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