The U.S. Forest Service has activated a total of 11 additional large fixed wing air tankers since May 30, 2020. Formerly on call when needed contracts, they are currently operating on 90-day “CWN Activation” exclusive use (EU) contracts that are scheduled to expire between September 10 and October 5, 2020.
The 90-day contracts were awarded to:
- 10 Tanker Air Carrier, for one DC-10 aircraft, T-914;
- Erickson Aero Air, for four MD-87 aircraft, Tankers 104, 102, 103, & 107;
- Neptune Aviation, for five BAe-146 aircraft, Tankers 12, 41, 02, 03, & 01;
- Coulson Aviation, for one B-737 aircraft, T-137.
It is unknown if additional tankers will be brought on using this 90-day EU system.
The Forest Service will not release any information about this unusual procurement procedure. Part of the reason for beefing up the air tanker fleet could be related to the protests filed by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Neptune Aviation over awards for the Next-Generation EU 3.0 solicitation. The FS attempted to give five line item awards. Erickson Aero Air and Aero Flite were each selected for two and Coulson Aviation would have received one. This would have added five tankers to the 13 that are currently on Next Gen 1.0 and 2.0 EU contracts, to bring the total up to 18.
The protests were marked by the Government Accountability Office as “dismissed” on June 19. The Forest Service is expected to come to a new understanding with the affected air tanker companies, but to our knowledge that step has not been completed. Next-Gen 3.0 has still not been finally awarded or activated.
Since the protest prevented any activations on that new 3.0 contract, the FS apparently wanted to find a different way to at least temporarily bring on additional large air tankers. So now they have a total of 24 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts at least through mid-September. If needed, the agency could probably find a way to extend the contracts.
Another factor that may have spurred the FS into increasing the fleet was one of the mitigation concepts for dealing with COVID-19. Most wildfire agencies have committed to aggressive initial attack on new fires, with the goal of keeping fires small, since the effectiveness of wildland fire crews may be adversely affected by COVID-19 effects and protocols.
The FS is doing the best they can to minimize exposure to the virus by reducing the need for air crews to stay overnight in multiple locations. More so than in the past, when a tanker takes off they will attempt to be back at the same base by the end of the day. The aircraft can still reload at remote locations but they will try to be “home” by nightfall. In the last 10 to 15 years, there have been so few tankers on contract, down to nine at one point, that they had to constantly move around and rarely had a home base.
This new policy could have some unintended but positive consequences. Less moving around from day to day and dragging bags in and out of hotels on a daily basis might reduce the physical and mental stress of the flight crews. It also makes personnel changes and maintenance easier. The families of the crews might even get to spend more time together in the evenings since their locations could be more predictable.
If this “home base” concept is continued even after COVID-19, it could make it easier to recruit and hire air tanker pilots and ground crews. But, and this is a big BUT, it can only work if there is an adequate number of air tankers on contract, both single engine and large. With 40 large air tankers, there could be enough stationed at semi-permanent bases that initial attack with multiple Forest Service air tankers within the first 20 to 60 minutes could be a reality throughout the west — keeping fires as small as possible. Some will get away of course, but many could be stopped early by employing an aggressive attack with overwhelming force.
The Angeles National Forest developed a graphic showing their standard aggressive initial attack response.