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

(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.

DynCorp awarded Customs and Border Protection contract

The contract could be worth up to $1.4 billion

DynCorp logoOn May 31, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), awarded DynCorp International a contract to provide national aviation maintenance and logistics services. This hybrid Firm Fixed Price, Cost Plus Incentive Fee and Cost Reimbursables contract is estimated at more than $1.4 billion and consists of a base year plus nine and a half option years.

DynCorp is familiar with many of Fire Aviation’s readers due to their contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) for maintaining and flying the agency’s nearly two dozen S-2T air tankers. CAL FIRE hires their own pilots for their 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters, but they are also maintained by DynCorp.

At the 2014 Aerial Fighting Conference DynCorp and Coulson Aviation announced a strategic alliance to work together to bid on aerial fighting contracts and provide those services if selected.

DynCorp will provide aircraft maintenance and logistics support services for CBP’s diverse fleet of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft to ensure that the Government has the numbers and types of properly configured aircraft available to meet operational commitments. CBP’s aviation assets consist of approximately 211 aircraft at multiple locations in the Western hemisphere. The fleet is a mix of military and non-military, fixed- and rotary-wing, single- and multi-engine aircraft, including some modified and equipped with state-of-the-art, highly sophisticated sensor equipment.

DynCorp is based in McLean, Virginia and has 11,500 employees.

Forest Service currently has several advertisements posted for fire aviation services

Mobile Retardant Base fire wildfire firefighting
Screengrab from video of setting up a mobile retardant base on the Lolo National Forest in 2017.

The U.S. Forest Service, the lead federal agency for obtaining contracted fire aviation services, currently has four advertisements posted, but one has been folded into another, leaving three that are active. Two are typical solicitations and a third is a notice that the agency intends to issue blanket purchase agreements.

One of the notices was first posted 13 months ago.

  1. Mobile Retardant Bases, Blanket Purchase Agreement.
    Solicitation Number: 12024B19Q0002. The agency intends to establish multiple, five-year Blanket Purchase Agreements to provide the required services for a period of up to five years. This was first posted April 15, 2019 and has a response due date of June 14, 2019.
  2. Next Generation Large Airtanker Services 3.0,
    Solicitation Number: 12024B18R9013. It was first posted November 19, 2018 and had a response due date of February 14, 2019 (185 days ago). Both Large and Very Large Air Tanker vendors are submitting bids for this contract.  This will award only one base year of work, with four optional years at the discretion of the Forest Service.
  3. CWN Large Airtanker Services, Solicitation Number: 12-024B-18-R-9014. This was first posted 13 months ago on April 15, 2018 and after many changes and amendments had a final amended response due date of April 18, 2019 (35 days ago). After a protest, both Large and Very Large Air Tanker vendors were then allowed to submit bids for this contract.  Call When Needed (CWN) means the air tankers may or may not receive opportunities to work. The effective period of the agreements will be from the date of award to December 31, 2020.
  4. CWN Very Large Airtanker, Basic Ordering Agreements. (This solicitation was folded into #3 above.) Solicitation Number: 12-024B-18-R-9015. Originally posted May 30, 2018. Posted September 7, 2018 with a response due date of September 8, 2018. (257 days ago) “Aircraft with greater than 8000-gallon (72,000 pounds) dispensing capacity are preferred.” The effective period of the agreements will be from the date of award to December 31, 2020. Call When Needed (CWN) means the air tankers may or may not receive opportunities to work.

Former VP of Carson helicopters disputes restitution ordered for tragedy on Iron 44 Fire

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 helicopter crash

(This article was first published at Wildfire Today)

The former Vice President of Carson Helicopters is disputing a court order to pay $51 million in restitution related to his role in falsifying documents prior to the crash of a helicopter on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 but now he claims he was not aware of the requirement to pay restitution.

Carson helicopter
Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune:

[Metheny] says he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty had he known he’d have to pay a restitution of more than $51 million, according to documents filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Medford.

Metheny claims that his defense lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t have to pay any damages because by June 2013, Carson’s contract “was canceled and never re-bid” and “the resultant cost and subsequent loss would equal zero dollars,” according to an affidavit Metheny typed from Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc and filed in court May 7.

