Colorado Senator calls for the government to override Neptune’s protest of air tanker contracts

Coulson's C-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q undergoing tank installation and inspections earlier this month in San Bernardino, California. Coulson photo.

A Colorado Senator wants the federal government to override a protest that could delay the acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers this fire season.

Following the May 6 announcement by the U.S. Forest Service of their intention to award exclusive use contracts to five companies for the use of seven air tankers over a five to ten year period, one of the companies that failed to receive an award, Neptune Aviation, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. Unless the GAO grants emergency authority, Neptune’s action could delay by up to 100 days, until August 26, the date by which the new contracts could take effect.

Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the GAO protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake:

…”Wildfire season is coming, and I refuse to force Colorado communities to watch as preventable and containable wildfires are allowed to threaten lives and homes simply because of contractors’ squabbles. Make no mistake about it: This is an emergency, and this shortsighted protest will leave the U.S. Forest Service with outdated, Korean War-era air tankers to fight modern mega-fires,” Udall said. “That’s why I am calling on the U.S. Forest Service to override the protest filed this week and move forward with its next-generation air tankers contracts. Lives and homes are at stake, and I refuse to stand idly by as red tape suffocates any chance of the U.S. Forest Service finally acquiring these much-needed air tankers.”

Following the contract awards earlier this month, Udall cautioned private contractors that “Needless and costly delays will leave the Forest Service to fight modern mega-fires in the coming months with Korean War-era planes.”

Neptune’s protest is the second time awards for next-gen air tankers have been protested. The USFS began the contracting process for the next-gen air tankers November 30, 2011. On June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, which would have provided a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrierprotested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012. And on May 6, 2013 the USFS announced, again, their intention to award contracts.

The protest process worked during Round 2 for Coulson and 10 Tanker; they lost out in Round 1 and their protests led them to awards in Round 2. Neptune no doubt figures they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by their protest. The company has invested heavily in converting BAe-146s; conversions on two are complete and were used on fires in 2012. They have two others that they hoped to convert this year.

Neptune knows the contract protest backwards and forwards, since Ron Hooper, their CEO, as recently as November, 2010 worked for the U.S. Forest Service as the Director of Acquisition Management for the agency. His name is also mentioned in a summary of the 1987 U.S. Forest Service “airtanker scandal”. When qualified as a contracting officer, he reportedly made a determination after the transfer of the 28 aircraft to private companies that the transfer was void and they should be returned to the government. At the time Mr. Hooper was the staff assistant to the Forest Service Deputy Chief for Business Operations. (More information about a GAO bid protest.)

Neptune will have five P2Vs and one BAe-146 working this year under a new “legacy” air tanker contract announced in March.

Of the five companies that are slated to receive the new contracts for the faster, more dependable, and higher retardant capacity next-gen air tankers, only one has aircraft that are close to being ready to drop retardant on fires. 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers which carry 11,600 gallons have been used on fires for years and should be ready to go. The other vendors are still in the process of physically converting their aircraft into air tankers and then have several hurdles to overcome.

After the contracts are actually signed and awarded, the companies have 60-90 days to complete the process of outfitting their aircraft with a tank design; prove the tank design in a controlled environment (dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground); be issued a Federal Aviation Administration Type Certificate; develop a maintenance and inspection program (Structural Integrity Program) for use of the aircraft as an airtanker and receive approval of it from the FAA; and be approved for a field trial (dropping retardant on real fires) by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB).

It would be surprising if all seven of the aircraft can meet these requirements in the time allotted. Coulson Aircrane, which is slated to receive a contract for a C-130Q, appears to be the closest other than 10 Tanker’s DC-10. Coulson is installing a retardant tank designed by Aero Union that previously had been approved by the IAB, however Coulson made some modifications. And various models of C-130s have been used as air tankers for decades.

The other companies, Minden Air, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, are converting, respectively, a BAe-146, two MD87s, and two AVRO RJ85s, all of which may be using new tanking systems that have not been tested until this year, at least on those models of aircraft.

For example Aero Air, also known as Erickson Aerotanker, may have problems with retardant being ingested into the MD87 jet engines mounted behind the wings. Designing and installing new tank systems on aircraft that have never before been used as an air tanker, such as the MD87 and AVRO RJ85 can expose some challenges that have to be overcome.

The Colorado Springs Gazette also has an article about this issue.

 

Thanks go out to Matt & Kelly.

Retardant tank for the C-27J. And, is the Air Force buying more C-27s?

