our wildland fire efforts… but the USFS can’t do the change this suddenly and without any industry input.  There is obviously some back door dealing going on with this RFP as it very specifically pushes money to certain equipment providers and tips the hat to certain helicopter companies.  The question and answer document shows the USFS is unwilling to be understanding – its our way or the highway, thanks for nothing.  We have gone a few years in the past 10 where we had zero USFS work at all based on fire behavior… but they want their random equipment to be installed on our dime.  It’s driving us away from government work and I’m truly worried about the availability of rotor assets next year if they end up going through with this wish list RFP.

I know we aren’t alone in how upset we are with the Forest Service right now.  A quick peruse through that Q&A shows that dozens of operators really gasped when this RFP came out.  The arrogance and dismissal by the FS with most questions being answered “Noted, Language will remain as written” just adds frustration to irritation.  Thanks for giving us a voice

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

37 thoughts on “Forest Service makes major changes in helicopter contracts”

  1. And the hits just keep on coming. All perpetuated by the Gov. agency that, more and more, is becoming its own worst enemy, as well as ours!

  2. That’s what happens when non-aviation people get put it charge of aviation programs. Nobody should bid, then when everything is on fire and the USFS comes begging then you’d have some leverage on them.

    1. No….thats what happens when you have cradle to grave beuracrats (who havn’t a clue about running a business) in charge of doling out federal dollars.
      They will tell you they have their smerfs….SME’s ( who typically are cradle to grave beuracrats as well), who are supposedly dialed in on the subject matter… sure…right…lmao
      Doing business with the feds is not for the faint of heart. Those who can manage might do fine…or they might just get tossed out with the bathwater..

    2. Unfortunately your assumption is incorrect, the program manager has several years experience in aviation operations and the Helicopter Specialist is one of the best around and also has several years of experience.

      1. Todd – thanks for chiming in. Your input here is really helpful. So given that the PM and the HS are both aviation folks, this means that they have certain goals that they are trying to achieve given the “shape” that the Solicitation is taking. I also assume that the CO just channeled the PM and HS’s needs for the program. So given these facts, what do you think they are trying to achieve in ultimately reducing the number of a/c in a time when we need more of them?

      2. Then why are one year contracts with optional years considered a sustainable way for helicopter companies to provide helicopters for fire fighting? You guys (and gals) should possess enough experience to influence how contracts are conceptualized, and bring some common sense back to the process…

    3. “Nobody should bid, then when everything is on fire and the USFS comes begging then you’d have some leverage on them.”

      Well, maybe in some locations. In other locations they would just shrug their shoulders and walk away.

      Wait. That’s what they do now…………….

      1. It doesn’t matter what we say if we don’t pay the price , the US Forest service only go and hire the Canadians to do our job.

    4. “Nobody should bid, then when everything is on fire and the USFS comes begging then you’d have some leverage on them.”

      Well, maybe in some locations. In other locations they would just shrug their shoulders and walk away.

      Wait. That’s what they do now…………….

  3. God Bless you anon. operator.

    Very well stated on what most of us are thinking and in the same boat.

    It seems nothing is making sense anymore, and we are destined to fail if this shortsightedness is allowed to continue.

  4. Sucks that they’re limiting their choices on the RFP. They should change their contract terms should change if they’re forcing companies to buy X aircrafts. Just like how the new GM Suburban for Diplomates costs millions of dollars each and the contract went to the one company that can make it. Base model costs 50k where does the rest go??? i digress….

  5. Once again…..

    If any of those folks everrrrrr knew what it takes to run a rotary operation

    This is going to get interesting

  6. These proposed contract changes have made working for USFS impossible for most all operators especially restricted categories that will all be “phased out” when the new 2000 or newer requirement takes affect. I am concerned that it will reduce resources in a way that will harm the community’s we generally get to help. I do not know of any small operators who can afford to buy new ships, if any are even available. This change will be a double edged sword..as operators cannot meet requirements or afford changes they will shut their doors and then already limited resources will be permanently removed for fire. These changes are going to put operators who have worked hard for generations, who have tirelessly jumped through USFS hoops for years out of business…that is a crappy government thanks, with costly and unnecessary changes as the final slap in the face!

  7. Bill – do you have access to USFS decision makers? I’d guess many of them follow your websites, but if not and you have access to them, it would be good to alert them to the commentary here on this page…if anyone else feels strongly negative about this, chime in!! Sadly, this is just another reason why operators will have to get out of the fire fighting business or send the aircraft to other countries where they will actually be treated like the critical assets that they are….

