Forest Service buys its first lead plane in almost 40 years

Forest Service lead plane new
New U.S. Forest Service lead plane, a King Air 250 Twin Engine turboprop, N147Z. USFS photo.

After nearly eight years of writing and reviewing business cases, traveling to meetings, advocating, and developing contract specifications, the U.S. Forest Service’s Intermountain Region Fire and Aviation Staff accepted delivery of their brand new King Air 250 Twin Engine turboprop aircraft, N147Z, on December 26, 2018. This aircraft was the first new lead plane purchased since the early 1980’s when the Forest Service acquired over 20 Beechcraft Baron Aircraft for lead planes.

These aviation services are acquired in a variety of ways, some agency owned, some leased, many contracted, and some through agreements with states and other branches of Government. While this new aircraft will predominantly be used as a lead plane, it is also used to provide pilot training, natural resource activities and personnel transport. They may be also used for other natural resource management activities, such as conducting aerial surveys of wildlife populations and forest health. 

In 2014 we wrote about the 40+ twin engine aircraft the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had under contract from private vendors that were used as lead planes, Air Supervision Modules (ASM) , and Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) aircraft.

Forest Service to purchase up to 20 new King Air 250’s

They “expect” to purchase four each year for five years.

King Air 250

Above: The King Air 250 as seen on the Beechcraft website.

(Originally published December 16, 2017)

The U.S. Forest Service has awarded a contract to purchase up to 20 new King Air 250 twin-engine aircraft. The contract, potentially worth $142 million, guarantees the procurement of only one plane, but contains “estimated” purchases of four a year for five years.

The contract was awarded to Textron Aviation, Inc., the company that was formed in 2014 following the acquisition of Beech Holdings which included the Beechcraft and Hawker Aircraft businesses. The new business unit includes the Textron-owned Cessna.

The aircraft would be used primarily for four missions:

  • Lead plane/Aerial Supervision Module
  • Infrared Mapping
  • Air Attack/Air Tactical
  • Forest Health Protection

The solicitation uses the term “Multi-Mission Aircraft” several times. The state of Colorado bought two Pilatus PC-12’s in 2014 that they refer to as MMA’s which since then have been loaned quite a few times to agencies in other western states. The PC-12 is single-engine, while the King Air 250 is a twin. The performance of the two is similar in some respects, but the PC-12 is much less expensive to operate. If you’re curious about the other differences between the two, check out Charlie Bravo Aviation for a comparison.

Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft”
One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” which was seen at McClellan Air Field March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I doubt if Colorado uses their aircraft as a lead plane often, but the USFS would use it frequently in that role. Flying low and slow over rough terrain, many pilots would prefer to have a pair of engines.

The “presolicitation” for the procurement was issued July 14, 2017 and the award was made five months later on December 11. That may be a record in the last five years for a USFS aircraft contract. But if there are protests, all bets are off. The first Next Generation large air tanker contract took 555 days.

Here are some of the award details:

King Air 250 contract award Forest Service
King Air 250 contract award