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 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.