The Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs is being used as a forward refueling point for the military helicopters working on the Black Forest Fire on the outskirts of the city. The helicopters being used are Chinooks, Lakotas, and Black Hawks.
(UPDATE at 10:30 a.m. MT, June 12, 2013)
It has been confirmed that the two MAFFS C-130s at Peterson Air Force Base have been activated. Wednesday morning the U.S. Forest Service issued a news release. Below is an excerpt:
…The MAFFS will be provided by the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. They will be based in Colorado Springs, Colorado and will begin flying wildfire suppression missions as soon as safe and effective operations can be established.
“We are experiencing an uptick in wildfire activity and we are mobilizing MAFFS to ensure that we have adequate air tanker capability as we confront explosive wildfire conditions in Colorado, New Mexico, and elsewhere in the West,” said Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “Maintaining adequate aerial firefighting capability is critical to provide support to, and enhance the safety of, the firefighters on the ground who are working so hard to suppress wildfires that are threatening lives, homes, infrastructure, and valuable natural and cultural resources.”
Many of the residents in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Oregon would agree that yes, there has indeed been an “uptick” in fire activity.
This was an unusually quick activation of MAFFS. Usually fires destroy large numbers of acres and/or homes for several days before the C-130s get cranked up. However, only two of the eight MAFFS were activated.
Today there are 15 large uncontained fires listed on the Situation Report, including three in Colorado. On June 23, 2012, the day the Waldo Canyon fire started west of Colorado Springs, there were eight large fires burning in Colorado and 16 uncontained large fires in the country. On June 26 when the Waldo Canyon Fire moved into Colorado Springs burning 347 homes and killing two people, there were 29 uncontained large fires burning in the United States.
In 2012 four MAFFS were activated on June 24, and four more, including the two at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, on June 29, three days after 347 homes were destroyed about seven miles from Peterson.
(Originally published at 11:06 p.m. MT, June 11, 2013)
In a briefing about the 7,500-acre Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Terry Maketa, the El Paso County Sheriff, said Colorado’s Governor, John Hickenlooper, has activated the two Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers at Peterson Air Force Base. The Sheriff said the aircraft should be available by mid-morning Wednesday.
Those aircraft are operated by the 302nd Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve, rather than the state national guard like the other three units that have MAFFS, so it would be unusual for a governor to have the authority to activate them without going through the National Interagency Fire Center.
On Tuesday three major wildfires broke out in Colorado. Strong winds of over 30 mph at Grand Junction kept two SEATs from being able to take off to assist with the fires. However, high wind speeds at the fires may have made the air tankers ineffective even if they could have gotten off the ground.
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A video we embedded in an article on June 7 shows one of the DC-10 very large air tankers making a precision drop using what appeared to be a small fraction of it’s 11,600 gallon capacity, on what was described as a 7-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It generated a fair amount of discussion in the comments, mostly positive, except for one from “Don” who called it “overkill”. “DiggerT” provided a thoughtful response to Don, and I also added my two cents in a comment.
We don’t know why the DC-10 was selected to drop on the fire near Pinal Peak. Maybe it had been dropping on another fire in the area, or perhaps it was the only air tanker available. At any rate, in the video the radio traffic from the lead or air attack plane indicated that he was extremely pleased with the results of the drop.
I am pasting below what I wrote in the comment because it includes a few details about the pricing structure for the seven next generation air tankers that we have not previously covered:
“Don, are you aware that the hourly flight rate for the DC-10 on this new exclusive use contract is by far lower than the other six aircraft that were selected for contracts? The nearest competitor is $2,054 per hour more expensive than the DC-10, and the DC-10 is a little more than half the hourly rate for Minden’s BAe-146.
But keep in mind the contract is complex, and the DC-10’s pricing structure, in order to compare apples to apples, is based on delivering 3,000 gallons, approximately the same as the other six aircraft — according to information I received from someone who is very familiar with the contracting process for next generation air tankers. There are additional specifics to cover the DC-10 dropping more than 3,000 gallons.
But as you can see in the bid details, the Total Cost Estimate for the first year, which apparently takes this into account, has the DC-10’s total cost approximately in the same ball park as the others, which are, in millions, $36.4, $36.4, $38.9, $39.5, and $41.3. The DC-10’s was $43.2. But keep in mind that the DC-10 delivers about three to four times more retardant than the maximum capacity of the other next gen air tankers , and six times more than Tanker 40, a BAe-146, if T40 is reloading at Silver City Airtanker Base on a 90 degree day.
And, I have to agree with DiggerT. If there is any potential for a wildland fire to become large it should be attacked with overwhelming force, rather than attempting to fire fire on the cheap. This can save money, property, and lives.
A year ago I wrote my “Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires“:
Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”
I ran across an interesting document on the Southwest Coordination Center’s web site in the Aviation section titled BAe-146 Next Generation Airtanker Frequently Asked Questions. It is dated November 13, 2012 and in four and a half pages talks a lot about the BAe-146, but also refers frequently and generally to next generation air tankers. The entire document is HERE. Below is an example of one of the FAQs.
“Q. Why do you overfly some airtanker bases?
Next Generation Aircraft will have the capability of traveling at 450 plus MPH. This speed advantage will make it possible for an aircraft to fly to another airtanker base that has longer runways and faster fueling services. This will result in delivering the largest load of retardant and, many times, quicker turnaround times for the firefighters on the ground.
