The main runway at Billings Logan International Airport will be closed three days a week during a six-week period this summer. While the runway is being rehabilitated it will be closed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from July 12 through August 18. This will have an effect on the operations of large air tankers in the area.
Chuck Bushey, a former President of the International Association of Wildland Fire, talked to a BLM tanker base manager at Billings. Chuck sent us this information:
[The base manager said] they would be using SEATS and helicopters based at other nearby locations with mobile bases (Laurel, Miles City, Cody, etc.) as they do every year, and that large air tankers (LAT’s) would probably go to West Yellowstone or Rapid City. That leaves a big gap in LAT coverage for eastern MT and northern WY, including eastern Yellowstone National Park. [Billings] airport was very busy last season with LAT’s including the former Eisenhower Air Force 1 now owned by a Canadian company. I think for a while we had four LAT’s plus SEATS and helicopters flying out of here. Reminded me of being in Missoula!
Thought it was interesting and wondered how many other LAT airports this could impact – if any. Not a problem if we only have fires Monday–Thursday!
It was 482 days ago that the U.S. Forest Service issued their solicitation for next-generation air tankers, however no contracts have been awarded in spite of the fact that all previous contracts for federal large and very large air tankers expired in December. The old contracts for a few air tankers were temporarily extended early in 2013 to provide some coverage.
Obviously the Forest Service is long overdue in awarding the contracts for legacy, next-generation, and very large air tankers. Fire season has been going on for several weeks in the south and the southwest, and Red Flag Warnings for enhanced fire danger have been common. Usually the tankers start coming on duty in mid-February.
There have been some indications that the Forest Service will announce contract awards this week for legacy air tankers, perhaps as early as Wednesday. But don’t hold your breath.
The privately owned air tanker companies, in order to remain alive in this industry, have to have nerves of steel and balls of titanium. They have to invest millions in the aircraft, deal with the FAA, pass a very expensive certification process required by the Interagency Airtanker Board, hope that Congress and the President appropriate enough money to fund a viable air tanker program, and then maybe, MAYBE receive a contract. And the contracting process is very daunting. Here is an example of a question from a potential bidder for a legacy contract, and an “answer” from the U.S. Forest Service:
Question: The response to question 44 in Response to Questions to the Draft Solicitation is confusing …. Please confirm that this RFP is only for legacy airtankers as defined by the “large Airtanker Modernization Strategy’.
Answer: The “Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” states that Legacy Airtankers are airtankers such as P-2V Neptunes, P-3 Orions, and Convair CV-580s. However, the strategy provides no formal definition of a Legacy Airtanker. This solicitation was developed around the specifications of the Legacy type airtankers as identified above. There is no specifically defined criterion that specifically defines a Legacy airtanker. Next generation type (again no formal definition) aircraft or any type of aircraft may be offered and may be awarded under this solicitation as long as they meet the specifications identified in the solicitation.
According to a report in Friday’s Durango Herald, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers. Secretary Vilsack was responding to a letter Senator Udall sent to the Secretary in January requesting an update on the modernization of the federal air tanker fleet.
The U.S. Forest Service first issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers 479 days ago but no contracts have been signed. The contracts were almost awarded last summer but were held up by protests that two unsuccessful bidders filed. The solicitation was reissued in October of 2012 but no results have been announced. It is possible that even after the USFS makes their decision about potential awards, there will be an additional 30-day delay while Congress is notified. The USFS is also overdue in announcing awards for “legacy air tankers”, the old P2Vs, the contracts for which expired December 31, 2012. Since there were no large air tankers on contract when this new year began, the agency temporarily extended the contracts for a few of the P2Vs. The call when needed contracts for very large air tankers, such as the DC-10, also expired last year and has not been renewed.
In 2012 the USFS only had 9 to 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This is in contrast to the 44 on contract in 2002. The agency has paid for eight studies about the use of air tankers since 1995, some of which recommended that 30, 40, or more are needed.
Next-generation air tankers will eventually replace the Korean War vintage P2V aircraft currently being used. They will be turbine-powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and preferably have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant.
