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.”

Two companies file protests over air tanker contracts

Five additional large air tankers on contract were announced March 26

T-41 Redding
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, lands at Redding August 7, 2014 after dropping on a fire in northwest California.

(UPDATED at 2:46 p.m. MDT April 10, 2020)

Two companies have filed protests with the Government Accountability Office regarding recent contracts for five large exclusive use air tankers. The U.S. Forest Service announced on March 26 that three companies received contracts on the Next Gen 3.0 solicitation — Erickson Aero Tanker for two tankers, Aero Flite for two, and Coulson for one.

Neptune Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier both filed bid protests (here and here) on April 6, 2020. The due date for the GAO to adjudicate the action is July 15, 2020.

Neptune has four tankers and 10 Tanker has two on the existing Next Gen 1.0 and 2.0 contracts. There are a total of 13 aircraft on the two contracts.

Typically a protest halts all work on a new air tanker contract. We asked Kaari E. Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist with the Forest Service, if that was the case in this instance, and she replied, “Due to the timing of the protests there is an automatic stay of performance.”

How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?

We calculated the cost per delivered gallon

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.

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

Today I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Statistics for the use of air tankers, 2000 through 2019

And, more details about the new Call When Needed contracts

 
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised Feb. 24, 2020. Fire Aviation.

(Updated Feb. 24, 2020)

This chart shows data from 2000 through 2019 for the number of large air tankers (LAT) on U.S. Forest Service Exclusive Use (EU) Contracts, the number of times each year large air tankers were requested by firefighters on a wildfire, and the percentage of requests that were not filled (Unable to Fill, UTF). 

New Call When Needed contracts

More information is now available about the Large Air Tanker Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in December, 2019. Six companies have a total of 36 aircraft on the list, a number of aircraft that is one more than first announced.

The costs below are estimates provided by the Forest Service for one aircraft  based on the contracts awarded. Kaari Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service who sent us the information, told us that the estimates assume 36 days a year, for 4 years, and 100 flight hours a year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold approximately 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

Update February 13, 2020. With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above, it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and not including the costs of retardant, are: 
$7.00:  MD-87
$8.50:  BAe-146, C-130, & 737
$10.00: RJ85
$4.50:  DC-10
$3.00:  747

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. 

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2007 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

The CWN contract was awarded 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018 —  the exact amount of time it took to award the first Next-Generation EU air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013.

Exclusive Use Next Generation 3.0 contracts

And speaking of long time frames, it has been 450 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for the third round of EU Next Gen air tankers, Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required 12 months ago. Ms. Carpenter told us today that the FS expects it to be awarded in “early March, 2020.”

Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study

The Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study began approximately 2,812 days ago in 2012 and to date no substantive results have been released, other than a two-page “fact sheet”.  Senator Lisa Murkowski asked about the study during a Congressional hearing April 9, 2019 and FS Chief Vicki Christiansen told her a report would be released “soon”. Ms. Carpenter told us today it would be released in the Spring of this year, 2020.

In the hearing 10 months ago Colorado Senator Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

When asked if firefighting aircraft were worth the cost and if they were effective, the answers from land management agencies have often been, “Yes”.

How do you know?

“We just do”. (I’m paraphrasing here).

The study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires. Theoretically this would better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

Last year one person familiar with the issue told me that they thought the actual, accurate data from the AFUE would never be released — like the situation with the RAND air tanker study that the Forest Service never released even after our Freedom of Information Act request. Two years after it was completed RAND released the document.

Not your ordinary parade float

Neptune Christmas parade Float
Neptune Christmas parade float. Neptune photo.

This photo was taken December 7 on South Higgens Avenue in Missoula, Montana. It was sent to us by Kevin McCann of Neptune Aviation who said it was designed and constructed this year by a group of very talented Neptune Aviation employees and volunteers.

It’s quite an engineering feat!

Thanks Kevin.

