Another new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk has been delivered to CAL FIRE’s base at Sacramento McClellan Airport. John Vogel spotted it May 21, two weeks after Paul Filmer photographed it being flight tested at the Centennial, Colorado Airport. It is helicopter 205, N485DF, and “VINA” can be seen near the engines.
The U.S. Forest today published a list of 27 new contracts for Exclusive Use (EU) Type 1 firefighting helicopters. There is a possibility that the awards could be protested by companies that are not on the list. If that happens, the implementation of the contract could be delayed by months.
Two companies conspicuous by their absence are Coulson and Erickson. Several years ago Erickson grew to the point that they were no longer qualified to bid on FS helicopter contracts that were limited to small businesses. But after their chapter 11 reorganization in 2017, Erickson emerged with new owners and a new ownership structure and the Small Business Administration restored their small business status the Digital Marketing Manager for the company, Christina Kalman, told us earlier this month. She said they submitted a proposal for the latest Type 1 EU contract and was hopeful for an award.
On the list distributed to the companies earlier this month, Coulson had the San Bernardino slot but that position is not specified on the document released today. The company has expandied significantly in recent years, acquiring 6 B-737s, 5 C-130s, and partnered with Unical Air, a new unit of the Unical Group of Companies to create a heavy lift helicopter joint venture company that will build and operate approximately ten (at last count) Boeing CH-47 and Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk aircraft for aerial firefighting and other markets. We interviewed Britt Coulson about this venture at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.
On Monday May 4 the U.S. Forest Service distributed a list of the companies that are expected to receive Exclusive Use (EU) contracts for 28 Type 1 helicopters, the largest helicopters that are used for suppressing wildland fires. According to information Fire Aviation received from two sources, 13 companies received contracts. One helicopter vendor told us that a protest is likely, which could delay the activation for several months, news that comes just as the wildfire season is picking up in the Southeast and Southwest. If there is a protest it is possible that the 28 helicopters could not be activated until mid-August, after the wildfire season is about 3/4 over.
Stanton Florea, a Fire Communications Specialist who works out of Boise told us, “The official public announcement [about the contract] is scheduled for Tuesday, May 19th.”
The previous four-year contract expired April 30, 2020. Presumably as a stopgap, the FS issued 30-day and 90-day contracts for various sizes of helicopters.
When the 2016 four-year Type 1 EU helicopter contracts were awarded, they committed to spending an estimated $594 million dollars of taxpayers’ funds.
Below are the companies that are slated to receive the new four-year EU contracts, with the number of helicopters they will be providing. This list could change if there are protests:
The FS has refused to release any information about the unusual 30-day contracts that were reportedly given to a handful of helicopter companies a couple of weeks ago, or disclose what procurement process and authority was used.
A FOIA was not required after the next round of Type 1 EU helicopter contracts in 2016. The agency signed up and employed 34 ships the first year of that four-year contract, but later used the “optional year” provision to reduce the number to 28. This year the agency just went straight to 28 ships under EU contract, with no possibility of having 34.
The U.S. Forest Service has awarded 90-day contracts for an 22 additional helicopters that can lift at least 3,300 or 7,000 pounds. This second list was released by the agency May 13 and is a result of a solicitation requesting bids for 30 helicopters that were already on Call When Needed contracts in three tiers — capable of lifting up to 1,600, 3,300, or 7,000 pounds. The Forest Service was looking for 10 helicopters in each tier, if available, with Mandatory Availability Periods commencing on either June 1st or June 15th.
CURRENT HEALTH GUIDELINES TO BE IMPLEMENTED AT FIREFIGHTER ACADEMIES
As the fire season approaches, annual firefighter and rappel training conducted in May and June on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in central Idaho continues this year, but with modifications for COVID-19.
“We are taking steps to minimize all risk of exposure in order to keep our wildland firefighters and our communities safe,” said Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark. “Rappellers provide a vital service as wildland firefighters trained and prepared to operate in aerial operations, and as aerially delivered firefighters.”
Specific mitigation measures include reducing the number of rappellers in training, screening all participants for COVID-19 prior to their travel, closely following current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health guidelines and social distancing practices, and aligning with the State of Idaho’s mitigations measures for each stage of the plan.
Training events are as follows:
Week of May 19: Twenty-three veteran rappellers from six of the twelve Rappel bases around the nation, along with fifteen additional support staff and three helicopters with flight crews training in Salmon. The training will take place at the Salmon Air Base and Sal Mountain.
