Australian government increases aerial firefighting funding by 57%

Three Mile Fire at Wisemans's Ferry
Screenshot from video shot by an aircraft over the Three Mile Fire at Wisemans’s Ferry in New South Wales. NSW RFS photo December 3, 2019.

The federal government of Australia is committing an additional $11 million to beef up the nation’s aerial firefighting capability. The extra funding will supplement the $14.9 million existing budget to bring the total up to nearly $26 million. The southern hemisphere has just entered their summer, but Australia has been experiencing an extremely high level of wildfire activity for at least a month. The one large air tanker that the government owned, a 737 purchased last Spring, was busy off and on for much of the winter assisting firefighters on the ground.

Tanker 138 737 New South Wales
Tanker 138, a 737, in New South Wales, August 8, 2019 U.S. time. Coulson Photo.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) will be able to decide how to spend the money, which will be sent to the organization as a grant immediately.

The NAFC had originally planned to contract for five large air tankers brought in from North America, but after numerous fires and severe criticism from former fire chiefs, they hired two more, with one of them being a DC-10 very large air tanker.

Australia's large and very large air tanker fleet
Australia’s fleet of large and very large air tankers, updated November 13, 2019 after adding two additional air tankers. The dates are DD/MM. Information confirmed by NAFC.

Before the infusion of the additional funds, Australia had 63 fixed wing and 45 rotor wing aircraft devoted to fire suppression. There are an additional 51 aircraft used for other fire-related missions.

The minister for natural disasters, David Littleproud, said the additional funding would allow lease periods of firefighting aircraft to be extended.

“It is clear we are facing longer and more intense seasons, and as this summer has only just begun we have already seen devastating fires tear through communities right across the country,” Littleproud said.

“Sadly, bushfires are part of the Australian landscape and while we cannot always prevent them, we can prepare for them and ensure that we are responding in the most effective way.”

Forest Service to sign 35 air tankers on Call When Needed agreements

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

The U.S. Forest Service will be signing Call When Needed (CWN) agreements for air tanker services with six companies for a total of 35 aircraft. The agency made it official on December 5, exactly 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018. If that sounds familiar, it took the same amount of time to award the Next-Generation air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013.

The number of aircraft on this new CWN Basic Ordering Agreement can be deceiving, since it includes in some cases air tankers that already have Exclusive Use (EU) contracts, plus of course air tankers that have never been on a USFS contract. Vendors with aircraft currently on the EU contract would also want them on the CWN agreement in case there is a need for tankers outside the Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) specified in the EU contract.

This year there have been 13 air tankers on EU contracts and 8 on CWN agreements. One vendor told me that the USFS personnel said they could submit a tanker that is not built yet as long as it is fully certified by June, 2020. On the other hand, a person from a tanker company told me they were  required to fly their ships to Boise to be inspected, even the ones that were actively working on an EU contract, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Lessons  were learned after the first Next-Generation contracting process in 2013 gave EU contracts to some planes that never became reality. One of the earlier CWN agreements had many aircraft listed that only appeared in the dreams of the potential vendors.

We will post a list of the 35 individual aircraft on this new agreement when it is available, but we know they represent six companies:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Albuquerque, NM
  • Aero Air, Hillsboro, OR
  • Aero Flite, Spokane, WA
  • Coulson Aviation USA, Portland, OR
  • Global SuperTanker Services, Colorado Springs, CO
  • Neptune Aviation Services, Missoula, MT

This is the first CWN agreement that includes both large and very large air tankers (VLATs). When the process began in 2018 it was only for large, and excluded the DC-10 and 747 operated by 10 Tanker and Global SuperTanker. But after extensive negotiations between vendors and the government, and at least one protest, VLATs were finally allowed to participate. The original solicitation was amended at least 10 times. Some of the people presently running the USFS air tanker program think VLATs can only be effective on large fires, and not initial attack. Others might say if a section of a fire, say, 1,000 linear feet, is going to be knocked down or slowed by an air drop, from a scientific point of view what difference does it make if that 1,000-foot section of fire is on initial attack or a larger fire? And after that drop it can circle around and make another one. And another one after that, etc., without additional ferry and reload time between drops.

Quick, aggressive initial attack with overwhelming force on a fire from both the ground and the air can prevent a small fire from becoming a megafire.

Even though the final decision by the USFS of which aircraft would be part of the new CWN agreement was made December 5, the five companies that we were able to immediately contact today were not aware they were receiving the awards. One of them told me later that after we had talked he contacted the USFS who told him official letters would be sent out later this week.

