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.

Two CWN large airtankers to be activated

An MD-87 and a 737

Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Jeffco
Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Jeffco, May, 2020; a sister ship to the one activated on CWN. Photo by @skippyscage

The Forest Service has activated two Call When Needed large air tankers for a 90-day Mandatory Availability Period. This is a guaranteed 90-day contract, not the typical CWN arrangement when they can work a few days and then be sent home.

Tanker 104 (an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87) is scheduled to start today, May 30, and Tanker 137 (a Coulson B-737) will start June 1. Their administrative bases will be Porterville and McCall, respectively.

After these are on board, there will be 15 large and very large federal air tankers on duty. For the United States. In 2002 there were 44 on exclusive use contracts.

Forest Service to sign 35 air tankers on Call When Needed agreements

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.

The U.S. Forest Service will be signing Call When Needed (CWN) agreements for air tanker services with six companies for a total of 35 aircraft. The agency made it official on December 5, exactly 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018. If that sounds familiar, it took the same amount of time to award the Next-Generation air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013. The number “35” is misleading because most if not all of the 13 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts also have CWN contracts.

The number of aircraft on this new CWN Basic Ordering Agreement can be deceiving, since it includes in some cases air tankers that already have Exclusive Use (EU) contracts, plus of course air tankers that have never been on a USFS contract. Vendors with aircraft currently on the EU contract would also want them on the CWN agreement in case there is a need for tankers outside the Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) specified in the EU contract.

This year there have been 13 air tankers on EU contracts and 8 on CWN agreements. One vendor told me that the USFS personnel said they could submit a tanker that is not built yet as long as it is fully certified by June, 2020. On the other hand, a person from a tanker company told me they were  required to fly their ships to Boise to be inspected, even the ones that were actively working on an EU contract, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Lessons  were learned after the first Next-Generation contracting process in 2013 gave EU contracts to some planes that never became reality. One of the earlier CWN agreements had many aircraft listed that only appeared in the dreams of the potential vendors.

We will post a list of the 35 individual aircraft on this new agreement when it is available, but we know they represent six companies:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Albuquerque, NM
  • Aero Air, Hillsboro, OR
  • Aero Flite, Spokane, WA
  • Coulson Aviation USA, Portland, OR
  • Global SuperTanker Services, Colorado Springs, CO
  • Neptune Aviation Services, Missoula, MT

This is the first CWN agreement that includes both large and very large air tankers (VLATs). When the process began in 2018 it was only for large, and excluded the DC-10 and 747 operated by 10 Tanker and Global SuperTanker. But after extensive negotiations between vendors and the government, and at least one protest, VLATs were finally allowed to participate. The original solicitation was amended at least 10 times. Some of the people presently running the USFS air tanker program think VLATs can only be effective on large fires, and not initial attack. Others might say if a section of a fire, say, 1,000 linear feet, is going to be knocked down or slowed by an air drop, from a scientific point of view what difference does it make if that 1,000-foot section of fire is on initial attack or a larger fire? And after that drop it can circle around and make another one. And another one after that, etc., without additional ferry and reload time between drops.

Quick, aggressive initial attack with overwhelming force on a fire from both the ground and the air can prevent a small fire from becoming a megafire.

Even though the final decision by the USFS of which aircraft would be part of the new CWN agreement was made December 5, the five companies that we were able to immediately contact today were not aware they were receiving the awards. One of them told me later that after we had talked he contacted the USFS who told him official letters would be sent out later this week.

The CWN Basic Ordering Agreement is different from the EU contracts. There is no guarantee that an aircraft on CWN will ever earn a dime. One of the vendors said that even though the application process requires the submission of pricing for daily and hourly rates, those are not etched in stone and may be renegotiated if and when it is activated. In contrast, an aircraft on one of the 13 coveted EU contracts will almost certainly work at least during the agreed upon MAP, earning the promised daily and hourly rates. However most federal contracts contain a clause allowing termination for convenience or default. Termination for convenience allows the federal government to terminate all or part of a contract for its convenience, while termination for default means the government doesn’t think you’re performing adequately.

Below is the list of large and very large air tankers that have been on EU contracts and CWN agreements in August.

Air Tanker List
Air tankers under U.S. Forest Service Contract, August 12, 2019. Source: USFS.

Forest Service issues solicitations for CWN air tankers

747 Palmer Fire supertanker

Above: Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. The aircraft was under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

On June 15 the U.S. Forest Service issued solicitations for Call When Needed (CWN) air tankers. There are two separate requests for proposals (RFP), one for Large Air Tankers (LAT) and another for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT).

The verbiage in the LAT document implies that, perhaps, only air tankers that have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons will be considered:

Aircraft less than 3000 gallons or greater than 5000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft in the target volume, given the priority mission for these airtankers is initial attack.

