CAL FIRE’s acquisition of new helicopter fleet still up in the air

CAL FIRE Firehawk
Model of CAL FIRE Firehawk, by Sikorsky. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After several false starts over several years, CAL FIRE selected a variant of the Blackhawk to replace its aging fleet of 12 Super Huey firefighting helicopters, but that acquisition is stalled. In what appeared to be the final hurdle an administrative law judge ruled in December against a protest filed by a competing company clearing the way for CAL FIRE to purchase up to 12 new Sikorsky S-70i’s (Firehawks), from Air Methods/United Rotorcraft (AMUR).

When the effort began years ago to replace the fleet of aircraft that is now at the end of its useful life, the legislature was told each new helicopter would cost around $12 million, but they realized the price could escalate. The new Firehawks will run $24 million each with the additional features recently added by CAL FIRE and the Department of General Services.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

The Governor’s Office and Cal Fire are ready to start buying the new machines. “We believe we have provided the Legislature with all the necessary and requested information to move forward on this project,” Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

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

Cost of exclusive use vs. call when needed air tankers

The 2017 average daily rate for large federal call when needed air tankers is 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Above:  Tanker 163, an RJ85, at Rapid City December 2, 2017 while working the Legion Lake Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 3:05 p.m. MT February 21, 2018)

With the federal government’s drastic cut in the number of large air tankers on Exclusive Use (EU) contracts this year we did some calculations to look at the increased cost of this strategy. If the Forest Service desires more than the 13 that are on EU contracts, down from 20 in 2017, they can activate those on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts — that is, IF they are available. But this comes at a much higher price tag.

There are two costs for air tankers — daily plus hourly. If the aircraft just sits at an air tanker base available with a flight crew it only earns the daily availability rate. When it flies, an hourly rate is added. Both of these rates are higher for most air tankers.

We averaged the daily and hourly EU and CWN rates for three models of air tankers provided by three different companies, BAe-146 by Neptune, RJ85 by Aero Flite, and C-130 (382G) by Coulson. The numbers below are the combined averages of the three aircraft:

EU Daily: $30,150
EU Hourly: $7,601
CWN Daily: $46,341 (+54%)
CWN Hourly: $8,970 (+18%)

These costs only account for the additional costs of contracting for the air tankers, and do not include any increased costs of new, small wildfires escaping initial attack due to a lack of available air tankers or Type 1 helicopters. It also does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost. In 2017 the Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts were cut from 34 to 28, and that continues in 2018.

State and local wildfire organizations that in the past have counted on the federal government’s air tankers to assist them when they desperately need air support, had better look for alternatives. However, this slow motion atrophy of the air tanker fleet has been going on for the last 15 years.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

gabbert prescription keep wildfires small

You may want to express your opinion to your Senators or Representatives.

For next fiscal year, President proposes cuts in wildfire aviation but the same number of USFS firefighters

Above:  Three water-scooping air tankers, CL-415’s, at Redding, July 30, 2017. T-263 on the left and T-261 on the right. Photo by Ethan. 

(Originally published at 1:07 p.m. MT February 19, 2018)

The budget recommended by President Trump for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2019 beginning in October includes stable numbers for wildland firefighters and cuts in fire aviation.

The FY19 firefighter numbers would be the same as in the two previous years, FY17 and FY18:

  • 900 Engines
  • 210 Dozers, Tractor Plows, and Water Tenders
  • 67 Hot Shot Crews (1,340 firefighters)
  • 7,940 other Firefighters
  • 320 Smoke Jumpers
  • 400 Fire Prevention Technicians

The firefighters above total 10,000, the same as in the last several years.

The only FY19 cuts recommended by the President to firefighting resources are in aviation:

  • 28 Type 1 large Helicopters, down from 34 in FY17, and the same as in FY18.
  • “Up to 18” Large Air Tankers, down from 20 in FY17 and up from 13 in FY18.
  • No HC-130H Coast Guard/USFS converted air tankers, down from one. The President intends to abandon this program.
  • No Water Scooping Air Tankers. There were two in FY17 and none in FY18.

These cuts are in spite of the fact that the number of acres burned annually in the United States continues to increase.

total acres burned wildfires United States 1990-2017

fire budget FY19 resources summary
Click to enlarge.

This recommended budget for the Forest Service is only a suggestion by the President. Congress is not obligated to respect his wishes and could do anything from passing a series of continuing resolutions locking in budget numbers from the previous year, to passing something completely different. Or, doing nothing and shutting down the government again.

More information about the reduction in firefighting aircraft.

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

Air tankers to be cut by one-third in 2018

The large air tankers on Forest Service exclusive use contracts are being cut from 20 to 13.