    1. There is a question and answer phase that allows anyone to submit questions and the answers will be posted on the SAM site. Rest assured the FS are aware of the concerns from industry, but everyone needs to realize that the FS is the customer. Vendors do not drive the requirements the customer does. If a vendor doesn’t like the requirements, they can choose not to submit a proposal. Besides the cost for the new equipment will be passed on the FS through the increase in Daily Availability rates.

      1. Todd – more well informed insight here. Thank you. Yes, the customer is the FS. We all understand that. The Q&A period is a nicety, but rarely ever provides valuable responses to industry. I may be incorrect in this, but I think the less than excited response from industry is based on them providing questions and input to the PM, HS and CO and getting pretty unsatisfactory responses. That’s discouraging as it suggests that the customer really isn’t listening and just providing the perception of doing so….your point of just not choosing to submit if an operator “doesn’t like it” is incredibly insensitive and uninformed. What do you do with an expensive asset like a helo when you’re only customer suggests to just not submit? Maybe all of the experienced aviation folks you mention are part of this have never actually had to buy a multi-million a/c, maintain it, crew it and ensure that its operable? If as you suggest “they can choose to not submit a proposal” then two things are going to happen: 1) that aircraft will not be part of the AFF fleet next year and 2) you will have less a/c in the future b/c of it. Your last sentence in the nail in the coffin….seeing as that this contract will be LPTA and a year to year option, how do you finance a “new” a/c that will surely be $2-$4M on the low end? Buying a/c is a lot like buying a house. The banker looks at your household income and job stability. If the income is lower and lower due to LPTA and the job security is year to year with no guarantee, most lenders will tell you to try another house to mortgage your house. For an operator to be competitive in the LPTA world, you need to amortize the cost of the a/c over 10 years or more. Try to “pass on” the cost of newer more expensive equipment in less than 10 years than the operators fails on the LPTA front. So this all begs a question – maybe how do we bridge the gap here? Maybe the PM, HS and the CO should talk to some a/c financing companies to better understand the reality of upgrading or buying new equipment. Maybe in talking to a 3rd party lender the FS would learn more about these challenges that industry is facing due to the well intended, but poorly delivered solicitation requirements?

      2. Todd – more well informed insight here. Thank you. Yes, the customer is the FS. We all understand that. The Q&A period is a nicety, but rarely ever provides valuable responses to industry. I may be incorrect in this, but I think the less than excited response from industry is based on them providing questions and input to the PM, HS and CO and getting pretty unsatisfactory responses. That’s discouraging as it suggests that the customer really isn’t listening and just providing the perception of doing so….your point of just not choosing to submit if an operator “doesn’t like it” is incredibly insensitive and uninformed. What do you do with an expensive asset like a helo when you’re only customer suggests to just not submit? Maybe all of the experienced aviation folks you mention are part of this have never actually had to buy a multi-million a/c, maintain it, crew it and ensure that its safely operable? If as you suggest “they can choose to not submit a proposal” then two things are going to happen: 1) that aircraft will not be part of the AFF fleet next year and 2) you will have less a/c in the future b/c of it. Your last sentence is the the nail in the coffin….seeing as that this contract will be LPTA and a year to year option, how do you finance a “new” a/c that will surely be $2-$4M on the low end? Buying a/c is a lot like buying a house. The banker looks at your household income and job stability. If the income is lower and lower due to LPTA and the job security is year to year with no guarantee, most lenders will tell you to try another bank to mortgage your house. For an operator to be competitive in the LPTA world, you need to amortize the cost of the a/c over 10 years or more. Try to “pass on” the cost of newer, more expensive equipment in less than 10 years, than the operator fails on the LPTA front b/c his day rate will be too high. So this all begs a question – how do we bridge the gap here? Maybe the PM, HS and the CO should talk to some a/c financing companies/banks to better understand the reality of upgrading or buying new equipment? Maybe in talking to a 3rd party lender the FS would learn more about these challenges that industry is facing due to the well intended, but poorly delivered solicitation requirements? The FS doesn’t seem to trust the input from the industry on this, so maybe the FS should ask the people who provide the mortgage? While I’m sure you and the FS believe that all the operators swim in pool fulls of cash and take $$$$millions home every year, that fact of the matter is that Mother Nature and worsening Contracts just don’t allow that to happen, so no one can ever just pay for a new a/c with cash from operations. There just isn’t enough.

      3. You must be USFS – this sounds exactly like the Q&A session… “Language will remain as written”. Just need to add, “Mama told me the customer is always right”.