Retardant tank for Coulson C-130Q
Retardant tank, freshly painted, for Coulson Aviation’s C-130Q. Coulson photo

Coulson’s tank for their C-130Q

Coulson Aviation is putting the finishing touches on the 3,500-gallon retardant tank for their C-130Q, and they expect to roll it into the aircraft soon. Yes, it has wheels. Britt Coulson told Wildfire Today that they can install or remove it within 30 minutes. With or without the tank the air tanker can be pressurized. Without the tank, the C-130Q could be used for hauling cargo, or even smokejumpers, I suppose, if it were approved as a jumper platform.

Last week we posted an article, with photos, about the work the company is performing on the aircraft in a hangar in San Bernardino, California.

According to Mr. Coulson, the company bought from Aero Union “all the rights, engineering, and the drawings. We re-drew everything in Solidworks and re-designed the tank then manufactured it.” They are working with the USFS on the requirements for tests that involve dropping retardant into a grid of cups on the ground.

Use a similar tank for the C-27J?

Mr. Coulson said they are very interested in building tanks for the C-27J (an aircraft that the USFS may inherit from the Air Force) based on the same design, but scaled down to hold less retardant. He said the company responded to the U.S. Forest Service’s Request for Information posted in August to provide tanks for the aircraft, but the agency has not solicited for actual contract proposals yet. He believes the C-27J could carry somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 gallons in an internal gravity-fed tank. Not all knowledgeable aviation folks we have talked with are optimistic that it could carry that much of a load. We have heard 1,800 gallons mentioned, and my own estimate is 1,800 to 2,300, but I am no expert.

(UPDATE, May 20, 2013: It was pointed out to us that converting the military version of the C-27J into a civilian air tanker would result in thousands of pounds of hardware being removed, perhaps with 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of weight savings. This could increase the retardant capacity by as much as 450 gallons, raising our estimate of the tank size to 2,000 to 2,650 gallons. This assumes an internal, gravity-fed tank system. A pressurized design, like the military MAFFS, would have a much lower capacity, requiring tanks for compressed air, additional valves and piping, and an air compressor.)

The Air Force has decided they don’t want any of their five-year-old C-27Js. You have to wonder why an agency would want to give away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of almost-new aircraft.

Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, was quoted in the Missoulian Tuesday on the subject of the C-27J:

“We are still working with the Department of Defense to see if we can get up to seven C-27J Spartans,” Harbour said. “If we acquire those platforms, we would modify them so we could use them as a medium air tanker. They’re not the size that is going to be able to carry type 1, large air tanker-capacity tanks, but we think they’re a very capable platform.” The Spartan is an Italian-made turboprop-powered cargo plane. The U.S. Air Force has offered to transfer up to 14 of the planes free to the Forest Service. Harbour said the plane is capable of carrying smokejumpers, but has only had preliminary testing as a retardant bomber.

If the USFS does procure and convert the C-27Js into air tankers, they may choose to pay contractors to fly and maintain them, similar to the CAL FIRE model for their 23 S-2T air tankers. CAL FIRE’s current support contractors are DynCorp and Logistics Specialties Incorporated. DynCorp provides air tanker and airtactical plane pilot services, and all aircraft maintenance services. (All CAL FIRE helicopters are flown by CAL FIRE pilots, but maintained by DynCorp.) LSI provides procurement and parts management services.

Fire Aviation has learned that some USFS aviation personnel have talked informally with DynCorp about a government-owned, contractor-operated program. According to the Missoulian article, Neptune would also be interested in bidding on a contract to provide these services.

Is the Air Force buying more C-27Js?

And just to confuse the issue further, when I was searching FedBizOpps.gov for the USFS Request for Information about the C-27J retardant tanks, the search results included a Sources Sought Synopsis survey placed there by the Air Force May 10, 2013. The agency is looking for companies that can manufacture more C-27Js. While the military says they don’t want the ones they have, and are giving those away and saying good riddance, they are considering buying more. Their reasoning is, they are….

…contemplating procurement of C-27J aircraft, in accordance with Congressional language that states “The secretary of the Air Force shall obligate and expend funds previously appropriated for the procurement of C-27J Spartan aircraft for the purposes for which such funds were originally appropriated.”

Here’s an idea.

Instead of buying more C-27Js at $53 million each, contemplate instead, if it is economically feasible, designing and building some purpose-built air tankers to enhance our homeland security.

Report released on 2010 crash of helicopter in B.C.

