How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?

We calculated the cost per delivered gallon

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

Today I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Statistics for the use of air tankers, 2000 through 2019

And, more details about the new Call When Needed contracts

 
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised Feb. 24, 2020. Fire Aviation.

(Updated Feb. 24, 2020)

This chart shows data from 2000 through 2019 for the number of large air tankers (LAT) on U.S. Forest Service Exclusive Use (EU) Contracts, the number of times each year large air tankers were requested by firefighters on a wildfire, and the percentage of requests that were not filled (Unable to Fill, UTF). 

New Call When Needed contracts

More information is now available about the Large Air Tanker Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in December, 2019. Six companies have a total of 36 aircraft on the list, a number of aircraft that is one more than first announced.

The costs below are estimates provided by the Forest Service for one aircraft  based on the contracts awarded. Kaari Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service who sent us the information, told us that the estimates assume 36 days a year, for 4 years, and 100 flight hours a year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold approximately 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

Update February 13, 2020. With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above, it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and not including the costs of retardant, are: 
$7.00:  MD-87
$8.50:  BAe-146, C-130, & 737
$10.00: RJ85
$4.50:  DC-10
$3.00:  747

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. 

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2007 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

The CWN contract was awarded 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018 —  the exact amount of time it took to award the first Next-Generation EU air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013.

Exclusive Use Next Generation 3.0 contracts

And speaking of long time frames, it has been 450 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for the third round of EU Next Gen air tankers, Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required 12 months ago. Ms. Carpenter told us today that the FS expects it to be awarded in “early March, 2020.”

Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study

The Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study began approximately 2,812 days ago in 2012 and to date no substantive results have been released, other than a two-page “fact sheet”.  Senator Lisa Murkowski asked about the study during a Congressional hearing April 9, 2019 and FS Chief Vicki Christiansen told her a report would be released “soon”. Ms. Carpenter told us today it would be released in the Spring of this year, 2020.

In the hearing 10 months ago Colorado Senator Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

When asked if firefighting aircraft were worth the cost and if they were effective, the answers from land management agencies have often been, “Yes”.

How do you know?

“We just do”. (I’m paraphrasing here).

The study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires. Theoretically this would better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

Last year one person familiar with the issue told me that they thought the actual, accurate data from the AFUE would never be released — like the situation with the RAND air tanker study that the Forest Service never released even after our Freedom of Information Act request. Two years after it was completed RAND released the document.

13 large air tankers under contract for 2019

Currently six of them have been activated

Aero-Flite's Tanker 161
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 161, an RJ85, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. One of the 13 large air tankers under EU contract for 2019 as of April 12, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 13 large air tankers (LATs) under exclusive use contracts for this year according to the latest information from the U.S. Forest Service as of April 12, 2019. They will be working under the Next Generation Air Tanker contracts, versions 1.0 and 2.0. (Update: list of tankers)

Currently six of them have been activated according to the estimated starting dates of the Mandatory Availability Periods (MAP). On April 17 a seventh will begin. The rest will come on between May 1 and May 29.

The 13 air tankers confirmed so far on exclusive use contracts for 2019 are:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier: 910 and 912 (DC-10)
  • Coulson: 131 (C-130Q)
  • Aero Air: 101 and 107, (MD-87)
  • Aero Flite: 160, 161, 163, and 167 (RJ85)
  • Neptune: 01, 15, 16, and 40

All 13 are slated for 160 MAP days but could be extended if necessary.

The baker’s dozen aircraft are likely to be augmented in the not too distant future when the Next Gen 3.0 contract advertised December 2, 2018 is awarded for exclusive use LATs. Forest Service officials are currently going through the submissions which had to be submitted by Valentine’s Day. The solicitation only had five line items, so it appears that a maximum of five air tankers could be added to the contract list, bringing the total up to 18 for this summer.

Recently the FS has been awarding contracts that only guarantee one year, with another four being at the whim of the agency. This makes it very difficult for potential vendors to acquire financing and build multimillion dollar air tankers that may not receive a contract, and if they do, it could only be for one year. Last year the Canadian Province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven government-owned water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

The Forest Service Aviation Strategy Implementation 2018-2022 dated March, 2018 established that the plan for the number of exclusive use large air tankers and helicopters would be exactly the same during fiscal years 2019 through 2022:

  • 18 large air tankers (down from 44 in 2002)
  • 28 Type 1 helicopters (down from 34 a few years ago)
  • 34 Type 2 helicopters
  • 46 Type 3 helicopters

If there is a need for more than 18 LATs, approval of orders for Call When Needed (CWN) ships must be first approved by the Washington Office of the FS. This cost saving effort that began in 2018 is intended to create greater accountability and oversight for aircraft. There are probably more than a dozen large air tankers sitting on ramps over and above the 13 presently on contract for this year.

The FS has two pending contracts that have not yet been awarded for CWN air tankers: large and very large. The responses for LATs are due April 18, 2019 while the VLATs were due seven months ago.

UPDATE April 17, 2019: The VLAT CWN solicitation has been effectively cancelled, but changes made to the LAT CWN solicitation with responses due tomorrow made it possible for VLATs to meet the contract specifications, so they can be considered along with the LATs. The USFS made so many changes to the solicitation, 12 amendments, that they are calling it CWN 2.1 Request for Proposals. The response due date, originally in the summer of 2018, has been extended at least nine times.

2017 was a busy year for air tankers

In spite of that, the numbers of air tankers and helicopters are being slashed

CL-415, air tanker

Above: A water-scooping air tanker, a CL-415, at Sacramento, March 12, 2018.

In our notes from the Aerial Firefighting conference HERE and HERE, we included information about how some air tankers were busier than usual in 2017:

  • Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation, said their air tankers in 2016 averaged 180 hours while working on wildfires. In 2017 that increased to 276 hours each.
  • Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said each of their three DC-10s averaged about 300 hours on fires in 2017, which is more than usual.
  • Shawna Legarza, the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, said the two Aero-Flite CL-415 scooping air tankers that were on exclusive use (EU) USFS contracts in 2017 each had over 400 hours of fire flight time.

After we reported the information above, Jason Robinson, the Chief CL-415 pilot for Aero-Flite contacted us to supply more details. He generally  confirmed the numbers reported  by Ms. Legarza and said their two EU and two CWN CL-415’s averaged 410 hours each. In July and August alone the four scoopers flew 1,036 hours. The company brought in extra staffing to provide seven-day coverage and manage pilot fatigue. He said that in 2017, 12 Canadian CL-415’s and CL-215’s worked in California and Montana.

Mr. Robinson said they have operated CL-415’s in Alaska for up to 12 hours a day by double-crewing the aircraft.

Due to a reduction in the federal firefighting budget by the Administration and Congress, there will be no scoopers on the EU list this year. Some are still on a CWN contract, but they may or may not be available if the USFS Calls them When Needed. The large air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13 while the large Type 1 helicopters have been reduced from 34 to 28.

Two Aero-Flite scoopers began contracts this week

Two of Aero-Flite’s CL-415 scoopers, Tankers 260 and 263, began the Mandatory Availability Period on their exclusive use contracts on Monday. The company is hoping their other CL-415’s, Tankers 261 and 262, will be awarded call when needed contracts on the scooper solicitation that closed in March.

four CL-415 cody wy
Four CL-415 water-scooping air tankers at Cody, Wyoming during the week of August 1, 2016. Photo by Becky Lester Hawkins.

Aero-Flite also has two RJ85’s actively working on contracts and two others begin in the third week of May. They have one or two others available as call when needed depending on maintenance status.

Aero-Flite's Tanker 161
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 161, an RJ85, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Update on USFS HC-130H’s and other air tankers

four CL-415 cody wy
Four CL-415 water-scooping air tankers at Cody, Wyoming during the week of August 1, 2016. Some of them had been working the nearby Whit Fire and scooping out of Buffalo Bill Reservoir six miles from the fire. Photo by Becky Lester Hawkins.

Ten additional air tankers brought on temporarily

In the last few weeks the U.S. Forest Service has brought on ten additional air tankers on a temporary basis. This includes CL-415 water-scoopers, CV-580’s, and Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130’s. Two of the aircraft were acquired through Call When Needed (CWN) agreements; four via agreements with Alaska and Canada; two MAFFS through an agreement with the Department of Defense; and two water scoopers through other contracts.

HC-130H’s

The U.S. Forest Service expects to have two HC-130H aircraft at McClellan Air Field in September. These are part of the seven aircraft fleet of HC-130H’s that the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015.

Last year one of the HC-130H’s worked out of McClellan using a MAFFS, a slip-in 3,000-gallon pressurized retardant system that pumps the liquid out the left side troop door. That was aircraft #1721 designated as Tanker 118, still painted in military colors. T-118 is now undergoing scheduled depot-level maintenance and should be replaced in September of this year by #1708 designated as Tanker 116. It will also use a slip-in MAFFS unit, one of the eight owned by the USFS, but should be sporting a new USFS air tanker paint job. After T-118 left, another former Coast Guard aircraft took its place, #1706. It is being used for training the contracted pilots and will not serve as an air tanker.

Early in 2015 the plan was to have two HC-130H’s at McClellan. One would be used as an air tanker, and the second would be used as a training platform. Below is a portion of that early 2015 plan which we covered February 9, 2015.

Forest Service C-130H schedule
The USFS plans in early 2015 for incorporating the seven HC-130H aircraft into a Government-Owned/Contractor-Operated fleet of air tankers. Click to enlarge.

Eventually the USFS hopes to have all seven converted to air tankers with removable retardant tanks. A contract for the installation of the retardant delivery systems was awarded to the Coulson Group in May. There is also much other work that has to be completed on the aircraft including programmed depot maintenance, painting, and wing box replacement on most of them. The work is being done or coordinated by the U.S. Air Force. They were directed by Congressional legislation to use their own funds, up to $130 million, so it is no surprise that the schedule keeps slipping as delays continue to occur in awarding contracts and scheduling the maintenance.

In 2014 Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS, said all seven aircraft would be completely converted by 2018. In early 2015 the USFS changed that to 2019. Now, a year and a half later, it’s anybody’s guess when or if this project that started in December of 2013 will be finished.

CL-415’s

The USFS has two water-scooping CL-415 air tankers on exclusive use contract. As noted above they recently temporarily brought on two more on a call when needed basis. All four are operated by AeroFlite and as seen in the photo above were together at Cody last week.

Air Spray

There was some discussion in the comment section of another article on Fire Aviation about the status of the BAe-146 aircraft being converted to air tankers by Air Spray. The company has five of the 146’s; two are out of the country and the other three are at the company’s Chico, California facility. Ravi Saip, their Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told Fire Aviation that they expect to begin flight testing one of them in air tanker mode around the first of the year. After they receive a supplemental type certificate from the FAA, work on the second one would shift into high gear. Then conversion of the other three would begin.

T-241
Air Spray’s T-241 finishing its amphibious conversion at the Wipaire facility in Minnesota. Air Spray photo.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 single engine air tankers that they have purchased since 2014. Five of them have received the amphibious conversion by adding floats, and the other three are stock, restricted to wheels.

Air Spray’s Tanker 498, an L-188 Electra, is currently in Sacramento being inspected and carded by CAL FIRE so that it can be used in a Call When Needed capacity.

747 SuperTanker

Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, told us that the FAA has awarded a supplemental type certificate for their reborn 747 SuperTanker — a major and sometimes very difficult barrier to overcome. Within the next two weeks they expect to receive the airworthiness certificate.

air tanker 747 T-944 colorado springs
T-944 at Colorado Springs May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Beginning next week representatives from the USFS will observe some additional static tests and then there will be an airborne descent test, a new test added in 2013, releasing retardant in a downhill drop. That test was not required when Version 1.0 of the 747 was certified. It may have been added after it was discovered that the first BAe-146’s that were converted and issued contracts still retained hundreds of gallons of retardant after downhill runs.

These steps should take less than two weeks, Mr. Wheeler said, after which they will submit the results to the Interagency AirTanker Board.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told Fire Aviation that the company was offered an opportunity to submit a proposal for a call when needed contract solicitation in 2015, along with numerous other companies, but declined to do so. Their next opportunity to obtain a contract will be when another general solicitation is issued in 2017, or perhaps sooner, Ms. Jones said. The agency issued a Request for Information a few weeks ago, which is usually followed some months later with an actual solicitation.

Judging from the list of CWN air tankers with contracts, apparently it is possible to submit a proposal and receive a USFS CWN contract even if the aircraft exists mostly on paper and could be years away from being FAA and Interagency AirTanker Board certified.

In the meantime Mr. Wheeler realizes that the USFS is not the only organization that hires air tankers and has been talking with a number of other agencies in various states and countries as well as companies involved in marine firefighting.

Global SuperTanker is in the process of finishing repairs on the 747 in Arizona after some of the composite flight control surfaces (flaps, spoilers, elevators) and engine cowlings were damaged by golf ball sized hail at Colorado Springs several weeks ago. There was no windscreen or fuselage damage.

Mr. Wheeler said that was the first severe hailstorm within the last seven years at the Colorado Springs airport. But, after the aircraft left to be repaired in Arizona a second hailstorm struck the airport that some have said was a 100-year event and did much more damage than the first one.

Permanent base for the HC-130H air tankers

On September 2, 2015 the USFS formally requested information from facilities that could support the seven-aircraft HC-130H fleet (Solicitation Number SN-2015-16), with responses due September 16. The agency was only asking for information from interested parties, and will not award a contract based on the Request for Information. A few politicians fell all over themselves arguing that the aircraft should be based in their state.

Since then no decisions have been made. Ms. Jones told Fire Aviation:

The U.S. Forest Service continues to cooperate with the Department of Defense to identify potential federal facilities, which must be considered first.

It is unlikely that more than one or two of the seven HC-130H’s would be at the new base at at any one time, except during the winter when they would not have to be dispersed around the country to be available for firefighting. While the base might not be a huge expansion of the aerial firefighting capabilities in an area, the stationing of the flight crews, maintenance, and administrative personnel would be a boost to the economy of a small or medium-sized city.

Photos of two water-scooping air tankers in Oklahoma

Air Tanker 262, a CL-415

Above: Air Tanker 262, a CL-415, in Oklahoma, April 7, 2016. Photo by John Wilson.

John Wilson sent us photos of the two CL-415 water-scooping air tankers that are on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contract. We were not sure which two AeroFlite aircraft were on the contract until we saw his photos. Now we know it is T-261 and T-262. We updated the 2016 contract list first published March 2, 2016.

John said the air tankers were seen near Bethel Acres, Oklahoma. They were most likely scooping water from Shawnee Twin Lakes in Pottawatomie County and then dropping the water on a fire a few miles to the south.

John said:

It was early evening and I was losing light but the Nikon handled it pretty well. I didn’t realize there was more than one aircraft until I started processing the images and noticed the tanker numbers.

Air Tanker 261, a CL-415
Air Tanker 261, a CL-415, in Oklahoma, April 7, 2016. Photo by John Wilson.

Thanks John.

U.S. Forest Service awards contract for two water scoopers

Aero-Flite will supply two CL-415 air tankers for one to five years.

T-260 at Sacramento McClellan Airport

Above: Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260, a CL-415, at McClellan Air Field, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The daily availability rate for the two Aero-Flite CL-415 air tankers will be $42,285 with an hourly rate of $13,299. That daily rate is higher than all of the 21 large air tankers on contract. And only two large air tankers have a higher hourly rate — one of the DC-10s and the USFS/Coast Guard C-130.

The maximum five-year value of the contract is $142,524,440 for the two aircraft.

It is our understanding that the contract used last year expired. This new solicitation specified that the USFS would hire “up to two” aircraft for a period of time “not to exceed five years”. Obviously the agency made a decision and settled on two scoopers. We checked with Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, who told us that it is definitely a five-year contract.

One Aero-Flite CL-415 was on USFS contract in 2015, Tanker 260 (N389AC). The two this year are N386AC and N392AC. We don’t yet have their tanker numbers.

In past years the Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted for one or two twin engine water scoopers, CL-215s I believe, but no longer. This year they will have at least one amphibious water-scooping Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT), an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more, Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA, told us earlier this month.

There will also be a large number of non-water-scooping SEATs, perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out.

We updated the 2016 tanker list originally published March 2, 2016

The twin engine CL-415 can carry up to 1,600 gallons of water, refilling the tank by skimming along the surface of a lake as water enters the scoop that is lowered from the belly of the aircraft.

tanker 260 scoop
The scoop on the bottom of Tanker 260 used to fill the tank as the aircraft skims along the surface of a lake. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

 

Air Tankers at Dryden
Air Tankers, mostly water scoopers, at Dryden (Ontario) Regional Airport in June, 2015 before they were dispersed around the province of Ontario, Canada to deal with the rising number of wildfires. Photo by Chris Sherwin.