Week of May 21: Salmon Air Base will be hosting Spotter Emersion training with twenty-three personnel participating in training which will better prepare the trainees for becoming a qualified rappel spotter to deploy rappellers and cargo safely.
May 27 through June 7 or until complete: Thirty-nine rookie rappellers, along with fifteen support staff and three helicopters and flight crews training at the Salmon Air Base and Haynes Creek.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest hosts new firefighters from across the country every year for this intensive, performance-based training. The purpose is to train rappellers and spotters in accordance with the National Rappel Operations Guide; to strengthen leadership, teamwork, and communications within the rappel community, and to produce quality aerial delivered firefighters for use in fire and aviation operations.
The USForest Service National Helicopter Rappel Program’s primary mission is initial attack. Rappel crews may be utilized for large fire support, all hazard incident operations, and resource management objectives.
The U.S. Forest Service has awarded 90-day contracts for 14 helicopters that can lift at least 1,600 pounds. The list was released by the agency May 8, and is a result of a solicitation requesting bids for 30 helicopters that were already on Call When Needed contracts in three tiers — capable of lifting up to 1,600, 3,300, or 7,000 pounds. The Forest Service was looking for 10 helicopters in each tier, if available, with Mandatory Availability Periods commencing on either June 1st or June 15th.
Released Friday were 14 helicopters in the >1,600 tier.
It remains to be seen if the agency will award additional 90-day helicopter contracts in the 3,300 and 7,000 pound tiers.
As we wrote April 22, the four-year exclusive use contracts for Type 1 firefighting helicopters issued in 2016 expired April 30. Since new contracts based on the solicitation issued November 15, 2019 have not yet been awarded the Forest Service has given 30-day contracts to a handful of vendors. The agency has refused to provide to us any details about the 30-day contracts.
Erickson Incorporated, operator of large firefighting helicopters, is cutting the pay and requiring furloughs for some of their employees. The Digital Marketing Manager for the company, Christina Kalman, describes it as temporary:
Consistent with peers in our industry, Erickson is taking precautionary measures on a short-term and temporary basis to protect against additional future impacts and the unexpected costs caused by the global pandemic. As part of this effort, a portion of our employees, including the CEO and all members of the management team, will participate in a temporary pay reduction or short-term furlough program in May and June.
Erickson manufactures, owns, and operates large Type 1 Air-Crane helicopters that are used around the world for firefighting and construction. In April after the bushfire season ended in Australia they loaded approximately half a dozen of them onto a ship for a weeks-long voyage to Greece for the northern hemisphere fire season, arriving May 4. The company now has six Air-Cranes in Greece, Ms. Kalman said.
A person might assume that companies involved in aerial firefighting with multi-year contracts could weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic fairly well, however they could have increases in operating costs related to managing their personnel and equipment. Their employees might also be quarantined or stricken by the disease, creating staffing challenges. Erickson is involved in much more than firefighting and works extensively for the military. They also sell helicopters, recently delivering two Air-Cranes to the Korea Forest Service.
One issue that could be causing stress for operators of large helicopters is, as we wrote April 22, the four-year U.S. Forest Service exclusive use (EU) contracts for Type 1 firefighting helicopters issued in 2016 expired April 30, 2020. Since new contracts based on the solicitation issued November 15, 2019 have not yet been awarded, the USFS has given 30-day contracts to a handful of vendors. The agency has refused to provide to us any details about the 30-day contracts, but Fire Aviation has learned that approximately five to seven helicopters are presently working on 30-day deals.
Since many of the USFS procurement actions for firefighting aircraft are protested, which delays activation for several months, these 90-day contracts for up to 30 helicopters may be a safety net in case of a protest, in addition to filling the void while there are no long term contracts. If a company receives one of the Type 1 EU contracts, the Forest Service’s solicitation states, they “will then remove your awarded helicopter from consideration for this one-time [90-day] opportunity.”
With the shadow of the pandemic affecting everyday life this is a bad time for the USFS’s dysfunctional aircraft contracting operation to again be too slow in processing a contract that should have been awarded no later than November, 2019 in order to allow time for the typical protests and still be functional from March through November.
Several years ago Erickson grew to the point that they were no longer qualified to bid on USFS helicopter contracts that were limited to “small businesses”. But after their chapter 11 reorganization in 2017, Erickson emerged with new owners and a new ownership structure and the Small Business Administration restored their “small business” status. Ms. Kalman said Erickson submitted a proposal for the latest Type 1 EU contract and is hopeful for an award.