BC helicopter crash
Crash of a helicopter in B.C., July 29, 2010. Canada TSB photo.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada has released a report on the crash of a firefighting helicopter that occurred about 20 nautical miles northwest of Lillooet, British Columbia July 29, 2010. Two pilots were on board dropping water on the Jade fire — both of them were hospitalized with injuries. The helicopter was on contract to the B.C. Fire Service by TransWest Helicopters, based in Chilliwack.

The helicopter lost power due to a fuel flow problem. Below are some excerpts from the report:

As the helicopter slowed and started to descend past a ridgeline into the creek valley, the engine lost power. The pilot-in-command, seated in the left-hand seat, immediately turned the helicopter left to climb back over the ridgeline to get to a clearing, released the water bucket and the 130-foot long-line from the belly hook, and descended toward an open area to land. The helicopter touched down hard on uneven, sloping terrain, and pitched over the nose. When the advancing main-rotor blade contacted the ground, the airframe was in a near-vertical, nose-down attitude, which then rotated the fuselage, causing it to land on the left side. A small post-crash fire ignited. The pilot-in-command sustained a concussion and was rendered unconscious. The copilot escaped with minor injuries and dragged the pilot-in-command from the wreckage. The pilot-in-command regained consciousness a few minutes later. The helicopter was substantially damaged. The 406-megahertz emergency locator transmitter was activated, but its antenna fitting fractured; as a result, the search and rescue satellite network did not receive a signal.

[…]

Findings as to causes and contributing factors

  1. The engine fuel control unit was contaminated with metallic debris that likely disrupted fuel flow and caused the engine to lose power.
  2. The nature and slope of the terrain in the touchdown area caused the helicopter to roll over during the emergency landing.

The official report can be found on the TSB web site.
Wildfire Today reported the incident July 29, 2010.

10 Tanker Air Carrier moving to Casper, Wyoming

Air Tanker 910, Rapid City
Air Tanker 910 at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The operator of the two DC-10 air tankers, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, will be moving their base of operations from Victorville, California, to Casper, Wyoming Rick Hatton, the CEO of the company announced today. The company’s headquarters will be at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport in central Wyoming. Mr. Hatton said, “This fantastic operational environment and its central location will allow improved response times to fires in the mountain west region.”

They expect to have both Tanker 910 and 911 available this year, one on an exclusive use contract and the second on a call when needed contract.

Tanker 911 spent some time last summer working out of Casper. One of the fires it worked on was just five miles from the airport. The remarkable photo below was taken on that fire, the Sheep Herder Hill Complex.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, drops on the Sheep Herder Hill Complex near Casper September 10, 2012. Photo by Alan Rogers, Casper Star-Tribune. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)
Tanker 911, a DC-10, drops on the Sheep Herder Hill Complex near Casper September 10, 2012. Photo by Alan Rogers, Casper Star-Tribune. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)

The status of 10 Tanker’s contract for a next-generation air tanker that was announced last week is uncertain, in light of the protest that is being lodged by Neptune Aviation. The company does not have a signed contract in hand yet, but if there are no problems, Mr. Hatton expects to have it in a matter of days. If the protest does delay the date when the DC-10 is allowed to begin work, or if the USFS has to start the contracting process over again for the third time, it could be many months before any of the seven next-generation air tankers are seen over fires.

This relocation of the company’s headquarters does not have anything to do with the U.S. Forest Service contracts. Regardless of where the agency decides to base the DC-10 on the exclusive use next-gen contract, the new home of the company will be Casper instead of Victorville.

Casper Air Tanker Base
Casper Air Tanker Base, showing two SEATs and a helicopter, August 17, 2012. Google Earth

There are at least eight tanker bases that can accommodate the DC-10 in the western United States with the existing layout of the reloading facilities, according to Pam Baltimore, an Acting Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington D.C. we talked with last year:

  • SBD – San Bernardino, CA
  • MCC – McClellen – CA (Sacramento)
  • MWH – Moses Lake, WA
  • BOI – Boise, ID
  • IWA – Mesa-Gateway, AZ (Phoenix)
  • HIF – Hill AFB, UT
  • HLN – Helena, MT
  • CPR – Casper, WY

Some other bases, such as Rapid City, can accommodate the DC-10 if a portable retardant base is set up. The existing ramp at the Rapid City Tanker Base is too cramped for a Very Large Air Tanker, but there is room on the west side of the terminal for it to be reloaded if a temporary base were set up at that location.

If the DC-10 has to travel farther between a reload base and a fire, that travel distance can be offset to a degree by the 564 mph cruising speed and the 11,600-gallon capacity, equal to about six loads in a P2V.