The CWN Basic Ordering Agreement is different from the EU contracts. There is no guarantee that an aircraft on CWN will ever earn a dime. One of the vendors said that even though the application process requires the submission of pricing for daily and hourly rates, those are not etched in stone and may be renegotiated if and when it is activated. In contrast, an aircraft on one of the 13 coveted EU contracts will almost certainly work at least during the agreed upon MAP, earning the promised daily and hourly rates. However most federal contracts contain a clause allowing termination for convenience or default. Termination for convenience allows the federal government to terminate all or part of a contract for its convenience, while termination for default means the government doesn’t think you’re performing adequately.

Below is the list of large and very large air tankers that have been on EU contracts and CWN agreements in August.

Air Tanker List
Air tankers under U.S. Forest Service Contract, August 12, 2019. Source: USFS.

Contract awarded again to install retardant systems in CAL FIRE’s HC-130H aircraft

A contract awarded in 2016 was cancelled

T-131 tank, ready to be pushed into the aircraft.
The retardant tank for air tanker 131, ready to be pushed into the aircraft, March 20, 2014. Bill Gabbert photo.

Coulson Aviation has received a contract from the U.S. Air Force to install retardant delivery systems on the seven HC-130H aircraft that will be operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Coulson teamed with Lockheed Martin who will install the tanks at Lockheed’s facility in Greenville, SC.

The Air Force began the contracting process in 2014,  awarded a contract to Coulson in 2016, and cancelled it in 2017. But it was readvertised March 9, 2019 and awarded again to Coulson last month.

Coulson has been installing their version of a 3,500-gallon gravity-powered internal RADS retardant system in C-130Q and C-130H aircraft since at least 2013. It can be installed or removed in a few hours after the modifications are made to the plane.

On December 27, 2013 President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed that the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed routine and heavy maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.

After the Forest Service lost interest in the HC-130H aircraft in 2018, Congress passed legislation to transfer them to CAL FIRE. Since then they have been waiting for the retardant systems to be installed and the maintenance and other conversion tasks to be completed, which is expected to take until 2021. Most of them needed center wing box replacements, which in 2011 cost $6.7 million and takes about 10 months. CAL FIRE has been operating one without a retardant tank, Tanker 118, for several months to train flight crews.

CAL FIRE T-118 HC-130H
Tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport July 12, 2019.

In November Coulson bought five C-130H transport planes from the Norwegian Defense Materiel Agency (NDMA) and will convert them into firefighting air tankers. The formal takeover is planned for the end of this year or early in 2020.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Brett and Kevin. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Former fire chiefs say more aerial firefighting resources are needed in Australia

Victoria firefighters assist New South Wales
Firefighters in Australia on their way back home in Victoria after helping to suppress bushfires in New South Wales. Photo NSW RFS, Nov. 18, 2019.

Almost two dozen former leaders of emergency services organizations in Australia are recommending that the country’s aerial firefighting fleet needs to be increased.

In a series of three articles on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation‘s website, a group of 23 former fire and emergency services leaders and other former fire chiefs say they are concerned that with longer fire seasons now being experienced the current fleet is not adequate for keeping up with the increasing bushfire activity.

The acquisition and contracting of large air tankers in Australia is coordinated by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC). They recently purchased one Boeing 737, but like the federal government in the United States, the country depends on contractors to supply additional large air tankers. NAFC also contracts for dozens of smaller Single Engine Air Tankers. For the 2018-2019 fire season they leased 51 SEATs.

NAFC had planned on having five large air tankers available during their 2019/2020 bushfire season (including the government-owned 737), but added two more in November after large devastating fires began burning in New South Wales. One of the two was a Very Large Air Tanker, a DC-10 that can carry two to three times more water or retardant than the other tankers.

Below are excerpts from the articles at ABC:

[Greg] Mullins [former head of Fire and Rescue in New South Wales] is one of 23 former senior emergency figures trying to get the Australian Government to listen to their concerns about climate change and the missing capacity to fight fires in a new era.

“It’s up to the retired fire chiefs who are unconstrained to tell it like it is and say this is really dangerous,” he said.

However, his written requests for a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison have failed.

“We were fobbed off to Minister [Angus] Taylor who is not the right minister to speak to,” Mr Mullins said.

“We wanted to speak to the Natural Disasters Minister and the PM. We asked for help with that, we never got a reply.

“You had 23 experts willing to sit down with a PM and come up with solutions, but he’s just fobbed us off.


[Former NSW Deputy Fire and Rescue commissioner Ken] Thompson said heading into catastrophic fire conditions small aircraft simply could not cover the same amount of ground.

“At the moment, the smaller aircraft can only carry around 1,500 to 2,000 litres. These [larger] aircraft can carry up around 15,000 litres,” he said.
“Which is the type of capacity you need to be able to knock down some of those incredibly large fires that we’re seeing now, that we didn’t see 10 or 15 years ago.”


General manager of NAFC, Richard Alder, said while large water bombers were useful they were not a silver bullet.

