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.”

More information about Croman’s S-61A crash

S-61A crash sikorsky helicopter
S-61A crash

It was initially described as a “hard landing”. However, information from the FAA and a photo we received indicate an incident that involved one of Croman’s S-61A Sikorsky helicopters on August 19, 2015 (that we wrote about on August 24) was more than that. We can’t verify with 100 percent certainty that the helicopter in the photo above is Croman’s S-61A, N1043T that crashed that day while working on the Eldorado Fire eight miles southeast of Unity, Oregon. But the person who sent us the photo said it is, and the paint job, the position of the helicopter, and the damage to the tail boom match the NTSB’s description of the crash.

Below is text from the NTSB Preliminary Report, ID# WPR15LA248, that was updated on September 3, 2015:

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“14 CFR Part 133: Rotorcraft Ext. Load
Accident occurred Wednesday, August 19, 2015 in Ironside, OR
Aircraft: SIKORSKY S 61A, registration: N1043T
Injuries: 1 Minor, 1 Uninjured.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On August 19, 2015, about 1930 Pacific daylight time, a Sikorsky S-61A, N1043T, landed on a mountainside after experiencing a partial loss of engine power about 7 miles west of Ironside, Oregon. The commercial pilot sustained no injuries and the air transport pilot sustained minor injuries. The helicopter sustained substantial damage to the tailboom. The helicopter was registered to, and operated by, Croman Corp under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 133 as a firefighting flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight, which operated under a company flight plan. The flight originated from Baker City Municipal Airport (BKE), Baker City, Oregon at 1715.

The commercial pilot reported that shortly after picking up a bucket of water from a pond he gained airspeed and initiated a climbing left turn back towards the fire. As the helicopter started to climb, he heard a drop in RPM and the helicopter lost power. He attempted to continue the climb; however, the helicopter was too heavy. He released the water and landed the helicopter on a mountain side; subsequently, the helicopter rolled onto its right side.

The helicopter has been recovered to a secure location for further examination.”

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UPDATE, September 15, 2015:

Earlier this year a Croman S-61A helicopter’s main rotor hit a tree while dipping water on the Cabin Fire on the Sequoia National Forest in California. Below is an excerpt from the Rapid Lesson Sharing report dated August 4, 2015:

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“…As the pilots descended into the dipsite, the SIC communicated instructions to the PIC to “stay left” of the trees. While in the dip, the PIC heard what he suspected was a blade strike, called out the strike, jettisoned the water and immediately initiated a climb out to get clear of the area.

The pilots assessed the condition of the blades and saw no noticeable damage while in flight. On the climb out, the SIC noticed a smaller di-ameter tree (estimated to be about 8 ft. in height) that had been located at the helicopter’s 4 o’clock position, and missing its top. The Air Attack was notified about the potential blade strike and the pilots provided their intentions to land at the first opportunity. During the short flight to the first suitable landing site, the pilots noted no vibrations or abnormalities.

The crew performed a precautionary landing in a field located approximately 10 minutes away from the dip site. The Helicopter Manager was notified of the situation via cell phone. After shut down was complete, the pilots inspected the main rotor blade damage. Maintenance inspectors determined the main rotor blades, rotor-head, transmission and high speed shafts required replacement. The NTSB deter-mined the blade strike as an “Incident”, and it was further classified by the Forest Service as an “Incident with Potential”…”

Photos of aircraft at Aerial Firefighting conference

CAL FIRE OV-10
CAL FIRE OV-10

We took these photos last week, March 20, at the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento. There were about 90 minutes set aside for displays of firefighting aircraft at McClellan Air Force base, as well as live demonstrations of water and water pellet drops from a helicopter, and the use of the AirTEP Airborne Tactical Extraction Platform marketed by Aerial Machine Tool. We have photos of Coulson’s C-130Q in another article.

CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
Croman S-61 dropping water
Croman S-61 dropping water
Croman S-61 with modified tank for water pellets
Croman S-61 with modified tank for water pellets

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