We need to view this more as gallons delivered to the ground. Because of the speed of these jet airtankers, distances between airtanker bases and the fire mean very little. The airtanker bases at large airports have longer runways, meaning the airtanker can haul more retardant. Example: T-40 can haul 2850 gallons of retardant from Mesa-Gateway Airtanker Base even though it is very hot there. The field elevation is very low and has a long runways(12,000 feet). T-40 flying from Silver City Airtanker Base can only haul 1900 gallons because the field elevation is close to 6,000 feet and 90 degrees with a 7,000-foot runway. The difference in time delivered may only be 5 minutes.
This information is discussed with either the Lead Plane, Air Attack or Incident Commander before this decision is made. The Pilot in Command will divert based on unsafe conditions of any airtanker base which may include but not be limited to weather.
Air Attack or Lead/ASM should pass this information to the dispatch office. In the event the closest airtanker base is being overflown, the dispatch office shall notify SWCC.”
Most of us have seen videos of the DC-10 air tankers dropping massive loads of retardant stretched out over thousands of feet of fireline, as seen in this excellent video by Tim Walton, or this one on the Lost Fire, but the video below is very different. It shows Tanker 911 dropping a very small fraction of its 11,600-gallon load on a seven-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It was uploaded to YouTube April 22, 2013 by ir7kbpf.
Thanks go out to Johnny
(Originally published at 10:20 a.m. MT, June 7, 2013; updated at 12:53 p.m. MT, June 7, 2013)
Neptune Aviation has withdrawn their protest of the contract awards for next generation air tankers. The protest delayed for 24 days the award of contracts for three air tankers, and delayed for a month the award of the remaining four that were first tentatively announced on May 6.
Fire Aviation obtained confirmation from Ron Hooper, Neptune’s CEO, that the company dropped the protest after it was first announced by Colorado Senator Mark Udall. When asked if Neptune had received any additional contracts after withdrawing their protest, Mr. Hooper told Fire Aviation that he was not able to provide any further information.
Later in the day the U.S. Forest Service issued this statement from Chief Tom Tidwell:
We have learned that Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., of Missoula, Mont., has withdrawn their protest of the Forest Service exclusive use contract award for Next Generation large airtankers. The agency is now moving forward with awarding the remaining four Next Generation contracts, previously announced on May 6, 2013, thereby modernizing our fleet in the quickest manner possible as we face the prospect of a challenging wildfire season.
The U.S. Forest Service announced on May 6, 2013 their intention to award contracts for five companies to supply seven air tankers that are turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. Neptune was not selected, and filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office.
The protest halted the awarding of the contracts and put the process in limbo until May 30 when actual signed contracts were finally issued to three companies for three air tankers:
- 10 Tanker Air Carrier for one of their two DC-10s
- Minden Air Corp for a BAe-146
- Coulson Aircrane (USA) for a C-130Q
Neptune dropping the protest means contracts will be awarded for the other four air tankers that were left in limbo.
This announcement that contracts will be actually issued for the remaining four air tankers comes 555 days after the USFS issued the first solicitation for these “next generation” air tankers. In the quote above, the USFS describes this as “modernizing our fleet in the quickest manner possible as we face the prospect of a challenging wildfire season”.
If all seven of these air tankers actually become certified, it will bring the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts up to 16, which is 28 fewer than in 2002.
However only one of the seven aircraft selected on May 6 is fully approved by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board (IATB) to drop retardant on wildfires. That one is 10 Tanker’s DC-10, which has been busy for the last week working on fires in California and New Mexico. The contracts specify that the aircraft be fully certified within 90 days, but there is no guarantee that the other six air tankers can have their tank installations complete and pass the FAA and IATB tests within that time frame.
The original intent on May 6 before Neptune’s protest was to issue contracts to:
- Minden Air Corporation; Minden, Nev., for 1 BAe-146
- Aero Air, LLC; Hillsboro, Ore., for 2 MD87s
- Aero Flite, Inc.; Kingman, Ariz., for 2 Avro RJ85s
- Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.; Portland, Ore., for 1 C130Q
- 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; Adelanto, Calif., for 1 DC-10
Interestingly, Neptune Aviation, which has been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last two years, and has operated air tankers for decades, did not receive one of the new contracts, however they did win a contract earlier for one BAe-146 and six old P2vs on a new USFS “legacy air tanker” contract. A second Neptune BAe-146 was added a few weeks later.
The USFS said the five companies were originally selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their air tanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing.
We have information from someone familiar with the contracting process that in addition to the above criteria, the accident history of the applicants was also considered.
We will be looking into this further to determine the motive for Neptune to withdraw their protest.
The first report of Neptune dropping the protest came from a reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette, Ryan Handy, based on Senator Udall’s information.
On Wednesday Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill, Senate Bill 245, that created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps. The Corps is organized within the Department of Public Safety in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. There was no money associated with the passage of the bill, so until funds are appropriated, it will apparently exist in name only.
If the state does come up with some funding, according to the legislation:
The Division may purchase, acquire, lease, or contract for the provision of firefighting aircraft, facilities, equipment, and supplies for aerial firefighting; and retrofit, maintain, staff, operate, and support the firefighting aircraft or contract for the provision of those services.
You may remember that one of the sponsors of the Colorado bill, State Senator Steve King, had an idea to help defray some of the costs of the program:
Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on the tail of slurry bomber?
So we sponsored a competition for designs showing potential advertising and asked our readers to vote on their preferred choice. The one below by Jerome Laval is the leader in the poll, which is still open.
Thanks go out to Bean