        Great response, fellas. We really love being on Team USFS.

    2. The FS is certainly aware of Mr. Gabbert who has reached out to public affairs folks within the agency on numerous occasions…

      When the SME’s include pilots who had a previous career in the military, also Aviation Maintenance Inspectors who previously worked as mechanic’s in industry and the military, I do not think the label of “career beaurocrart” quite fits.

      The FS would gladly issue multi-year contracts (vs. base year + options). However, multi-year contacts must also include an aspect of a cancellation ceiling which must be funded up front. This amounts to budget dollars that would have to be tied to each individual contract and could not be utilized anywhere else.

      Faintly, what are the advertisement you see posted on this site? They are all tied to contractors in the business. So do we get balanced journalism here. Well not quite, imho. One has to write to the audience who butters their bread!

      1. Obviously another FS fella here. Bill is pandering to advertisers and we here at FS have so much knowledge we can’t be wrong. Give me a break. Bill wrote 3 sentences without even putting his opinion in, the overwhelming response is that the only people happy or satisfied with this RFP are the people who wrote it.

        Anyone who served in the military knows that Uncle Sam Air is the most inefficient airline in the world, and having worked there is in no way a guarantee that you are the best subject matter expert on anything. No wonder there is absolutely no concern about the financial impact of this proposal.

        FS is gonna end up with a heavy National Guard helicopter fleet next year. Guess what – those choppers won’t have cockpit cameras or loudspeakers or TAS. But look on the bright side… the SMEs will feel like they are back in the military!

      2. “Faintly, what are the advertisement you see posted on this site? They are all tied to contractors in the business. So do we get balanced journalism here. Well not quite, imho. One has to write to the audience who butters their bread!”

        Does anyone smell a red herring or see a strawman waving his arms?

        1. Do any of you FS boys understand how capitalism works? Bill would rather not take his private industry advertisers $$$, but he should and needs to get paid for the hard work he puts in and he knows you Government boys can’t/won’t pay him to tell the truth. I also think your comments are short sighted on Bill’s “pandering” to industry. Bill has been at this for a long time and has always been a fair arbiter of the facts. You FS boys need to stop trying to blame the messenger and take the feedback from industry to heart. All the experienced aviation folks leading the latest helo RFP need to know that what you’re proposing will lead to less a/c and more accidents/deaths. It just will. DO NOT listen to your bosses, DO THE RIGHT thing and pull this RFP back and get it right…MILLIONS of U.S. citizens are expecting that you will. What you all have put out leaves these folks in harms way….you guys ok with that on your souls…

  8. I say all you vendors simply BOYCOTT the USFS. See what happens when the arrogant “customer” has no place shop! People will write their Congressional Reps and lowly GS grade bureaucrats will get mushroom stamped for creating an untenable contracting environment that leads to a massive shortage of rotors when homes are burning. Vendors reserve the right to refuse service to the “customer” that is rude, arrogant and disrespectful. All the UTF’s for rotors can get name-tied back to a few individuals at NIFC.

    1. Well said Maghreb….sadly, doing so would guarantee financial disaster/bankruptcy for the industry while also ensuring that the country and its citizens in fire prone states would be without helos for many more years than just one season….I do love the idea as it would send a message for sure…maybe a few calls to the White House make sense here?

    2. Look at the LATs this year. Several vendors opted for EU contracts with states instead of the USFS. At least two CL-415s were removed from USFS contracts and placed on a state contract this year too. The USFS did not get the number of LATs they assumed they would, I know it shocked them.

      1. Nope. The States contracted for Fed approved airtankers so just like we all share resources like engines and shot crews now we can share airtankers too.

        1. Not entirely true….why would a state find the funding to contract with a LAT provider??? That’s rarely happened before b/c a) it’s a lot of $$$ and b) the states also believed that they would get aerial resources when needed, but they got burned by that hope, literally…you may think you can grab it, but think again in tough times….State will think about State first before “sharing” the resource….it will get more interesting when France, Spain, Greece and Turkey “take” these assets…sleep well FS…you guys are managing the LATs and Type 1s well…they’ll always be there for you….keep up the good work…well done…

  9. I can see daily availability rates sky rocketing, which it sounds like is expected. The companies willing to make adjustments will do just that and end up with contracts. Kinda like the air tankers.

  10. You have to love the obvious FS sycophants on here making contemptuous, defensive and specious arguments. The FS is a sinking ship by every measurable metric and the aircraft contracting department is clearly no exception.
    If you like warm beer, buy a FS refrigerator.

