Forest Service relying more on Call When Needed air tankers

But the CWN contracts first advertised May 30, 2018 for additional aircraft have not been awarded

(Originally published at 8:40 a.m. MDT October 4, 2018)

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23 testing over McClellan, August, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

This year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts from 20 in 2017 to only 13. There are an additional 11 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts which may be activated — if they are available with flight crews and mechanics to staff them. An analysis we completed in February found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than EU aircraft. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

The Forest Service began the solicitation process for additional large and very large CWN air tankers May 30, 2018, but no contracts have been awarded. The specifications for both sizes of air tankers were changed six times. The last revision on September 7 occurred three days after protests by 10 Tanker Air Carrier for both solicitations were denied by the Government Accountability Office. It appears that the contracts will only be awarded after the fire season in most of the western states has wound down.

Below is a press release issued October 1 by the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association.


A huge number of exceptionally destructive, back to back wildland fires throughout the Western United States this year is prompting some aerial firefighting companies to add resources, assuming that future fire events will be equally frequent and devastating.

At the same time, a few operators see a greater need for long-term, exclusive use contracts with the US Forest Service (USFS)—the domestic industry’s primary customer—in order to assure the funding stability necessary to hire more personnel and purchase additional aircraft, if needed. Awarded on a bid-basis, exclusive use contracts run up to four years in duration, and guarantee a set fee per day, usually over several months, to keep the aircraft available for duty, whether or not it flies. In addition, the customer sets a rate paid for each hour the airplane is flying on a fire.

This year, however, the USFS issued more call when needed contracts, in which a day rate, plus a fee per flight hour is paid only for the duration of the assignment, which could be as little as one day.

“For the fixed wing tankers, the USFS put only 13 aircraft on exclusive use contracts this year, compared to 20 in 2017,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based aerial firefighting industry trade group. “However, the smaller number of exclusive use contracts was the result of the June release of requests for proposals (RFP) from the Forest Service.”

“I would like to see more exclusive use contracts, so we could dedicate more of our fleet to firefighting,” said Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation in Sacramento. Beckham reported that since early April, four of the company’s bucket-equipped CH-47D helicopters worked on fires mostly in Oregon and Montana, and in California, under USFS exclusive use and call when needed contracts; as well as under call when needed contracts with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

One of the busiest years in its history, Helimax had to dispatch extra mechanics and supplies to support the additional hours the helicopters flew. In preparation for next year’s fire season, Helimax, which has three avionics mechanics, plans to increase that number by eight for field repairs, Beckham reported.

For Intermountain Helicopter, a Sonora, California-based operator of a single Bell 212, the 2018 fire season has been its “busiest since 1984, in terms of assignments,” according to company President Rick Livingston. This year, he said, the helicopter has operated in an initial attack mode, solely within California under USFS and CAL FIRE call when needed contracts. One of the assignments kept the aircraft flying for over a month on the Carr Fire, one of the state’s most destructive.

“As a small company, operating a single helicopter, we’ve done all we can to prepare for the future,” Livingston stated. “There’s not much else to do, except quickly react to any mechanical problems. So far, any downtime for the helicopter has involved replacements of timed out life-limited parts.”

While adding a helicopter to its fleet might be viewed as an option, Livingston explained it would be “a tough call” for a small operator. “That’s because you don’t know, from year to year, if there will be enough work for an additional helicopter,” he stressed. “This would be an issue, especially when operating helicopters under call when needed contracts.”

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer, of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, reported that his company, which operates nine BAe 146 fixed wing airtankers, responded to the fires this year, with four aircraft under call when needed contracts, in addition to those under exclusive use.

“If the trend toward call when needed contracts continues, costs may increase,” Snyder cautioned. “As an industry, with call when needed contracts, the utilization is uncertain and the impact of not being able to efficiently perform essential maintenance does cause costs to increase.”

Snyder added that, under exclusive use contracts, it is easier to plan maintenance and training—which reduces costs–since the operator knows how long the aircraft will be needed. “Under a call when needed contract, you have to maintain the aircraft within a tighter timeframe. This means compressing the maintenance period, to get more work done in a shorter period of time.”

Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters deployed a fleet of six helicopters, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, under exclusive use and call when need USFS contracts, according to Keith Saylor, the company’s Director of Commercial Operations. One helicopter, a Columbia Helicopters Model 234, working under a USFS exclusive use contract, operated on the Mendocino Complex fire, which was California’s largest to date.

Because of the heavy fire activity, the company had to escalate both the flight and maintenance support of its operations. “This meant sending additional people and components to support the helicopters in the field,” Saylor remarked.

Saylor called the 2018 fire season an “above average year for assignments to fires”. However, he reported that going forward, the company will do more prepositioning of its helicopters, as they become available for call when needed contracts—which he said have worked out well for the company, given its diversity of work.

“We look at maps and forecasts to determine the most likely places for high fire risk, then position the aircraft in those areas,” he explained.

Forest Service contracts for aircraft onboarding analysis

When we saw the solicitation above and read the detailed description, we thought the U.S. Forest Service was planning to add more air tankers to their fleet or resurrect the Coast Guard HC-130H program, but that turned out to not be the case.

The solicitation seeks to hire seven contract personnel, with most of them being required to work out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It closed April 10 after being open for only about two weeks.

Their tasks will include:

  • Program and project management support;
  • Development of operations and management strategy;
  • Acquisition program support for aviation support contracts;
  • Technology insertion for aviation assets and facilities;
  • Analysis and implementation of supportability services for airframe, engine, and avionics.
  • Economic analysis for technology insertion and transformation efforts;
  • Safety program support for aviation and ground operations.

In February the Administration announced their desire to abandon the acquisition and conversion of seven Coast Guard HC-130H’s into firefighting air tankers after spending tens of millions on the project. They intend to operate one this year that is partially complete, borrowing a slip-in MAFFS retardant system.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, using a MAFFS unit to spray retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

We asked Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones for a plain text translation of the language in the solicitation:

This solicitation is for engineering services needed for the USDA Forest Service to have one HC-130H equipped with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) available to fly wildfire suppressions this year (2018) as in 2015 and 2017. The current contract for these services expires May 31st.

Ms. Jones supplied an update on the future of the HC-130H air tanker program:

Section 1098(a) of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the USDA Forest Service for use as Airtankers in wildfire suppression. Based on recent increased private sector investment in Next Generation Airtankers, the agency has determined that government-owned Airtankers are no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required Airtanker needs. As such, the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget notes that the USDA Forest Service will seek Congressional support to terminate the NDAA provisions pertaining to agency-owned HC-130H aircraft. Any changes or modifications to these provisions will require Congressional action.

So apparently this contract for seven people mostly working out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, will be to support one aircraft. If, however, unlike Ms. Jones’ description, they could perform these services for the entire USFS Fire and Aviation Management aircraft fleet, including contracting, it could be a worthwhile investment.

We are reminded that in June, 2015, 522 days after the USFS HC-130H acquisition began, they came to a conclusion, according to a Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

 

34 Type 2 helicopters awarded contracts

The contract was effective April 6.

Above: A Bell 205A-1 Type 2 helicopter lands at the Salmon, Idaho helitack base while working on wildfires in the area, July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

New exclusive use contracts have been awarded for 34 Type 2 firefighting helicopters. Announced by FedBizOps on April 6, the duration is for one base year through April 30, 2019, with the possibility of 3 one-year renewal option periods. The U.S. Forest Service has shown by how they manage the air tanker and Type 1 helicopter contracts that the option periods are definitely not a sure thing after cutting those aircraft during recent optional years.

All of the Type 2 helicopters are Bell products: 205, 210, and 212. The daily availability rates range from $5,500 to $8,800 while the hourly rates are $1,884 to $2,175.

The last Type 2 exclusive use contract awarded in December, 2013 for 31 helicopters also specified one base year with three optional years. The contract before that was for 33 helicopters.

The Forest Service also has helicopters on Call When Needed contracts, on the hope that they will be available when the phone rings. CWN aircraft, both fixed and rotor wing, cost more than exclusive use ships. For example, the 2017 average daily rate for large federal call when needed air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Incident Command System specifications helicopters
Incident Command System specifications for helicopters. Interagency Helicopter Operations Guide, 2016.