Metheny claims he was “repeatedly promised” ahead of his sentencing that the loss amount would be “zero dollars.”

Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire in 2008. Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

More information about the fraud and the sentencing hearing of Metheny and Phillips.

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

New South Wales purchases 737 air tanker

NSW will also buy two Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence Aircraft

tanker 137 Boeing 737 drop first wildfire bushfire
On November 22, 2018 Air Tanker 137 made the first drop by a Boeing 737 on an active fire. It occurred on a bushfire in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Australia. Screenshot from NSW RFS video.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service obviously was satisfied with the performance of a Boeing 737-300 that was under contract during their 2018-2019 summer fire season since they just signed a contract to purchase one of the converted airliners.

The NSW government announced the acquisition May 15, 2019 saying it is part of a $26.3 million investment to enhance the aerial firefighting capacity in the Australian State.

“This type of aircraft can deliver 15,000 liters (3,960 gallons) of fire suppressants, transport about 70 firefighters and operate from a number of regional airports,” Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said.

NSW RFS Acting Commissioner Rob Rogers said the Service had evaluated a number of different Large and Very Large Air Tankers over recent fire seasons and had settled on the 737 as the preferred option, operated by Canadian company Coulson Aviation.

NSW will purchase one Boeing 737 Fireliner and two Cessna Citation V Lead/Intelligence Aircraft. They are accompanied by a ten-year operational contract where Coulson will provide all flight and maintenance personal. The 737 is scheduled to be delivered in July of this year.

Britt Coulson, Vice President of Coulson Aircrane, said the company is acquiring two Cessna Citation V/560 aircraft now.

“They will be equipped with brand new Garmin EFIS cockpits complete with Synthetic Vision and linescan/gimbal systems designed and integrated by us”, Mr. Coulson said. “These aircraft are required to be multi-role so like the B737 Fireliner, we will integrate the tech package to not limit the airplane’s performance or ability to move passengers. We saw great success with the Citation Jet/525 that was operated in the USA and wanted to build on that program with a slightly larger, more capable airframe. With the B737 Fireliner being the fastest Large Airtanker, it really needs the fastest support platform.”

Britt said a technician in the back of the Citation will operate the video equipment and other sensors. Their goal is to retain seven passenger seats.

The NSW contracting office works much more quickly than what we have been seeing in recent years from their U.S. Forest Service counterparts. The initiative to purchase a large air tanker was announced in mid-December 2018 and now five months later the procurement has been consummated, with delivery of the air tankers expected in another two months. It has taken multiple years in some cases to contract for air tanker services in the Forest Service that are guaranteed for only one year. The NSW contract for operation and maintenance is for ten years. The Canadian 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.

Coulson Aviation CEO Wayne Coulson said he looked forward to being able to work with the RFS on this new venture and would be expanding its NSW base in the coming months. The company will be looking to hire Australian pilots and ground crew.

In recent years NSW and Victoria have hired large air tankers, primarily from Canada, for their summer bushfire season. During the 2018-2019 summer the two governments employed six, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters. The last of the contracted Large Air Tankers left NSW to return to the United States late last week.

Coulson Aviation began their 737 project in 2017 when they purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines which had decided to replace them with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two  737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they had a relatively low number of hours in the sky. With the 737-MAX being grounded after two crashes, Southwest may be regretting the decision to part with the aircraft.

The 737 air tanker was designed as a multi-use aircraft with the ability to haul passengers. In 2017 Britt Coulson said “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

air tanker 137 737 wildfire
This is not a video, but a screengrab from a video of Air Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the Bruxner Highway Fire (Tenterfield LGA) in New South Wales, Australia, February, 2019. Usually it is not obvious when an air tankers drops simultaneously from more than one tank, but on the 737 the two tanks are not adjacent to each other, making it possible to see the separation when the drop begins. The video can be seen here.

The 737 made its first drop on an active fire November 22, 2018 on a bushfire in New South Wales.

737 air tanker T-137 grid test retardant
Air tanker 137, a 737-300, at the grid test near Lancaster, California, September 3, 2018. Coulson photo.