Neptune to protest next-generation air tanker contract awards

Neptune Aviation has announced that the company will lodge a protest with the Government Accountability Office over the contracts that the U.S. Forest Service intends to award for next-generation air tankers. On May 6 the USFS said they intended to give contracts to five companies for a total of seven air tankers to provide turbine or jet powered aircraft that can carry more retardant and fly faster than the Korean War vintage “legacy” air tankers such as the P2V that the federal wildfire agencies have been relying on for decades. Neptune did not receive one of the awards even though they have been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last several years.

When the next-gen contracts were announced May 6, the pilots of all five Neptune Aviation air tankers that were working and available for fire assignments walked away from their aircraft in California and New Mexico a little after noon. The aircraft were unstaffed until Tuesday morning. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, said it was done for safety reasons:

We did not want our crews worried about the company’s future, their jobs, BAe program, etc, instead of being 100% mission focused. We took the opportunity to get clear and concise information to them and allow for questions and concerns to be addressed.

This is not the first time contract awards for next-generation air tankers have been contested. The USFS began the contracting process for the newer air tankers November 30, 2011. Almost seven months later on June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, to provide a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrierprotested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board for four months. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012. The second time the awards were announced last week was seven months after the second solicitation was issued and 523 days after the process first began. If the USFS has to go through a third round of solicitation due to this latest protest, the appearance of next-gen air tankers over wildfires will be delayed for many more months.

The two companies that filed protests following round 1, Coulson and 10 Tanker, both received awards after round 2, which may have given confidence to Neptune to try the same tactic and perhaps force a third round.

Neptune has invested heavily in four BAe-146 aircraft, retired airliners with more than 20 years of service. Two have been converted to air tankers, Tankers 40 and 41, and have interim approval from the Interagency Air Tanker board. But their retardant delivery performance has been criticized, since the last several hundred gallons of retardant does not exit the tanks quickly enough. Neptune thinks they have a fix for the problem and the next two BAe-146s being converted now, Tankers 10 and 01, will have an improved tanking system. They expect to begin drop tests with Tanker 10 no later than June 10 of this year, Ron Hooper, their Chief Executive Officer said. The company will retrofit the tanks in Tankers 40 and 41 with the new variant of the tank next winter. One of them is currently on the USFS legacy contract for this year.

Air tankers in action

The video below shows the pilot’s view as MAFFS 4 from the Air National Guard’s 146 Air Wing makes a retardant drop on the Rock Fire near Santa Maria, California with Lead-68, probably on May 4, 2013. The video has the in-cockpit radio traffic and audio warnings — “Landing Gear, Landing Gear, Landing Gear……”

The excellent video below was shot on the Station fire near Los Angeles in 2009 and has some good drops by P2Vs — and interesting flamage.

The third video below shows several retardant drops on the High Park Fire in northern Colorado in 2012.

Changes integrated into MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS Cheyenne
MAFFS 8, a  C-130 at Cheyenne, May 7, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I spent part of the day Tuesday at the refresher training and recertification  for the crews of four military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) aircraft at Cheyenne, Wyoming. Let’s see… what time was I there?

MAFFS Cheyenne clocks
The clock at the 153 Airlift Wing in Cheyenne. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

MAFFS can be activated to provide surge capacity when the small feet of contracted federal air tankers is tied up on going fires or initial attack.

Earlier we posted some additional photos of the aircraft.

The training incorporated some of the changes to the system that were influenced by the crash of one of the MAFFS air tankers, MAFFS 7, last year in South Dakota. It appeared to be very thorough. Here is the training — by the numbers:

  • 4 — MAFFS C-130 aircraft plus one for backup
  • 6 — Lead Planes
  • 160 — people from the two Air National Guard units, plus one or two dozen ground support personnel mostly from the U.S. Forest Service
  • 49 — missions
  • 373 — drops
  • 80 — flight hours
MAFFS test, Cheyenne, WY
MAFFS test, Cheyenne, WY, May 6, 2012. US Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Patricia Findley

At Cheyenne we talked with the Air National Guard MAFFS managers from the two units participating in the joint training, Major Jeremy Schaad from Wyoming’s 153 Airlift Wing, and Lt. Col. Brian Rachford from North Carolina’s 145 Airlift Wing.

One of the changes that has been implemented is the development and use of standardized written pilot qualifications for all four military bases that can each activate two aircraft and crews. When four people on the MAFFS #7 crew were killed last year no such uniform guidelines existed. Until 2013, each Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve MAFFS base used their own criteria for determining the requirements to serve on a MAFFS aircraft. The new standards specify how many base flight hours and hours spent on previous MAFFS missions are required to be the pilot in command and the copilot. They also formalize across the four MAFFS bases procedures, training, and written manuals.