(Originally published at 4:29 p.m. MST February 16, 2018)

The U.S. Forest Service is cutting the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year from 20 to 13.

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues are affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner. Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased. This means less funds available for our crucial restorative work on your National Forest System lands to prevent large fires.

exclusive use air tankers contract 2018

Ms. Anderson is correct about the severity of wildfires. The number of acres burned and the average size of fires have grown exponentially over the last two decades.

average acres burned wildfires united states

The air tanker vendor that is most affected by this change is Neptune Aviation. Last year the company had 11 air tankers on EU contracts, seven BAe-146’s and four P2V’s. This year they have only four aircraft — all BAe-146’s. But compared to the competition, Neptune has done very well over the last five to six years. (A phone call to Neptune was not immediately returned.)

Ms. Anderson said the Administration’s plans for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins October 1, 2018, call for 18 EU large air tankers. However, Congress has not passed a budget for FY 2019 and based on their recent history, it may or may not happen. Continuing Resolutions which freeze spending at previous levels, have been enacted more frequently than conventional full-year budgets. And if it is passed, there is no guarantee that the Administration’s recommendations will be honored.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on EU contracts, but after the wings fell off two aged military surplus air tankers in mid-air that year killing five aviators, many of the older aircraft were eliminated for safety reasons. Little was done to restore the fleet during the following 11 years and by 2013 there were only 9 on EU contract. In 2013 a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” aircraft began. Eventually over the next few years we saw the introduction of retired jet-powered airliners that were not as old as the 50+ year-old aircraft they began to replace.

By 2016 there were 20 large air tankers on EU contracts, plus one Coast Guard HC-130H that worked from 2016 through 2017. It was one of seven being transferred to the Forest Service that since 2013 have been going through a very, very lengthy convoluted process of being converted into air tankers. The one flying then was temporarily using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) designed to enable Air Force C-130’s to drop retardant when extra air power is needed during busy firefighting periods. Later we will have an article on this website about the fact that the Forest Service wants to abandon the HC-130H program.

Call When Needed air tankers

In addition to the 13 large air tankers on EU contracts, 11 are signed up on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis in 2018. The companies on the list are Aero Flite, 10 Tanker, Coulson Aviation, and Neptune. If the Forest Service thinks more than 13 are needed at any one time, they can start calling around to see if any of the four companies have any that are available — not working for a state, another country, or tied up in maintenance. Or, mothballed for financial reasons. The rates for CWN aircraft are much higher than EU resources. The business model for keeping an aircraft and crew in tip top shape but sitting idle for much of the fire season, is a difficult one for most private companies to pull off.

Walt Darran, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away in 2013, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker and crew ready to go.

call when needed air tankers contract 2018

Scoopers cut to zero

The number of scooping 1,600-gallon CL-415 air tankers is being cut from two in the first part of 2017 to zero the rest of this fiscal year, FY 18, which ends September 30, 2018. The CL-215/415 scoopers are beloved in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and other countries, but the Forest Service has always appeared to have a bias against them.

The 2012 RAND air tanker study ran simulations with from 8 to 57 scoopers being on contract. They found that at least two-thirds of historical fires have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible body of water. The report had several different models, assumptions, and variables but generally recommended more than 40 scoopers be on contract, with a lower number of conventional air tankers. The Forest Service decided to keep the taxpayer-funded report secret and not release it, even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Ultimately the RAND Corporation released the document.

Acquisition of $65 million air tanker may be cancelled

In December, 2014 the President signed legislation that included  $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. At the time, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calve, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior & Environment, said the funds would be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”.

We asked Ms. Anderson about the $65 million:

The President’s FY 2019 Budget proposes the cancellation of the $65 million for the new aircraft. The USDA Forest Service issued a solicitation to purchase Next Generation Airtankers in November, 2016. The agency cancelled the solicitation in June, 2017 after it yielded proposals with costs higher than the appropriated funds.

We thought the funds were intended to buy one of Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J’s, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million. Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door.

Reduction in helicopters continues

In 2017 there was an 18 percent reduction in the number of large Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts. That will continue in 2018.  For several years the U.S. Forest Service contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.

The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters last year was close to average, but the orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) were almost double the number of filled orders. Sixty 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.

A study completed in 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

Australia to experiment with night-flying helicopters

This will be the first trial of helicopters dropping water on fires at night in the country.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass in Southern California, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Fire management authorities in Australia are planning a trial of night-flying helicopters later this year. Emergency Management Victoria is leading the effort which could begin toward the end of the current bushfire season in March or April.

“There is still a lot of planning and due diligence to complete, and regulatory approvals to work through”, Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre said.  “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use Night Vision Goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to  extend firebombing into the night.”

