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.

13 large air tankers under contract for 2019

Currently six of them have been activated

Aero-Flite's Tanker 161
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 161, an RJ85, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. One of the 13 large air tankers under EU contract for 2019 as of April 12, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 13 large air tankers (LATs) under exclusive use contracts for this year according to the latest information from the U.S. Forest Service as of April 12, 2019. They will be working under the Next Generation Air Tanker contracts, versions 1.0 and 2.0.

Currently six of them have been activated according to the estimated starting dates of the Mandatory Availability Periods (MAP). On April 17 a seventh will begin. The rest will come on between May 1 and May 29.

The 13 air tankers confirmed so far on exclusive use contracts for 2019 are:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier: 910 and 912 (DC-10)
  • Coulson: 131 (C-130Q)
  • Aero Air: 101 and 107, (MD-87)
  • Aero Flite: 160, 161, 163, and 167 (RJ85)
  • Neptune: 01, 15, 16, and 40

All 13 are slated for 160 MAP days but could be extended if necessary.

The baker’s dozen aircraft are likely to be augmented in the not too distant future when the Next Gen 3.0 contract advertised December 2, 2018 is awarded for exclusive use LATs. Forest Service officials are currently going through the submissions which had to be submitted by Valentine’s Day. The solicitation only had five line items, so it appears that a maximum of five air tankers could be added to the contract list, bringing the total up to 18 for this summer.

Recently the FS has been awarding contracts that only guarantee one year, with another four being at the whim of the agency. This makes it very difficult for potential vendors to acquire financing and build multimillion dollar air tankers that may not receive a contract, and if they do, it could only be for one year. Last year the Canadian Province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven government-owned water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

The Forest Service Aviation Strategy Implementation 2018-2022 dated March, 2018 established that the plan for the number of exclusive use large air tankers and helicopters would be exactly the same during fiscal years 2019 through 2022:

  • 18 large air tankers (down from 44 in 2002)
  • 28 Type 1 helicopters (down from 34 a few years ago)
  • 34 Type 2 helicopters
  • 46 Type 3 helicopters

If there is a need for more than 18 LATs, approval of orders for Call When Needed (CWN) ships must be first approved by the Washington Office of the FS. This cost saving effort that began in 2018 is intended to create greater accountability and oversight for aircraft. There are probably more than a dozen large air tankers sitting on ramps over and above the 13 presently on contract for this year.

The FS has two pending contracts that have not yet been awarded for CWN air tankers: large and very large. The responses for LATs are due April 18, 2019 while the VLATs were due seven months ago.

UPDATE April 17, 2019: The VLAT CWN solicitation has been effectively cancelled, but changes made to the LAT CWN solicitation with responses due tomorrow made it possible for VLATs to meet the contract specifications, so they can be considered along with the LATs. The USFS made so many changes to the solicitation, 12 amendments, that they are calling it CWN 2.1 Request for Proposals. The response due date, originally in the summer of 2018, has been extended at least nine times.

New South Wales to purchase a large air tanker

The state government also expects to buy two lead/aerial supervision aircraft

Recognizing that there is a year-round risk for damaging vegetation fires in parts of Australia like in the Western United States, the New South Wales state government has announced funding of $26.3 million to purchase one large fixed wing air tanker and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft. Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), told us the intent of the NSW government is to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability.  This resident capability will continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.

air tanker tracking queensland australia
Tracking of six water bombing aircraft on December 1, 2018 at Agnes Water and Deepwater bushfires in Queensland, Australia, including one helicopter (green line) which dropped 190,000 litres (50,192 gallons). Image credit: Queensland fire and Emergency Services.

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 have six working, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They have also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters.

The NSW government purchase of the large air tanker and lead/supervision airplanes will be through an upcoming tender process. Likewise the maintenance and operation of these aircraft will be contracted out.

On December 5 the Australian federal government announced that they would contribute an extra $11.0 million to aerial firefighting for 2018-19 via NAFC.  This was part of a larger funding package ($26.1 million in total) that included a number of other initiatives to support bushfire response and community resilience.  (More details of the overall package here). The $11.0 million for aerial firefighting is a one-off extra contribution for 2018-19, recognizing that the Australian 2018-19 season is forecast to be above normal in key bushfire risk areas.  For 2018-19, it means that the total direct contribution to aerial firefighting from the federal government will be $25.8 million.

Mr. Alder said that in Australia the responsibility for land and forest management and bushfire prevention and suppression constitutionally rests mainly with state and territory (provincial) governments.  The federal government contributes funding and other resources to assist the states and territories.  With aerial firefighting, the state and territory governments and the federal government collaborate through the NAFC which handles contracting of aerial resources on behalf of the states and territories. This provides coordinated approaches to market, common standards and interoperability.

In addition to the six large air tankers and heavy helicopters, this summer NAFC has contracted for other aerial resources:

  • More than forty fixed wing firebombing aircraft, including two AT802 Fireboss (scooping) airplanes;
  • Five helicopters specially equipped for dedicated intelligence gathering with gimballed infrared sensors and mapping and communication systems;
  • Four  dedicated mapping/strategic intelligence gathering fixed wing aircraft (three Lear 35/36 jets and one Kingair turboprop), equipped with infra-red line scanners, image processing and high bandwidth communications systems.
  • Two night vision equipped helicopters for suppressing fires at night (and several other NVIS helicopters for support tasks).