There is now an increased focus on taking the time to analyze the specific scenario for each mission, including the weather conditions and the influences of the fire.

The Air Force report about last year’s MAFFS 7 crash on the White Draw Fire said a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm was one of the causes. During a previous retardant drop on the fire about five minutes earlier, the aircraft experienced a drop in airspeed despite operating under full power. Before the second drop the crew discussed the air speed problem but decided they could adjust to the conditions. The plane crashed on the second drop. Firefighters on the ground reported very strong wind speeds about the time of the fatal drop. One estimate was 50 mph.

The MAFFS 7 flight crew obtained a detailed weather forecast for the fire they expected to fly that day in 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire at Colorado Springs, but they did not have one for the fires in South Dakota, nor did they request one when they were diverted from the Arapaho Fire in Wyoming to fires in South Dakota.

The last time the four MAFFS bases sent their eight aircraft and crews to one location for joint training was in 2010. In 2012 all four bases conducted the training on their own. This year the California and Colorado bases each did their training independently, and the Wyoming and North Carolina bases joint-trained in Cheyenne.

The crash report did not specifically state that the lack of joint training the year of the accident was an issue, but it did say this:

Local training did not include different terrain conditions, density altitudes and congested pit operations, all of which are essential components in order to comprehend what live MAFFS operations entail. Additionally, all four MAFFS units were not integrated in order to provide a more realistic learning environment for new and seasoned MAFFS crewmembers.

More information:

Ten things to know about MAFFS, military air tankers

MAFFS 5 Peterson AFB Colorado, 9-9-2011
File photo of a MAFFS II unit being loaded into a C-130 at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, September 9, 2011. Air Force Reserve photo.

Military C-130s can be used as surge resources when the privately owned contracted air tankers are committed to going fires or initial attack. They are transformed into air tankers when outfitted with the 3,000-gallon slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS).

Here are ten things you may not have known about MAFFS air tankers.

  1. Operating one of the eight MAFFS aircraft costs $5,000 to $6,000 per hour. This is paid by the U.S. Forest Service or is charged to the fire.
  2. After the crash of MAFFS 7 on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota in 2012, the  “MAFFS 7” number was retired.
  3. Since one of the MAFFS slip-in units was destroyed in the crash, MAFFS 9, a new number, is using what was the spare ninth unit. Now there is no spare unit.
  4. The U.S. Forest Service supplies the ground-based marshaling and retardant loading personnel when MAFFS are activated.
  5. Maintenance and repairs of the MAFFS slip-in units are performed by a crew of six technicians supplied by the USFS. Some of them are former Aero Union employees. The MAFFS units were made for the USFS under contracts awarded to Aero Union.
  6. The Aero Union company, after going through bankruptcy, now consists of one person who is dealing with the remaining financial issues until the doors are closed for the last time. If any new MAFFS units are manufactured, it would likely be done by another company.
  7. The USFS has copies of the technical and engineering documents and they believe they have the rights to have additional MAFFS 2 units manufactured if they desired, according to what we were told by a person who is very knowledgeable about the system. The bank that now owns Aero Union may or may not agree.
  8. The retardant is pumped out of the 3,000-gallon tank by compressed air stored in two tanks at 1,200 psi. The compressed air tanks on the new MAFFS 2 units are refilled by two onboard air compressors which can fill the tanks in 15 to 20 minutes. Or, they can be refilled by one of six portable USFS air compressors on the ground (in about 14 minutes) that are moved around to air tanker bases as needed when the MAFFS aircraft are activated. The first generation MAFFS 1 units, no longer used, did not have onboard air compressors and had to be refilled on the ground. The contracts for the MAFFS 2 units specified that the air tanks had to be refilled by the onboard air compressors in no more than 30 minutes.
  9. The military personnel working on a MAFFS aircraft typically fly for seven days, and then are relieved by a replacement crew.
  10. The USFS has no plans to ever again use the first generation MAFFS 1 units.
MAFFS compressor
A MAFFS air tanker is being refilled with compressed air and water during training at Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 7, 2013. The compressor (on the left) is one of six owned and operated by the USFS, and is moved around to air tanker bases as needed when MAFFS are activated. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Photos of the MAFFS aircraft taken during annual refresher training at Cheyenne, Wyoming May 7, 2013.