Mr. Alder said fixed wing air tankers will not be part of this trial, but they are examining the possibilities for future phases of the project.

The video below is an example of a night-flying helicopter dropping on a structure fire in Los Angeles (at 1:08).

Around half a dozen or so agencies in Southern California have been using night-flying helicopters for a number of years.

The Australians have 42 Single Engine Air Tankers working this bushfire season — 40 AT802’s and 2 Hubler Turbine M18’s. Two of the AT802’s are Firebosses on floats.

They have also had four large air tankers from North America working in the country during their summer.

  • DC-10 (-912 contracted from Agair who work with Ten Tanker) based at Richmond near Sydney;
  • L-100 (T-132, Coulson Aviation based at Richmond) – the Mandatory Availability Period is already completed for this one;
  • C-130Q (T-131, Coulson Aviation) based at Avalon near Melbourne;
  • RJ85 (FieldAir with AeroFlite) based at Avalon.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre is in the process of issuing contract solicitations for the 2018-2019 bushfire season. They expect to have about the same number of SEATS, large air tankers, and Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters.

“Overall we would expect generally similar total numbers, but these solicitations could potentially see some changes in providers or fleet mix”, Mr. Alder wrote in an email. “Our multi-agency evaluation groups are currently working through all the options (and budgets!) and we hope to have a better idea of how the future fleet will look in a few months.”

Only 40% of requests for Type 1 helicopters were filled on wildfires in 2017

Last year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of Type 1 ships by 18%.

Above: N137BH, a Sikorsky 70A or “Firehawk” helicopter, flies to refill its water bucket after dropping on the Rankin Fire in South Dakota September 13, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 5:34 p.m. MT February 8, 2018)

The stats are in for the use of firefighting helicopters in 2017. The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters 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.

Type 1 helicopters are the largest used on fires, carrying 700 to 2,800 gallons.

One important change in 2017 was the 18 percent reduction in the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contract. For several years the U.S. Forest Service had contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled

These contracts require continuous availability throughout the mandatory availability period, which can be 180 days or more. Other helicopters may or may not be procured on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract. A CWN aircraft could be tied up on something else or undergoing heavy maintenance when the phone in the office rings asking if they can respond to a fire. And CWN aircraft cost the government much more to operate than EU resources.

These large helicopters are beloved by wildland firefighters, since they can strategically drop with pinpoint accuracy thousands of gallons of water or retardant while working close air support with ground personnel. This can cool and slow the spread of the fire, enabling crews to work nearer the fire edge. A series of water drops can enable hand crews to make steady progress on active flanks of the fire. Helicopters can often refill with water from a nearby lake or tank, making 5 to 15 minute turnarounds. A fixed wing air tanker that has to refill at an airport takes much longer.

The six helicopters that were cut last year:

  1. Prineville, Oregon (BK-1200) Swanson Group Aviation
  2. Helena, Montana (BK-1200) Central Helicopters
  3. Hamilton, Montana (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  4. Custer, South Dakota (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  5. Lancaster, California (CH-54A) Siller Helicopters
  6. Minden, Nevada (CH-54A) Helicopter Transport Services

Type 1 helicopters are frequently moved around depending on fire danger and incident activity and are often not at their home base.

What do aircraft studies recommend?

In March, 2017 when it was revealed that the six helicopters were being cut, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones explained the agency’s rationale:

At this time, the agency has determined 28 to be the appropriate number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts given current types and numbers of other aircraft in the fleet. This is in line with the 2012 Airtanker Modernization Strategy.

She said “Up to 30 additional Type 1 helicopters” are on Call When Needed contracts, which includes the six that no longer have EU contracts.

The Airtanker Modernization Strategydoes not make an independent recommendation on the number of helicopters or air tankers that are needed. But it refers to a study conducted from 2007 to 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, which concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers. At the beginning of the 2017 western fire season there were 20 large and very large air tankers on EU contracts plus two water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

Our opinion

As this is being written, the politicians we elect to represent us in Washington are trying to put together a last minute (literally) federal budget that will keep the government from shutting down again tonight. They are proposing to increase the dollars spent on Defense by $165 billion. This would raise the total military budget for the next two years to $1.4 trillion. (A source in D.C. told us there is a chance the legislation will include a fix to the fire borrowing fiasco, where funds are taken from other functions to pay for wildfire suppression.)

Everyone agrees that the military needs to be adequately funded, but in 2016 the amount the U.S. spent on defense was almost equal to what the next 14 countries combined spent.

Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post, February 9, 2016:

On Tuesday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies released its Military Balance 2016 report, which seeks to examine closely the changing nature of military power. On a grand scale, the report showed – yet again – that U.S. military spending easily dwarfed the rest of the world. With a defense budget of around $597 billion, it was almost as much as the next 14 countries put together and far larger than the rest of the world.

military spending
Military spending, U.S and the rest of the world. Washington Post.

Much of the defense budget is spent in countries on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the defense of our Homeland gets cut. Last year we saw 18 percent fewer Type 1 helicopters and the number of large air tankers was 57 percent of the recommendation in the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy.

Our suggestion is to prioritize the defense and protection of our citizens, homeland, forests, parks, grasslands, refuges, prairies, and wildlands FIRST, before considering spending trillions on the other side of the world.

Forest Service to purchase up to 20 new King Air 250’s

They “expect” to purchase four each year for five years.

Above: The King Air 250 as seen on the Beechcraft website.

(Originally published December 16, 2017)

The U.S. Forest Service has awarded a contract to purchase up to 20 new King Air 250 twin-engine aircraft. The contract, potentially worth $142 million, guarantees the procurement of only one plane, but contains “estimated” purchases of four a year for five years.

The contract was awarded to Textron Aviation, Inc., the company that was formed in 2014 following the acquisition of Beech Holdings which included the Beechcraft and Hawker Aircraft businesses. The new business unit includes the Textron-owned Cessna.

The aircraft would be used primarily for four missions:

  • Lead plane/Aerial Supervision Module
  • Infrared Mapping
  • Air Attack/Air Tactical
  • Forest Health Protection

The solicitation uses the term “Multi-Mission Aircraft” several times. The state of Colorado bought two Pilatus PC-12’s in 2014 that they refer to as MMA’s which since then have been loaned quite a few times to agencies in other western states. The PC-12 is single-engine, while the King Air 250 is a twin. The performance of the two is similar in some respects, but the PC-12 is much less expensive to operate. If you’re curious about the other differences between the two, check out Charlie Bravo Aviation for a comparison.

Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft”
One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” which was seen at McClellan Air Field March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I doubt if Colorado uses their aircraft as a lead plane often, but the USFS would use it frequently in that role. Flying low and slow over rough terrain, many pilots would prefer to have a pair of engines.

The “presolicitation” for the procurement was issued July 14, 2017 and the award was made five months later on December 11. That may be a record in the last five years for a USFS aircraft contract. But if there are protests, all bets are off. The first Next Generation large air tanker contract took 555 days.

Here are some of the award details:

King Air 250 contract award Forest Service
King Air 250 contract award

Forest Service cancels contract for scooper air tankers

The cancellation became effective for fiscal year 2018 which began October 1, 2017.

Above: Air Tanker 261, a CL-415, at Medford, Oregon August, 2016. Photo by Tim Crippin.

(Originally published at 3:30 p.m. MDT November 29, 2017)

The U.S. Forest Service has cancelled the contract it had with Aero-Flite for two CL-415 air tankers. The company was awarded an exclusive use contract in 2016 for two of the scooper aircraft for five years.

USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones said the cancellation occurred in September of this year, but a source familiar with the Aero-Flite operation told us it was not effective until the end of the Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) which is *December 6th, 2017. After that date the Aero-Flite CL-415’s can only be used on a Call When Needed contract, if they are available when the need arises. A total of four CL-415’s are on CWN contracts.

The Forest Service also cut back in 2017 on the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contracts, reducing them from 34 to 28.  And in June they cancelled the solicitation issued November 18, 2016 for the acquisition of one to seven new multi-engine air tankers. It was thought by some that this procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.

The cost of the 1,600-gallon Aero-Flite aircraft were very high. The daily availability rate was $42,285 with an hourly rate of $13,299. That daily rate was higher than all of the 21 large air tankers on contract, including the DC-10’s which carry up to 11,600 gallons. And only two large air tankers had a higher hourly rate — one of the DC-10’s and the USFS/Coast Guard C-130.

Jones told us that one of the reasons for the reduction in aerial firefighting aircraft was a lack of funding:

The U.S. Forest Service’s Proposed Fiscal Year 2018 Budget does not include funding for Exclusive Use Water Scoopers. The U.S. Forest Service is providing the appropriate mix of aviation assets (Airtankers, water scoopers, helicopters, etc.) for wildfire suppression within available funding.

Congress has not approved a budget this fiscal year which began October 1, 2017. The federal agencies are operating on a continuing resolution which expires December 8, 2017. The budget proposed by the current administration included the reduction in the scoopers. Congress may or may not go along with the Executive Branch’s proposal.

Our calls and emails to Aero-Flite were not returned at the time this was published.

*We corrected the effective date of the cancellation of the contract from October 1, 2017 to December 6, 2017.