“I think if you asked any firefighter, any aerial firefighter, we would probably always like to have more,” he said.

“But certainly the fleet that we’ve got available to us is quite comprehensive and does provide very valuable support to the firefighters on the ground.”

Mr Alder agreed that southern and northern hemisphere fire seasons overlapping was a concern.

“It’s causing a few nervous moments. So far we’ve been able to manage that,” he said.

Senators urge Forest Service to award air tanker contract

A Call When Needed contract was first advertised 476 days ago but has not been awarded

Air Tanker 170 making test drop
Air Spray’s Air Tanker 170 made retardant drops during a grid test at Fox Field in California in September, 2018 but does not have a contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Screen shot from VMC Aviation video.

Two Senators and one Representative sent a letter to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen yesterday urging the agency to award the Call When Needed contract for Large and Very Large Air Tankers that was first advertised May 30, 2018, which was 476 days ago.

Congressional Letter CWN air tanker Contract

On August 12 we asked Kaari Carpenter, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, “When will the CWN contract be awarded?” She said, “We expect an award on this contract very soon.”

It took the Forest Service 555 days to award the first next-generation air tanker contract in 2013.

List of air tankers on USFS contracts

There are 13 exclusive use, and 8 call when needed. Three fewer than last year on CWN list.

The list of large and very large air tankers has changed since 2018. The number on the very coveted exclusive use (EU) contracts is the same, 13, but there are three fewer on call when needed contracts (CWN), 8. This could change later in the year but today there are a total of 21 air tankers on both types of contracts, down from 24 last year.

Aero Flite, Aero Air, and Neptune all swapped out some EU aircraft but each still has the same number of allocated slots.

On the CWN list, Aero Flite went from four to one aircraft and Coulson dropped their L-382G and substituted a B-737 which began working in North America for the first time last week. Neptune swapped some of their BAe-146s but 10 tanker did not make any changes on either list.

Air Tanker List
Air tankers under U.S. Forest Service Contract, August 12, 2019. Source: USFS.

Today when we asked Kaari Carpenter, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service, when the agency was going to offer air tanker contracts based on the call when needed solicitation issued May 30, 2018, she said, “We expect an award on this contract very soon.”

The 2019 wildfire season has been much slower than average so far this year, which is fortunate considering the small number of air tankers available on Forest Service contracts — from 44 in 2002 on EU contracts down to 13.

So far this year a total of 3.6M acres have burned in the U.S., compared with 4.6M for the average to date. It has been far busier than usual in Alaska accounting for 2.4M acres, two-thirds of the U.S. total. Only 1.2M acres have burned in the other 49 states — which I estimate is approximately one-third of the average.

Having a diverse air tanker fleet can reduce impact of grounding one model

P2V Redding
A P2V air tanker on final approach at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2012 the entire fleet of large air tankers in the United States was affected after a 24-inch crack was found by Neptune Aviation on a wing spar and skin on one of their 50+ year old P2Vs. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive requiring that all P2V airplanes be inspected within 24 hours of receiving the directive.

That applied to all of the large air tankers that were under a standard U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contract at the time, nine operated by Neptune and two by Minden.

The two companies did not find any similar cracks on the other aircraft during the inspections.

When your fleet is heavily weighted toward one model that can be affected by temporary or long term grounding, such as the current C-130 issue that has 123 Air Force aircraft grounded, or the 737-MAX problem, it can have a devastating effect on operations.

Currently there are only two C-130 air tankers under firefighting contracts in North America, T-131 and T-134. By Monday night both will have been inspected, looking for “atypical” cracking that was found in the lower center wing joint in some Air Force C-130s. T-131 was cleared over the weekend.

Today, instead of having the entire U.S. Forest Service fleet of air tankers comprised of just one model, there are six: RJ85, DC-10, MD-97, C-130Q, BAe-146, and B-737. The BAe-146 and RJ85 are essentially the same, but that still leaves a more diverse portfolio of aircraft than existed in 2012, a little insulated from shutting down one model.

There are 13 air tankers under exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and 8 have call when needed contracts, for a total of 21. Of that total, 8 are BAe-146s and 4 are RJ85s, or 57 percent of the fleet — if those were shut down, it would be devastating, leaving only 9 total, with only 5 on exclusive use.. The Forest Service can also request activation of up to 8 military C-130 aircraft outfitted temporarily with Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) — unless they are unavailable due to the “atypical” cracking in the lower center wing joint.

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McCLure.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.

Today when we asked Kaari Carpenter, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service, when the agency was going to offer air tanker contracts based on the call when needed solicitation issued May 30, 2018, she said, “We expect an award on this contract very soon.”

Forest Service has been dithering about a new air tanker contract for 433 days

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

DC-10 air tankers

(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.

Our take:

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.