The current NAFC large air tanker contracts are for three years with options to extend to five years, Mr. Alder told us. Five of the six working in Australia this year have mandatory availability periods (they call them “minimum service periods”) ranging from 84 to 112 days; a sixth is for 152 days. The U.S. Forest Service MAPs are usually 133 to 160 days, and the USFS contract that is out for bid now is for one year with options to extend to five years.  Both the USFS and NAFC can, and often do, extend the days worked within a season beyond the minimum as needed.

National Aerial Firefighting Centre


To our readers: does anyone care to speculate which aircraft NSW will purchase in their goal to spend $26.3 million on a large air tanker (LAT) and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft? I don’t see how the LAT could be new. Even if the CL-415 were still being manufactured, it’s generally not considered a large air tanker since it can only carry 1,600 gallons. And the last ones produced sold for around $37 million. A new Q400 would be out of the price range, but the manufacturer, Bombardier, and Conair, which does the conversions, are both based in Canada, which appears to be a preferred source of NAFC. I have seen a used Q400 advertised for about $12 million.

A previously owned BAe-146 or RJ85 can be bought for $5 to $6 million, and adding a retardant delivery system might run around $3 to $5 million more. There are used 737-400s on the market for about $3.5 million. Coulson and Conair, both Canadian companies which are currently converting these models, would probably be happy to make a sale. Of course Neptune is also building BAe-146s. A new C-130 or LM-100J would be out of the question at their budget. Used C-130s are difficult to find and the cost can be higher than retired airliners.

Forest Service moving to one-year contracts for air tankers

This appears to be a result of inadequate funding for firefighting by the Administration and Congress

number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract
The number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract by the U.S. federal government, 2000 through 2018, at the beginning of the wildfire season.

The U.S. federal government has taken steps over the last 16 years that have reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 44 in 2002 to 13 in 2018. After the wings fell off two air tankers in 2002 killing five crew members, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the program, began cancelling contracts for World War II and eventually Korean War vintage aircraft that had been converted to fight fire.

BAe-146 Devore Fire, air tanker,
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, drops retardant on the Devore Fire in Cajon Pass in southern California, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McClure

There was no substantial effort to rebuild the fleet until 11 years later when the USFS began awarding contracts for “next generation” air tankers. A few years after that the last of the 50-year old P2V tankers were retired. Following the half-hearted attempt at rebuilding the program, the total number of tankers on contract rose to 20 in 2016 and 2017, but by 2018 had dropped to 13.

The policies being implemented recently could further reduce the number in the coming years.

In 2016 the USFS awarded a one-year exclusive use contract for two water scoopers, with the option for adding four additional years. In 2017 at the end of the second year the USFS decided to not extend the contract for 2018. But during the 2018 fire season they hired the scoopers on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis. 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.

The practice of advertising one-year contracts is now metastasizing, with the solicitation issued by the USFS on December 3 for one-year contracts for “up to five” large air tankers. These potential contracts also have options for four additional years, but could, like the scoopers, be cancelled or not extended at the discretion of the USFS. If the agency decides to award contracts for five aircraft, it would bring the total up to 18.

Earlier this year the USFS shut down the program that was focused on converting seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers. Now they are being moved to the aircraft boneyard in Arizona until the planes can be transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as required in legislation in August. From 2016 to the summer of 2018 one of the HC-130H’s was used occasionally on fires with a borrowed retardant tank temporarily installed.

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.

Below is an excerpt from the Missoulian:

“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”

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 just 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.

(The two charts below were updated February 2, 2019)

Wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018

In the late 1980s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 30 acres. That has increased every decade since, bringing the average in the 2010s up to 101 acres.

1985-2018 wildfires average size decade
More acres are burning and the fires are growing much larger while the Administration and Congress reduce the capability of the federal agencies to fight fires.

For the last several years Congress has appropriated the same amount of funds for the U.S. Forest Service, for example. But meanwhile, it costs more to pay for wages, fire trucks, office expenses, travel, and more expensive but safer more reliable air tankers. This leaves less money for everything including vegetation management, prescribed burning, fire prevention, salaries, and firefighting aircraft.

In addition to the reduction in air tankers, the largest and most efficient helicopters, Type 1’s such as the Air Crane, were cut two years ago by 18 percent, from 34 to 28.

In 2017 the number of requests for Type 1 helicopters on fires was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017, 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled
Aircraft can’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and put them out.

It might be easy to blame the USFS for the cutbacks in fire suppression capability, but a person in the agency’s Washington headquarters who prefers to not have their name mentioned said it is a result of a shortage of funds appropriated by Congress. The Administration’s request for firefighting in the FY 2019 budget calls for 18 large air tankers and intends to maintain the 18 percent reduction in Type 1 helicopters, keeping that number at only 28 for the third year in a row.