And the VLAT RFP “prefers” aircraft that can carry at least 8,000 gallons.

Aircraft with greater than 8000-gallon (72,000 pounds) dispensing capacity are preferred. Aircraft less than 8000 gallons are not considered necessary or more desirable than aircraft at the target volume, given the primary mission for these airtankers is large fire support.

It is interesting that the RFP has such imprecise language for this important specification, capacity, that can be easily required and measured. It is not subjective, unlike the editorial comments about one type of air tanker being prioritized for initial attack and another for large fire support. This assumes that LATs are not suitable for large fires and VLATs are not appropriate for initial attack. There are so few federally contracted air tankers available, now that the numbers have been cut again, that during periods of high fire activity too often no air tanker is going to arrive during the initial attack stage when a new fire is still small — unless it is on state land in California where CAL FIRE still believes in aggressive initial attack from both the ground AND the air. A VLAT, while carrying three to six times more than a LAT, can split their load, only dropping what is necessary, and land partially loaded with retardant if necessary.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and various congressional committees have been begging the Forest Service for many years to develop hard data to determine the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft and the liquids they drop on fires, so that better decisions can be made about how the $100 million appropriated annually for this activity should be spent.

The last time the Forest Service issued a solicitation for CWN air tankers was 222 days ago, on May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS at that time restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated VLATs from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the 747 carries up to 19,200.

Global Supertanker, the operator of a 747 VLAT, filed a protest which was upheld by the GAO. In their decision, the GAO wrote that the FS:

…failed to provide reasonable justifications for the challenged specification, such that we are unable to conclude that the challenged specification is reasonably necessary for the agency to meet its needs.

We recommend that the agency make a documented determination of its needs. Once the agency identifies its needs, the agency should revise its solicitation to include specifications that are reasonably necessary to meet those needs. We also recommend that the protester be reimbursed the costs of filing and pursuing the protest, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

In 2012 the FS began a program to answer some of the questions about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft, titled, Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study. The agency’s stated goal was to begin releasing summaries of the results in 2017, but so far have not done so. A couple of weeks ago when we asked Vicki Christiansen, the Interim Chief of the Forest Service, when the study’s results would be released, she responded by email:

The summaries are not currently available. Unforeseen delays with staffing changes, retrieving aviation use data, and completing final reviews has delayed their overall schedule. The AFUE work group is continuing their work to complete the summaries and they will be provided as soon as they become available.

We asked Forest Service Chief why air tankers were cut by 35%

P2V air tanker 07

Above: Tanker 07, a P2V, drops retardant on the Red Canyon Fire nine miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

The U.S. Forest Service has cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year by 35 percent, from 20 to 13. We asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, why, and she responded in writing Tuesday:

The reduction in Exclusive Use contracts is due to the “Legacy” Exclusive Use Airtanker contract expiring in 2017.

The Forest Service has known for years that 2017 would be the last season for the Korean War vintage P2V’s with the 18-cylinder radial engines. In 2013 the agency began a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” turbine-powered aircraft with the ultimate goal of eliminating the P2V’s. The last four that were on contract in 2017 are now retired and most will find final resting places in museums.

Victoria Christiansen
Victoria Christiansen

In addition to losing the four P2V’s, the Forest Service cut three Next Gen BAe-146’s this year.

In February U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues were affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner.

Chief Christiansen told us this week they will have “up to 16” large air tankers available through Call When Needed (CWN) contracts. This is an increase over the 11 the FS told us about in February.

If CWN air tankers are available the cost can be up to 54 percent higher than those on EU contracts.

There are two costs for air tankers — daily plus hourly. If the aircraft just sits at an air tanker base available with a flight crew it only earns the daily availability rate. When it flies, an hourly rate is added.

We averaged the daily and hourly EU and CWN rates for three models of air tankers provided by three different companies, BAe-146 by Neptune, RJ85 by Aero Flite, and C-130 (382G) by Coulson. The numbers below are the combined averages of the three aircraft:

EU Daily: $30,150
EU Hourly: $7,601
CWN Daily: $46,341 (+54%)
CWN Hourly: $8,970 (+18%)

These costs only account for the additional costs of contracting for the air tankers, and do not include any increased costs of new, small wildfires escaping initial attack due to a lack of available air tankers or Type 1 helicopters (which have also been cut, from 34 to 28). And it does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost.

Art Prints

In addition to the 13 air tankers on EU and the 11 (or 16) that may or may not be available on CWN, the Forest Service will use one Coast Guard HC-130H. They will also have access to up to seven military C-130’s which can be outfitted temporally with 3,000-gallon MAFFS retardant systems. And, they have occasionally borrowed air tankers from Canada and the state of Alaska if they were available.

