Neptune’s newest BAe-146 air tanker

air tanker 12 bae-146 neptune
Neptune’s “new” Tanker 12, going through last minute checks at Missoula, July 14, 2015, before it was due to depart for its contract with CAL FIRE. Photo by Bill Moss.

Bill Moss photographed Neptune’s newest air tanker for us, Tanker 12, on Tuesday as it was going through last minute checks and inspections the day before it was due to report for duty with CAL FIRE. It is expected to begin the contract at 10 a.m. on July 15 at Porterville, California. (We first wrote about this contract on July 10, 2015.)

CAL FIRE is also contracting for a second large air tanker, Erickson’s Tanker 60, a DC-7, to supplement their 22 S-2Ts.

Neptune took delivery of Tanker 12 on May 15 from Tronos Aviation of Summerside, PE, Canada and converted it into an air tanker in house at Missoula. This is one of the Missoula company’s seven BAe-146-200s. The tanker numbers are 01, 02, 03 (still being converted) 10, 12, 40, & 41.

Mr. Moss tells us that the first flight for what is now T-12 was on May 13, 1991, after which it was operated by six different foreign carriers from June 1991 until August 2012.

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This article was corrected to indicate that the conversion of this particular aircraft was done by Neptune, unlike at least one other of their BAe-146s that was done at Tronos.

CAL FIRE contracts for one of Neptune’s BAe-146s

Tanker 41 BAe-146 over Univ of MT 5-21-2014
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, over the University of Montana, May 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert. (Click to see a larger version).

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has contracted with Neptune Aviation for the services of one of their most recently converted BAe-146 air tankers, Tanker #12.

The 3,000-gallon capacity jet aircraft will report for duty at 10 a.m. on July 15 at Porterville, California. Initially it will only be staffed six days a week, but will begin 7 day a week coverage on August 15. It will be carded for initial attack, can be hot loaded with all four engines running, and will sit on the ramp loaded with retardant like the S2Ts.

The tanker number, 12, had previously been used by one of Neptune’s P2V air tankers.

CAL FIRE is also contracting for one of Erickson’s DC-7s, Tanker 60.

Below is a video of Tanker 60 making a drop on the on the Calgrove Fire June 24 in southern California north of the intersection of the 210 and I-5 freeways. It is sporting a new paint job, having adopted Erickson’s new design that has been seen on their MD-87s and their other DC-7, Tanker 66.

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”

Protests delay awards of air tanker contracts

Tanker 101, an MD-87
Tanker 101, an MD-87 operated by Erickson Aero Tanker, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Forest Service (FS) had hoped to have as many as seven additional “Next Generation” large air tankers working under contract on May 30, 2015, but protests filed by two companies could push that date back by several months.

The FS first awarded contracts for Next-Gen air tankers in 2013 at the end of a 555-day process that also included protests which delayed the awards. Next-Gen air tankers are required to have capabilities not present in the previous generation of Korean War vintage machines. They must fly faster, be powered by turbine or jet engines, and have a capacity of at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

Two companies have filed protests about this latest round of potential contracts, Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office which has the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit, which they are required to do by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s. Both companies later amended their original complaints, which complicates the procedure for the GAO, so it is unlikely that anything will be decided much before those mid-July due dates.

No contracts have been awarded yet, nor has the FS announced what their intentions are about the contracts. The two companies are protesting the terms of the solicitation which was first posted on February 19, 2015, and then amended five times. Responses from bidders were due on April 9, 2015.

In researching this article we reached out to Erickson Aero Tanker and Coulson Aviation, but did not receive replies by our publication deadline.

When the awards were announced for the first round of Next-Gen contracts in May, 2013, Neptune Aviation did not receive one of the seven contracts and filed a protest. A few weeks later Neptune dropped their protest which allowed the FS to finalize the contracts form the other seven air tankers. It was disclosed later that the FS and Neptune had entered into a written agreement under which the agency agreed to award Neptune a sole-source contract for two Next-Gen large airtankers in exchange for Neptune withdrawing its protest.