What can be done?

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The only way this will happen is if the President and Congress realize the urgency and pass and sign the legislation. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

wildfires climate change
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

Forest Service relying more on Call When Needed air tankers

But the CWN contracts first advertised May 30, 2018 for additional aircraft have not been awarded

(Originally published at 8:40 a.m. MDT October 4, 2018)

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23 testing over McClellan, August, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

This year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts from 20 in 2017 to only 13. There are an additional 11 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts which may be activated — if they are available with flight crews and mechanics to staff them. An analysis we completed in February found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than EU aircraft. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

The Forest Service began the solicitation process for additional large and very large CWN air tankers May 30, 2018, but no contracts have been awarded. The specifications for both sizes of air tankers were changed six times. The last revision on September 7 occurred three days after protests by 10 Tanker Air Carrier for both solicitations were denied by the Government Accountability Office. It appears that the contracts will only be awarded after the fire season in most of the western states has wound down.

Below is a press release issued October 1 by the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association.


A huge number of exceptionally destructive, back to back wildland fires throughout the Western United States this year is prompting some aerial firefighting companies to add resources, assuming that future fire events will be equally frequent and devastating.

At the same time, a few operators see a greater need for long-term, exclusive use contracts with the US Forest Service (USFS)—the domestic industry’s primary customer—in order to assure the funding stability necessary to hire more personnel and purchase additional aircraft, if needed. Awarded on a bid-basis, exclusive use contracts run up to four years in duration, and guarantee a set fee per day, usually over several months, to keep the aircraft available for duty, whether or not it flies. In addition, the customer sets a rate paid for each hour the airplane is flying on a fire.

This year, however, the USFS issued more call when needed contracts, in which a day rate, plus a fee per flight hour is paid only for the duration of the assignment, which could be as little as one day.

“For the fixed wing tankers, the USFS put only 13 aircraft on exclusive use contracts this year, compared to 20 in 2017,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based aerial firefighting industry trade group. “However, the smaller number of exclusive use contracts was the result of the June release of requests for proposals (RFP) from the Forest Service.”

“I would like to see more exclusive use contracts, so we could dedicate more of our fleet to firefighting,” said Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation in Sacramento. Beckham reported that since early April, four of the company’s bucket-equipped CH-47D helicopters worked on fires mostly in Oregon and Montana, and in California, under USFS exclusive use and call when needed contracts; as well as under call when needed contracts with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

One of the busiest years in its history, Helimax had to dispatch extra mechanics and supplies to support the additional hours the helicopters flew. In preparation for next year’s fire season, Helimax, which has three avionics mechanics, plans to increase that number by eight for field repairs, Beckham reported.

For Intermountain Helicopter, a Sonora, California-based operator of a single Bell 212, the 2018 fire season has been its “busiest since 1984, in terms of assignments,” according to company President Rick Livingston. This year, he said, the helicopter has operated in an initial attack mode, solely within California under USFS and CAL FIRE call when needed contracts. One of the assignments kept the aircraft flying for over a month on the Carr Fire, one of the state’s most destructive.

“As a small company, operating a single helicopter, we’ve done all we can to prepare for the future,” Livingston stated. “There’s not much else to do, except quickly react to any mechanical problems. So far, any downtime for the helicopter has involved replacements of timed out life-limited parts.”

While adding a helicopter to its fleet might be viewed as an option, Livingston explained it would be “a tough call” for a small operator. “That’s because you don’t know, from year to year, if there will be enough work for an additional helicopter,” he stressed. “This would be an issue, especially when operating helicopters under call when needed contracts.”

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer, of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, reported that his company, which operates nine BAe 146 fixed wing airtankers, responded to the fires this year, with four aircraft under call when needed contracts, in addition to those under exclusive use.

“If the trend toward call when needed contracts continues, costs may increase,” Snyder cautioned. “As an industry, with call when needed contracts, the utilization is uncertain and the impact of not being able to efficiently perform essential maintenance does cause costs to increase.”

Snyder added that, under exclusive use contracts, it is easier to plan maintenance and training—which reduces costs–since the operator knows how long the aircraft will be needed. “Under a call when needed contract, you have to maintain the aircraft within a tighter timeframe. This means compressing the maintenance period, to get more work done in a shorter period of time.”

Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters deployed a fleet of six helicopters, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, under exclusive use and call when need USFS contracts, according to Keith Saylor, the company’s Director of Commercial Operations. One helicopter, a Columbia Helicopters Model 234, working under a USFS exclusive use contract, operated on the Mendocino Complex fire, which was California’s largest to date.

Because of the heavy fire activity, the company had to escalate both the flight and maintenance support of its operations. “This meant sending additional people and components to support the helicopters in the field,” Saylor remarked.

Saylor called the 2018 fire season an “above average year for assignments to fires”. However, he reported that going forward, the company will do more prepositioning of its helicopters, as they become available for call when needed contracts—which he said have worked out well for the company, given its diversity of work.

“We look at maps and forecasts to determine the most likely places for high fire risk, then position the aircraft in those areas,” he explained.