13 large air tankers under contract for 2019

Currently six of them have been activated

Aero-Flite's Tanker 161
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 161, an RJ85, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. One of the 13 large air tankers under EU contract for 2019 as of April 12, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 13 large air tankers (LATs) under exclusive use contracts for this year according to the latest information from the U.S. Forest Service as of April 12, 2019. They will be working under the Next Generation Air Tanker contracts, versions 1.0 and 2.0. (Update: list of tankers)

Currently six of them have been activated according to the estimated starting dates of the Mandatory Availability Periods (MAP). On April 17 a seventh will begin. The rest will come on between May 1 and May 29.

The 13 air tankers confirmed so far on exclusive use contracts for 2019 are:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier: 910 and 912 (DC-10)
  • Coulson: 131 (C-130Q)
  • Aero Air: 101 and 107, (MD-87)
  • Aero Flite: 160, 161, 163, and 167 (RJ85)
  • Neptune: 01, 15, 16, and 40

All 13 are slated for 160 MAP days but could be extended if necessary.

The baker’s dozen aircraft are likely to be augmented in the not too distant future when the Next Gen 3.0 contract advertised December 2, 2018 is awarded for exclusive use LATs. Forest Service officials are currently going through the submissions which had to be submitted by Valentine’s Day. The solicitation only had five line items, so it appears that a maximum of five air tankers could be added to the contract list, bringing the total up to 18 for this summer.

Recently the FS has been awarding contracts that only guarantee one year, with another four being at the whim of the agency. This makes it very difficult for potential vendors to acquire financing and build multimillion dollar air tankers that may not receive a contract, and if they do, it could only be for one year. Last year the Canadian Province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven government-owned water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

The Forest Service Aviation Strategy Implementation 2018-2022 dated March, 2018 established that the plan for the number of exclusive use large air tankers and helicopters would be exactly the same during fiscal years 2019 through 2022:

  • 18 large air tankers (down from 44 in 2002)
  • 28 Type 1 helicopters (down from 34 a few years ago)
  • 34 Type 2 helicopters
  • 46 Type 3 helicopters

If there is a need for more than 18 LATs, approval of orders for Call When Needed (CWN) ships must be first approved by the Washington Office of the FS. This cost saving effort that began in 2018 is intended to create greater accountability and oversight for aircraft. There are probably more than a dozen large air tankers sitting on ramps over and above the 13 presently on contract for this year.

The FS has two pending contracts that have not yet been awarded for CWN air tankers: large and very large. The responses for LATs are due April 18, 2019 while the VLATs were due seven months ago.

UPDATE April 17, 2019: The VLAT CWN solicitation has been effectively cancelled, but changes made to the LAT CWN solicitation with responses due tomorrow made it possible for VLATs to meet the contract specifications, so they can be considered along with the LATs. The USFS made so many changes to the solicitation, 12 amendments, that they are calling it CWN 2.1 Request for Proposals. The response due date, originally in the summer of 2018, has been extended at least nine times.

Four of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers are deployed

Another five are at Missoula, MT and Alamagordo, NM

Above: Three of Neptune Aviation’s BAe-146’s at Missoula, May 25, 2018.

Like the other operators of large air tankers, Neptune Aviation is finishing the necessary off-season work on their fleet and are putting some of them to work. The company has a total of nine BAe-146 jet-powered air tankers. The conversions from airliners to air tankers is complete and they have no others waiting to be transformed.

When I visited Neptune’s facilities at Missoula Friday, marketing manager Kevin Condit said four of their tankers are actively working. The company only has four on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is a reduction from 2017 when they had seven BAe-146’s and four P2V’s on EU. All of the P2V air tankers with their two 18-cylinder radial engines and two small jet engines are now retired, and most will find homes in museums. The U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of large air tankers on EU contracts from 20 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

t-10 Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
Tanker 10 on the ramp outside Neptune’s hangar, May 25, 2018.

Neptune air tankers on EU contract this year are numbers 1, 3, 16, and 41. On call when needed (CWN) contracts they have tankers 2, 10, 15, and 40, and one additional BAe-146 without a contract (T-12) according to information provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

Friday two BAe-146’s were parked on the ramp at Missoula, 10 and 12, while two others, 02 and 15, were in the hangar for heavy maintenance.

air brake bae-146 Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
The air brake extended on T-12 outside Neptune’s hangar, May 25, 2018.