Forest Service activates seven CWN air tankers

Recently the U.S. Forest Service temporarily activated an additional seven air tankers using the Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in June:

  • T-02 (N474NA) Neptune BAe-146 (presently on loan to Canada)
  • T-40 (N146FF) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-163 (N366AC) Aero Flite RJ-85
  • T-41 (N471NA) Neptune BAe-146
  • T-911 (N17085) 10 Tanker DC-10
  • T-162 (N355AC) Aero Flite RJ 85
  • T-01 (N473NA) Neptune BAe-146

That makes 22 large air tankers that are available now, counting the 14 on exclusive use contracts, the one USFS HC-130H that will start this week, and the seven that are on temporary call-up assignments. But those seven CWN tankers can be sent home anytime.

Having 15 air tankers on exclusive use contracts is the most since 2010 when there were 19. There have not been 22 air tankers on EU contracts since 2004 when we had 27. In 2002, 44 large air tankers were on EU contracts.

Graph, request for large air tankers

The USFS is trying to award “up to seven” additional EU contracts for next-generation air tankers. They hoped to have them working by May 30, but protests about the contracting process by two companies brought that process to a halt. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit. The OMB is required to reach their decisions by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s.

On July 8 the GAO issued their decision on Coulson’s protest, and it was denied. They still have not decided on Erickson’s. We believe that if both protests are denied, the USFS can immediately, or as soon as they can, award additional EU contracts for air tankers.

CWN contracts awarded for 22 next-gen air tankers

Coulson T-132 grid test
Coulson Aviation’s L-382G during the grid test in early May, 2015.

The U.S. Forest Service announced yesterday that they awarded Call When Needed (CWN) contracts to five companies for a total of 22 next-generation air tankers. Not all of the aircraft exist yet in flyable, modified, inspected, and carded form. In fact, we estimate only about half of them are ready to go now if the phone rang.

The companies receiving the six-year CWN contracts include:

  • Neptune Aviation, 6 BAe-146s
  • Coulson Aviation, 1 Lockheed L-382G
  • Air Spray USA, 4 BAe-146s
  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, 5 DC-10s
  • Aero Flite, 6 BAe Avro 146 RJ85s

These CWN contracts are in addition to the 14 air tankers currently on Exclusive Use Contracts, and the additional aircraft that could be added, up to seven, when the bidding process that is being protested now is settled. Later this year there could be up to 21 air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus the CWN aircraft on this contract that was just awarded. Many of the air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts are also listed on the new CWN contract, so there is some duplication.

An exclusive use contract commits an aircraft to working non-stop, except for days off, for an extended period of days, 160, for example.

However on a CWN contract the aircraft may never be used by the USFS. It could sit for years without being activated by the agency. That was one reason the 747 “Supertanker” ceased to exist. It was parked for years on a CWN contract and was not used.

This, of course, can be a very expensive and risky proposition for a private company. They have to decide if they are going to maintain the aircraft in a continuous airworthy condition and hire flight crews and maintenance personnel. The USFS thinks it’s a great deal since they spend nothing if an air tanker is not used. But even if a CWN aircraft had been at one time fully certified, by the time the USFS decides to activate it, the aircraft and the staff to operate it may or may not be ready to fight fire. And the CWN rates are usually much higher than a multi-year exclusive use contract.

Walt Darren, a legendary air tanker pilot who passed away a couple of years ago, suggested that CWN aircraft could be paid a stipend during the fire season even when they are not being used. This would make it a little more palatable for a company to keep an air tanker ready to go.

Ravi Saip, the General Manager and Director of Maintenance for Air Spray at Chico, California, said none of their BAe-146s are fully operational today. They are working on two of them, and hope to have one finished by the end of this fire season. He said most of the work is done on that aircraft, and they are working closely with British Aerospace on the cutouts in the belly through which the retardant will flow. In about two months they hope to begin flight tests, and they still need to get the FAA’s Supplemental Type Certificate and the Interagency AirTanker Board certifications.

Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker told us they have three completed DC-10s. Two are carded and are being used today on fires in California, T-911 and T-912. The third, which replaced and upgraded the older T-910, will retain that tanker number and is waiting for the USFS to issue their certification.

Britt Coulson of Coulson Aviation said they hope their recently converted Lockheed L-382G will be carded by the USFS next week. A civilian version of the C-130, it completed the grid test in early May.

The full list of air tankers receiving CWN contracts is below. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Continue reading “CWN contracts awarded for 22 next-gen air tankers”

Douglas County, Colorado signs CWN aircraft contracts

Douglas County, just south of Denver (map), signed contracts three weeks ago with three fire aviation companies. The agreements are Call When Needed (CWN) and will only be activated when the aircraft are specifically needed.

Two of the contracts are for helicopters, with HeliQwest International and Trans Aero Ltd. The other is for the 11,600-gallon DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

Thanks and a tip of  the hat go out to Bean.