In December, 2013  the FS awarded the promised sole source contract to Neptune for the two air tankers beginning in 2014. The estimated minimum value of the contract was $141,000,000 and had a base period of four years with the possibility of adding five more. If those five years were tacked on it would could have brought the value of the contract up to almost half a billion dollars.

The basis for awarding the non-competitive sole source contract to Neptune, according to the FS, was that the company was in danger of going out of business. The agency used the industrial “mobilization exception” to the requirement to conduct a competitive procurement. Their rationale was that without Neptune, the FS could not field an adequate number of air tankers. In March, 2014 we wrote a very detailed article about the sole source award and how it developed.

That sole source contract was protested by three companies, Coulson Aviation, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, and Minden Air Corp. The GAO upheld the protest, writing in their March 2014 decision that the sole-source award to Neptune in exchange for Neptune’s withdrawal of an earlier protest, was not a reasonable basis for the agency’s action. GAO also disputed the claim that Neptune was in danger of going under, and recommended that the FS reimburse Coulson, 10 Tanker, and Minden for their costs of filing and pursuing the protests, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Neptune gears up for the fire season

In this video, Neptune Aviation’s Dan Snyder and Representative Ryan Zanke talk about the upcoming wildfire season.

“I’ve flown a lot of planes in my military career, these are great”, said Rep. Zanke, referring to the BAe-146. “They are also specialized planes, so for fighting forest fires they are a lot more efficient than a C-130 because they are specialized and they are the right tool for the right job.”

In the edited interview, he did not specify if he was referring to the pressurized Modular Airborne FireFighting System or MAFFS that can be carried in a military C-130, or a C-130 that has been converted into an air tanker by installing a conventional gravity-based tank, which is as “specialized” as a converted BAe-146.

Update on Neptune’s air tankers

Neptune BAe-146 landing at Redding
Neptune’s Tanker 41, a BAe-146, landing at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Missoulian has an interesting article about the status of Neptune’s air tankers and contracts.

Below is an excerpt:

…“The Forest Service is coming out with seven of what we’re calling the Next-Gen 2.0 contracts,” Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said. “We expected to see the notice on the first of November. We’re anxious to see the RFP (request for proposals) so we can see how many aircraft we’ve got working next year.”

Neptune still has three years remaining on its “legacy” contract with the Forest Service that covers six of its aging P2V propeller-driven retardant bombers and one of its new BAe-146 jet bombers. But its one-season contracts for three more BAe-146s have expired.

Meanwhile, the company has brought on two more of the jets, for a total of six…

Neptune's T-41 at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Neptune’s T-41 at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick and Ed.

Firefighting aircraft at Boise

SEATs 802 and 824 at BOI, July 19, 2014
Tankers 802 and 824 at Boise, July 19, 2014

On Saturday I found myself at the Boise Airport and grabbed some photos of some of the aircraft.

Infrared plane, N149Z
Infrared plane, N149Z, at Boise, July 19, 2014
T-41, a BAe-146, at Boise, July 19, 2014
T-41, a BAe-146, at Boise, July 19, 2014

Back in February we wrote about the BLM awarding the first contract in the United States to Dynamic Aviation for a jet-powered lead plane. It was parked at Boise on Saturday. In May Aviation Week had an interesting article about the history of Dynamic Aviation.

Citation lead plane, N10R,
Citation lead plane, N10R, at Boise, July 19, 2014

As a bonus, below are a couple of pictures of a helicopter working at the Whiskey Creek Complex near Lowman, Idaho.

Helicopter dipping at the Whiskey Creek Fire
Helicopter dipping at the Whiskey Creek Fire near Lowman, Idaho, July 18, 2014
Helicopter with bucket on Whiskey Creek Fire,
Helicopter with bucket on Whiskey Creek Fire, July 18, 2014