For years I have wondered why Neptune’s aircraft are adorned with the state flag for Montana, but have no American flag. Mr. Condit explained that the company is proud of Montana, most of their 250 employees live in the state, and, it’s “tradition” for the company to only display the state flag on their aircraft. However inside their main hangar they have both hanging from the ceiling.

Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire hangar
Tankers 02 and 15 in Neptune’s hangar for heavy maintenance, May 25, 2018.

Neptune has a contract to refurbish the C-23B Sherpa aircraft that the U.S. Forest Service acquired from the U.S. Army. Up to 15 were authorized to be transferred and as of today Neptune is working on their seventh, with the eighth soon to follow. It is possible that the remaining Sherpas may only be used for parts, Mr. Condit said.

Sherpa Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
One of the Sherpas that Neptune is refurbishing for the U.S. Forest Service.

This year we are attempting to get photos of the maintenance support vehicles that follow air tankers around from base to base. Neptune is changing their thinking, and is moving from trailers pulled by trucks to large van-type vehicles without a trailer. Mr. Condit said the maintenance personnel like them better because they are more nimble and easier to maneuver at tanker bases and motel parking lots. I asked if they ever carried a spare engine and he said no. If an engine suffers a bird strike, for example, which is more common than you’d think, they can ferry the BAe-146 back to Missoula on three engines, replace it overnight, and get the tanker back to its base the next day.

Mercedes support truck Neptune Aviation air tanker wildfire
Two of Neptune’s maintenance support trucks.

Continue reading “Four of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers are deployed”

Six P2V air tankers’ last deployment — to retirement homes

The aircraft are going to their final resting place 71 years after the model was first introduced to the U.S. Navy.

P2V on the Whoopup Fire

Above: P2V on the Whoopup Fire southeast of Newcastle, Wyoming, 2011 — flying off into the sunset. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(Originally published at 8:55 p.m. MDT March 23, 2018)

In 1947 the first P2V Neptune flew for the U.S. Navy serving in the maritime patrol and anti-submarine role. In 2017, 70 years later, the last P2V’s to work as air tankers in the United States retired. As the U.S. Forest Service contract for what they called “legacy” air tankers expired, Neptune Aviation transtioned their fleet of war birds to aircraft several decades younger, jet-powered BAe-146 airliners. After working out some early bugs with the completely redesigned retardant delivery system, the newer quad-jets have performed admirably.

Neptune  announced today that it has found new homes for its venerable fleet of P2V’s.

Neptune P2V Fleet
Neptune’s P2V fleet at Alamogordo, New Mexico, March 2018. Photo by Dan Snyder.

“Over the last two years 14 different organizations submitted official proposals to Neptune Aviation to acquire our retiring P2V airtankers,” according to Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation Services’ Chief Operating Officer. “After a significate amount of coordination with museums and airports I’m happy to announce the locations for the retired P2V fleet.”

–Alamogordo Airport/ALM (Alamogordo, New Mexico)
N203EV (former Evergreen Tanker 142)

–Estrella Warbirds Museum (Paso Robles, California)
http://www.ewarbirds.org
Tanker 07 (P2V-5)

–Glendive Airport/GDV (Glendive, Montana)
Tanker 05 (P2V-5)

–T61 Memorial & Klamath Falls Air Base (Lakeview, Oregon)
Tanker 06 (P2V-5)

–Yankee Air Museum (Belleville, Michigan)
http://yankeeairmuseum.org/
Tanker 45 (P2V-7)

–San Diego Air & Space Museum (San Diego California)
http://sandiegoairandspace.org/
Tanker 43 (P2V-7)

The P2V began aerial firefighting services during the 1970’s, when the U.S. Navy began to phase the aircraft out of service. Missoula based Neptune Aviation Services has operated the P2V since 1993. In fact, Neptune had been the largest remaining civil or military operator of the aircraft, with as many as 10 under US Forest Service (USFS) contracts in a single year.

Photography Prints