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

Only 40% of requests for Type 1 helicopters were filled on wildfires in 2017

Last year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of Type 1 ships by 18%.

Above: N137BH, a Sikorsky 70A or “Firehawk” helicopter, flies to refill its water bucket after dropping on the Rankin Fire in South Dakota September 13, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 5:34 p.m. MT February 8, 2018)

The stats are in for the use of firefighting helicopters in 2017. The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

Type 1 helicopters are the largest used on fires, carrying 700 to 2,800 gallons.

One important change in 2017 was the 18 percent reduction in the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contract. For several years the U.S. Forest Service had contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled

These contracts require continuous availability throughout the mandatory availability period, which can be 180 days or more. Other helicopters may or may not be procured on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract. A CWN aircraft could be tied up on something else or undergoing heavy maintenance when the phone in the office rings asking if they can respond to a fire. And CWN aircraft cost the government much more to operate than EU resources.

These large helicopters are beloved by wildland firefighters, since they can strategically drop with pinpoint accuracy thousands of gallons of water or retardant while working close air support with ground personnel. This can cool and slow the spread of the fire, enabling crews to work nearer the fire edge. A series of water drops can enable hand crews to make steady progress on active flanks of the fire. Helicopters can often refill with water from a nearby lake or tank, making 5 to 15 minute turnarounds. A fixed wing air tanker that has to refill at an airport takes much longer.

The six helicopters that were cut last year:

  1. Prineville, Oregon (BK-1200) Swanson Group Aviation
  2. Helena, Montana (BK-1200) Central Helicopters
  3. Hamilton, Montana (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  4. Custer, South Dakota (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  5. Lancaster, California (CH-54A) Siller Helicopters
  6. Minden, Nevada (CH-54A) Helicopter Transport Services

Type 1 helicopters are frequently moved around depending on fire danger and incident activity and are often not at their home base.

What do aircraft studies recommend?

In March, 2017 when it was revealed that the six helicopters were being cut, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones explained the agency’s rationale:

At this time, the agency has determined 28 to be the appropriate number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts given current types and numbers of other aircraft in the fleet. This is in line with the 2012 Airtanker Modernization Strategy.

She said “Up to 30 additional Type 1 helicopters” are on Call When Needed contracts, which includes the six that no longer have EU contracts.

The Airtanker Modernization Strategydoes not make an independent recommendation on the number of helicopters or air tankers that are needed. But it refers to a study conducted from 2007 to 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, which concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers. At the beginning of the 2017 western fire season there were 20 large and very large air tankers on EU contracts plus two water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

Our opinion

As this is being written, the politicians we elect to represent us in Washington are trying to put together a last minute (literally) federal budget that will keep the government from shutting down again tonight. They are proposing to increase the dollars spent on Defense by $165 billion. This would raise the total military budget for the next two years to $1.4 trillion. (A source in D.C. told us there is a chance the legislation will include a fix to the fire borrowing fiasco, where funds are taken from other functions to pay for wildfire suppression.)

Everyone agrees that the military needs to be adequately funded, but in 2016 the amount the U.S. spent on defense was almost equal to what the next 14 countries combined spent.

Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post, February 9, 2016:

On Tuesday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies released its Military Balance 2016 report, which seeks to examine closely the changing nature of military power. On a grand scale, the report showed – yet again – that U.S. military spending easily dwarfed the rest of the world. With a defense budget of around $597 billion, it was almost as much as the next 14 countries put together and far larger than the rest of the world.

military spending
Military spending, U.S and the rest of the world. Washington Post.

Much of the defense budget is spent in countries on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the defense of our Homeland gets cut. Last year we saw 18 percent fewer Type 1 helicopters and the number of large air tankers was 57 percent of the recommendation in the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy.

Our suggestion is to prioritize the defense and protection of our citizens, homeland, forests, parks, grasslands, refuges, prairies, and wildlands FIRST, before considering spending trillions on the other side of the world.