A few hours before the 800-acre Galena Fire started on Friday west of Fort Collins, Colorado, two state lawmakers were quoted as saying they were going to introduce a bill in the legislature directing the state to develop their own aerial firefighting fleet. According to the Coloradoan, soon after the fire started before noon on March 15 firefighters requested air tankers but none were available.
Senators Steve King and Cheri Jahn plan to introduce a bill this week that would create a program similar to those in the states of California and Oregon which have their own fleets of aerial firefighting assets.
“We are pushing our luck when we think that the federal government will come flying in to save Colorado when it’s burning,” Senator King told 7NEWS.
Below is an excerpt from an article at Denver’s CBS4 which was published at 9:54 a.m. on March 15 just before the Galena Fire started:
“People have said ‘Oh my gosh, how in world will you ever pay for that? Oh my gosh, how can you make this?’ You know what, we can either keep saying that for the years to come or we can take hold of it and say ‘This incredible idea and we need to figure out how to make it work,’ ” Jahn said.
One idea is to make it a public-private partnership.
“Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on tail of slurry bomber?” King said.
If the state were unrestrained by federal rules, pilots of state air tankers might be able to do night drops sometimes, which federal pilots don’t do now.
“We have night vision goggles. We have GPS. We have all sorts of technology that the federal government does not even recognize or allow their firefighters to use,” King said.
When the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted in Colorado Springs last year there were 29 other large fires burning throughout the country and nine large air tankers to fight them all. With 4 million acres of dead trees in Colorado, the danger of another waldo canyon isn’t going away.
Most of the work on Coulson’s project to convert a C-130H into an air tanker is taking place at the San Bernardino, CA airport. Workers are making good progress, according to Brit Coulson. When it is complete, the internal tank will be able to be easily removed using the attached wheels so that the aircraft can be used at night, with a double crew, to transport cargo, such as fire trucks or other wildland fire equipment. More information about the project was in an April 9, 2012 article at Wildfire Today.
The Associated Press has a recent story about the conversion. Below is an excerpt from the article, in which Wayne Coulson has been promoted to “tycoon”. Congrats Wayne!
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — A Canadian tycoon is converting a 30-year-old ex-military plane into a high-tech firefighting aircraft, hoping to win a federal contract before the onset of this year’s wildfire season.
The Navy C-130 owned by Wayne Coulson is undergoing a nose-to-tail renovation at San Bernardino International Airport, the regional air tanker base for the U.S. Forest Service.
When finished, it will boast a 3,500-gallon tank for fire retardant, night-vision equipment and a GPS system that will make pinpoint drops when guided by a laser device mounted in an accompanying helicopter, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported Wednesday.
Test flights are scheduled for next month, and Coulson hopes to win a Forest Service contract by June.
Coulson, a timber and aviation tycoon, also owns a converted World-War II-era Martin Mars seaplane that has fought fires throughout California..
It has been 470 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded. Coulson is hoping to receive one of the new contracts.
When all of the U.S. Forest Service air tanker contracts expired on December 31, 2012, that left the agency without any when the new year rolled around.
To temporarily fill the gap, the USFS has extended the expired contracts for Minden and Neptune through April 22. Today there are three P2V’s working. Minden’s T-48 is at Porterville, CA, Neptune’s T-07 is at Lake City, FL and Neptune’s T-44 is at Alamogordo, NM.
It has been 469 days since the agency issued the solicitation for next-generation air tankers but no contracts have been awarded. Also pending are solicitations for legacy and very large air tankers.
The USFS has told at least one air tanker vendor that they expect some of the new contracts to be announced either this week or next. We are checking to see if a 30-day waiting period will be required after the announcement while Congress is notified. The last time the USFS announced their intention to award contracts, last summer, Congress passed a bill that eliminated the waiting period for those contracts because of the shortage of air tankers. And then later the USFS had to cancel the almost-signed contracts after unsuccessful bidders lodged protests. There is a good chance there will be more protests the next time contracts are awarded.