  11. I find it interesting that the WFT crowd is pro a next gen, advanced air tanker fleet (including the funding required) but is up in arms about a next gen, advanced helicopter fleet.

    It’s logical that the USFS move to a more modern helicopter fleet. We don’t fly in 58Ts (which I saw on exclusive use contract as an unrestricted as late at 2006) Llamas, etc. Maybe they could have figured out a better transition, maybe not.

    I would be interested to see more reporting on why the USFS is making this transition now and how they made the decisions. As a former helitacker I know we were always looking forward to moving to a more modern helicopter fleet.

    1. The difference is there are very few air tankers compared to helicopters on EU and CWN contracts.

      What will replace a 407 for a Type III ship?

      What will replace a 212?

      What can replicate the performance of a UH-1H with a -703 as a bucket bird?

      Why are only Types III and II “legacy” helicopters being phased out? What happens when they implement it towards Type I’s? Do you know anything that can replace a CH-54/S-64 or an S-61? With the twin engine requirement would a K-Max also be DQ’d?

      1. Adam –

        Certainly valid concerns regarding the quantity of helicopters to transition and timeline. As I indicated, I’m very interested in more reporting on this from the customer side of the table, IE the USFS as well as industry. I’m not convinced that either trying to do an abrupt transition is appropriate NOR is standing still while other more modern aircraft are available. Nor is it actually clear to me that is what is happening. The what, why and where of this story seems like it warrants additional reporting.

        There are certainly concerns with moving to a twin engine platform related to performance, and I’m not currently versed enough in all of the platforms to have an opinion, but I do know that this article doesn’t address it and instead seems to be a sounding board for industry without presenting the case for increased firefighter safety and performance in modern aircraft.

        What light twin replaces a 407? Candidates include the Bell 429, Airbus/Eurocopter H135 or H145 or other light twins on the market. Does a 407 not meet the new requirements? If we have an aircraft on the market that give us a better margin of safety in the high and hot environment the USFS works in why wouldn’t we pursue it other than money?

        What replaces the 212? The obvious answer is same thing the US Military replaced the Hueys with, the Blackhawk. Although I don’t know if this counts as a “legacy” platform. Other candidates would be the 412, and the other twin engine mediums on the market from AW and Airbus/Eurocopter. The partners to the USFS are all moving that direction with their purchases of Firehawks.

        I think you answered your own question with “why are they only replacing type II and III legacy platforms and not type I? Do you know anything that can replace the current platforms?” No. Perhaps that’s the point: There are available alternatives on the market that can replace the legacy platforms for type II and III, so we should continue upgrading the fleet as we can.

        1. A 407 isn’t a twin, even tho a 407hp will outperform all the above as a type III. The EC135/145 have potential, but at what cost? The single vs twin vs safety argument doesn’t have a clear winner unless you’re talking about CAT A capable aircraft.

          A 212 is a twin, performs better than a 412 is all aspects but is a little older and only has two blades. The Blackhawk won’t work because they are restricted category. The S-70 could work but again, at what cost? Calfire is seeing right now how much NOT an upgrade they really are and how they are just too big for some things.

          Financing a “new” (2000+) aircraft with a one year contract will be the nail in the coffin for most operators considering what they have to sell will get pennies on the dollar. Who will buy a 206, 407, etc besides AG guys? And they are cheap azz’s that won’t pay much for anything.

          If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Let the operators upgrade when if/it will work.

        2. The reason your seeing all the blackhawk bucket ships is because you can buy a milsurp bird for less than 2$ million and be flying on a fire for less than 5. On the other hand when your not spending your own money you can afford an almost $25 million firehawk

          Oh and there’s a reason for the price difference, all the vendors you see with blackhawks have “restricted” category aircraft. That means NO helitack, NO rappelers, ONLY flight crew and bucket work. The blackhawk will not replace the 212 because it cant, and a regular category S-70 would have to bid three or four times the price of a 212 to make financial sense even if you could get a 4 year EU contract.

          For type 3 helos it may be possible, providing the USFS can double the budget because thats what vendors are going to bid for a new aircraft with higher maintenance cost and complexity, additionally operating hot and high im sure the load charts are going to have to be quite conservative to ensure OEI is landing safely and not just crashing slower

          Everything has to be in balance, you cant spend unlimited money, and you cant eliminate all risk, the safest and most inexpensive helicopter is one that sits on the ground

  12. Anyone else seeing a trend, that they like to spend money on the most expensive piece of equipment they can find, including fixed wings. Ignoring the facts of what that aircraft can actually carry, not what the vendor claims.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *