Forest Service announces contract awards for five additional air tankers

Brings the total up to on 18 exclusive use contracts

Bighorn Fire Tanker 164, an RJ85
Tanker 164, an RJ 85 operated by Aero Flite working the Bighorn Fire near Tucson, June, 2020. Ned Harris photo.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on October 27 they intend to sign contracts with three companies to add five Next Generation large air tankers (LATs) to its fleet of firefighting fixed wing aircraft. If everything goes as they hope, the FS would have 18 LATs on exclusive use (EU) contracts beginning in 2021.

This contracting process for what the FS calls Next Generation 3.0 began November 19, 2018. The first attempt to award the five LAT contracts on March 26, 2020 was protested, so now seven months later they are trying again. The vendors who did not receive these new contracts will be debriefed, allowing them to ask why they were not selected. Then, if no additional protests are filed within 10 days of the October 27 announcement, actual contracts can be signed with the three contract recipients.

The companies selected for this Next Generation 3.0 contract:

  • Coulson Aviation: one B-737, Tanker #137.
  • Aero Flite: two RJ85s.
  • Erickson Aero Tanker: two MD-87s, two of these three: Tankers 102, 103, or 107

The companies will be given only a one year guaranteed contract, with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.

In a press release the FS claimed to have “met its goal to convert to a fully Next Generation Airtanker fleet with up to 35 airtankers .” The simple math is, there are 13 now on EU contracts, so adding five brings it up to 18. They can bring on additional LATs on Call When Needed arrangements if they are available, but in 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on EU contracts. During this COVID year when the FS needed to boost the number of LATs, they gave about seven companies hybrid CWN contracts for a total of 11 LATs that were basically EU, but for 90 days, rather than the typical 160-day EU Mandatory Availability Period. The rates they negotiated were generally less than the typical CWN rates. For a while they also activated four additional LATs on a true CWN basis, with no guarantee of days worked.

In addition to temporarily adding to the fleet by using CWN aircraft, the FS can under certain conditions use up to eight military C-130 aircraft that have been outfitted with a slip-in 3,000-gallon retardant tank, a Modular FireFighting System (MAFFS). A few more tankers have been borrowed from Canada, for example Convair 580s, Tanker 471 manufactured in 1958, and Tanker 474 manufactured in 1955.

Our opinion

The last year for the six air tankers on the Next Gen 1.0 contract will be 2022, according to my calculations. Since it takes the FS about two years to award an LAT contract, the agency should begin the process for Next Gen 4.0 immediately. If they don’t get it done, there will only be 12 LATs on EU contracts.

Next Gen 1.0 and Next Gen 2.0 were for five guaranteed years with up to five more at the discretion of the FS. The trend of the FS only issuing one year guaranteed contracts is disturbing. Last week in an interview with Fire Aviation, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Neptune Aviation, was asked about the one-year contracts:

“If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved,” Mr. Snyder said. “It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.”

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer huge fires.

Fighting wildfires is a Homeland Security issue

The US Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that cost $13 billion to build — each with about 80 fighter jets.

Protecting our citizens and forests from wildfires is more important than sending our soldiers and trillions of dollars to fight wars in places that many people could not find on a map. Suppressing wildfires and managing federal forests to reduce the threat to our citizens is a Homeland Security issue and should be adequately funded. Firefighters need to be paid a living wage. You can’t fight fires on the cheap.

50 Type 1 Helicopters

Several years ago the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50.

40 Large Air Tankers

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use 10-year guaranteed contracts.

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. Under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we rely more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air. It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and on the ground supporting each other.

Forest Service has 30 large and very large air tankers currently working

The last two added were a DC-10 and a B-747

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 910, a DC-10, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

In the last week the U.S. Forest Service has added two air tankers to the roster of Call When Needed (CWN) activations, to bring the total up to 15. With the 13 air tankers on Exclusive Use (EU) arrangements, there are now 28 working on USFS contracts. Five of them are Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) — four DC-10s and one 747. With the two military C-130 MAFFS aircraft that have been mobilized, the grand total is 30.

The last two brought are VLATs — T-911 (a DC-10) and T-944 (a Boeing 747). They had both worked CWN with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for a short time until August 5 when they moved over to the USFS on a CWN contract.

Here is the list of CWN air tankers currently working for the USFS:

  1. DC-10, T-914
  2. MD-87, T-104
  3. MD-87, T-102
  4. MD-87, 103
  5. MD-87, 107
  6. B737, T-137
  7. BAe-146, T-12
  8. BAe-146, T-41
  9. BAe-146, T-02
  10. BAe-146, T-03
  11. BAe-146, T-01
  12. RJ85, T-164
  13. RJ85, T-163
  14. DC-10, T-911
  15. B747, T-944

On July 28 we posted the list of 13 air tankers on EU contracts.

Having access to 30 large air tankers (LAT) and VLATs enables more routine use of the concept of quickly attacking new fires with overwhelming force from both the ground and the air. This is an approach that can be useful anytime, except during strong winds, to reduce the number of new fires that grow to become large. But, firefighters on the ground have to be available to move in quickly to take advantage of the temporary slowing of the fire’s spread. With the federal agencies having firefighter recruitment and retention issues, this second part of the equation is not always a given.

This concept is especially valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic when fire personnel are adapting to the situation with new procedures that can reduce their threat of infection, but may also reduce to a certain extent their total daily production on the fireline. Fewer large fires can also mean less toxic smoke that can exacerbate respiratory issues suffered by COVID patients.

28 large air tankers are mobilized

The last time this many large air tankers were mobilized on long-term or medium length contracts was in 2003

large air tankers roster airtankers
Roster of large airtankers that have been mobilized, July 22, 2020. USFS.

The U.S. Forest Service has a total of 28 large air tankers actively working on their roster. The fire year started with 13 on 160-day Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. In May and June another 11 were added with 90-day contracts, then a few days ago two more came on with a “to be determined” end date. With the two National Guard C-130 MAFFS aircraft that were added today, the grand total is 28.

This is a breathtaking change from how the USFS has been managing the large air tanker program during the last 17 years. The last time there were this many available on medium to long term contracts to assist firefighters in the initial attack of new wildfires was in the early 2000s. In 2004 there were 27 on EU contracts. In 2003 there were 34, and 44 in 2002. It is common for the USFS to bring on additional Call When Needed aircraft for an unscheduled period lasting from days to weeks but most of these aircraft this year are working for a guaranteed 90 or 160 days.

Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised 2-24-2020. Fire Aviation.

Here is the breakdown with the number of aircraft by air tanker companies, as of July 22, 2020:

  • Nine; Neptune Aviation, BAe-146.
  • Six; Aero Flite, RJ85.
  • Six; Erickson Aero Air, MD-87.
  • Three; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, DC-10.
  • Two; Coulson Aviation, one C-130Q and one B-737.
  • Two; California National Guard, C-130 MAFFS. (not on USFS contract)

Most of the aircraft are certified to carry up to 3,000 gallons. The exceptions: Coulson’s two aircraft can carry 4,000, and the DC-10s are approved for 9,400.

When writing about the number of air tankers available, we often include the disclaimer that aircraft do not put out fires. But under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire long enough to allow firefighters on the ground enough time to move in and contain the spread of that section of the fire perimeter. If firefighters are not available to take advantage of the temporary slowing, fires can sometimes burn through or around the retardant or water that was dropped. During strong winds all bets are off. Nothing can stop a fire when the wind is howling and there is plenty of dry fuel available.

I have written before:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible can reduce the number of megafires.

If fires are suppressed while small, it can prevent the very large fires that can go on for weeks or months, requiring many more firefighters and aircraft to put themselves at risk for a much longer period of time than quickly hitting a fire hard during the first burning period.

Kudos to the U.S. Forest Service and the other agencies that employ firefighters for their emphasis this year on aggressively attacking new fires. The expressed reason is the conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Firefighters, to a certain extent, are slowed by some of the new safety precautions necessary to deal with the virus. In addition, reducing the amount of wood smoke in the air can cut down on the adverse impacts to patients with breathing difficulties. Preliminary evidence suggests exposure to wildfire smoke may increase susceptibility to COVID-19.

We can hope that after the United States finally gets a handle on COVID, the agencies will have developed some muscle memory about how to reduce the number of new fires that turn into megafires.

Attack aggressively with overwhelming force.

More details about the 36 firefighting helicopters awarded 90-day contracts

Korea Forest Service Air-Crane S-64
Ground and taxi test at the Medford airport October 21, 2019 for an Erickson Air-Crane purchased by the Korea Forest Service. Photo by Tim Crippin.

More details are trickling out about the 36 Type 1 and Type 2 helicopters that were awarded 90-day Exclusive Use (EU) contracts by the U.S. Forest Service in May, 2020. The agency is not releasing any information about the contracting of firefighting aircraft this Spring, but Fire Aviation has acquired documents that shed some light on the issue. Forest Service fire aviation contracts spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Below is the list that contains all  36 helicopter awards in one place.

helicopters contracts 90 day
Helicopters that received from the US Forest Service in May, 2020 guaranteed EU 90-day contracts — 24 Type 1 and 12 Type 2 helicopters. Information from the USFS.

The EU contracts for 24 Type 1 helicopters and 12 Type 2 helicopters are guaranteed for 90 days. These aircraft, based on the national Call When Needed agreement, are considered national aviation resources to be used for initial attack and large fire support. It will be possible to extend the contract period beyond 90 days depending on the national situation. The plan was for the helicopters to begin their Mandatory Availability Periods on June 1 or June 15.

In an internal memo, the Forest Service said the reason for the 90-day guaranteed contracts “…is part of an enhanced national response due to COVID-19 for the 2020 fire season.” But no doubt another reason has to be the fact that the previous four-year contract for Type 1 helicopters expired April 30, 2020. The new contract has been protested and it may not be adjudicated by the Government Accountability Office until September 8, 2020.

When the multi-year EU contracts for Type 1 helicopters were awarded earlier this month neither Erickson or Coulson appeared on the list. But on this 90-day contract, Coulson has six ships and Erickson has two. This could lead a person to believe that the Forest Service considers them to be officially classified as small businesses.

Protests for new helicopter and air tanker contracts may not be decided until July or September

Four companies filed protests with the GAO

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Five of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers in 2014. Neptune Aviation photo.

Two recent attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to award contracts for firefighting aircraft have been protested.

On March 26 the agency awarded exclusive use (EU) contracts for five Next Generation 3.0 large air tankers. Erickson Aero Air and Aero Flite were each selected for two awards and Coulson Aviation 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.

However Neptune Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. Usually a protest prevents any contract awards from a solicitation. The due date for the GAO decision in this case is July 15, 2020. Neptune currently has four large air tankers on the existing contract while 10 Tanker has two.

The other protest was for 28 Type 1 helicopters, designed to tag on to the previous four-year contract that expired April 30, 2020. Both Billings Flying Service and Croman Corp. filed protests which are due to be decided by September 8, 2020.

In May, 2020 the Forest Service awarded guaranteed EU 90-day contracts for 24 Type 1 helicopters and 12 Type 2 helicopters. These aircraft, based on the national Call When Needed agreement, are considered national aviation resources to be used for initial attack and large fire support. It will be possible to extend the contract period beyond 90 days depending on the national situation. The plan was for the helicopters to begin their Mandatory Availability Periods on June 1 or June 15.

All of the contract awards for Next Generation EU air tankers since 2013 have been protested by companies that did not receive a contract. In each case the action delayed activation of the new contracts by months. If you are interested in a deep dive into these protests, check out our April, 2020 article, “Protests of air tanker contracts have been common.”

Forest Service publishes awards for Type 1 helicopters

At least 27 helicopters are slated to receive exclusive use contracts

Type 1 Helicopter Contract May 21 2020
Contracts for Type 1 firefighting helicopters announced by the U.S. Forest Service May 21, 2020.

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.

Contracts to be awarded for 28 Type 1 firefighting helicopters

But there may be a protest

Helicopter Transport Services' Helicopter 718 Red Canyon Fire
Helicopter Transport Services’ Helicopter 718 maneuvers over the Red Canyon Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, July 19, 2016. It appears that five of the company’s ships will receive Exclusive Use contracts. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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:

  • Billings Flying Service, 2
  • Brainerd Helicopters, Inc. dba Firehawk, 1
  • Central Copters, 4
  • Coulson Aviation, 1
  • Croman, 5
  • Helicopter Transport Services, 5
  • Helimax Aviation, 2
  • Heliqwest International, 1
  • Mountain West Helicopters, 1
  • P.J. Helicopters, 1
  • Rainier Heli International, 1
  • Rotak, 2
  • Timberline Helicopters, 2

Here is the list of Type 1 contracts awarded during the previous contracting procedure in 2016:

  • Billings Flying Service: 2
  • Central Copters: 2
  • Columbia Helicopters: 5
  • Croman Corporation: 2
  • Firehawk Helicopters: 4
  • Helicopter Transport Services: 5
  • Helimax Aviation: 2
  • Mountain West Helicopters: 1
  • Heliquest International: 2
  • Rainier Helicopter International: 1
  • Swanson Group Aviation: 2
  • Siller Helicopters: 4
  • Timberline Helicopters: 2

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.

When contracts were issued for 34 EU Type 1 helicopters in 2013 the U.S. Forest Service refused to divulge which companies received them. We first asked for the information on April 16, 2013, hoping to receive it well before the western wildfire season got underway. We were told that the list was only available if we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which we did. After many delays, countless emails, excuses, and being sent incorrect information, we finally received it September 26, 2013 as the western wildfire season was beginning to wind down and more than five months after asking for it.

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.

USFS awards 90-day contracts for 22 additional helicopters

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.

On May 9 the agency released a list of 14 helicopters for the >1,600 tier.


Contract wildfire Helicopter 90-day awards
Screenshot of the USFS list. May 13, 2020.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob. Typos or errors, report them HERE.