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

Tanker 41 over the University of Montana

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).

Neptune Aviation arranged for Tanker 41, a BAe-146, to fly over the University of Montana at Missoula yesterday during the lunch hour. Many of the attendees at the Large Fire Conference came outside to enjoy the display.

This photo was taken by Bill Gabbert.

Three more BAe-146 air tankers on contract

Three more of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers are being brought into the current fleet. Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, confirmed today at the Large Fire Conference in Missoula that two BAe-146s came on in the last few days and a third will be on board by June 1.

The three aircraft are being added to Neptune’s “legacy” air tanker contract using the “additional equipment” provision.

These three air tankers are being added to the fleet along with the two additional DC-10s that were announced last week. 10 Tanker Air Carrier had one DC-10 already working on a next-gen contract and a second was converted last week from a call when needed contract to exclusive use, using the additional equipment provision on their contract. 10 Tanker is converting a third DC-10 that will also be on the next gen exclusive use contract when it is complete this summer.

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
File photo of Neptune’s five BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo.

Neptune Aviation’s five BAe-146 air tankers

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Neptune’s five BAe-146 air tankers. Neptune Aviation photo.

Neptune Aviation assembled their five BAe-146 air tankers on the tarmac at Missoula for picture day. It is a pretty remarkable photo — five jet-powered air tankers that meet the basic U.S. Forest Service criteria to qualify as “next-generation” air tankers, which require the aircraft to be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons.

Only one of these five air tankers has a confirmed contract with the federal government, the USFS. It is on a “legacy” contract. Neptune Aviation has three additional BAe-146s that are ready to fly now, and one more will be complete sometime this summer. The USFS is still dithering about what to do after the Government Accountability Office upheld the protest of a contract that was given to Neptune without competition for two BAe-146s. About the only options available now for the USFS are to add some of the BAe-146s to the legacy contract as additional equipment, ignore the GAO decision and honor the no-competition contract, or cancel the no-competition contract and do nothing about the other four Neptune BAe-146s that are sitting on the ramp at Missoula.

A very unlikely option would be for the USFS to allow competitive bidding on an additional contract. All of the existing valid legacy and next-gen contracts allow for up to four additional aircraft to be added as “additional equipment” to each line item. The vendors that won the awards for those contracts are all hoping to add more aircraft down the road, and would most likely be very distressed if another company came in that lost competitive bidding previously, and basically took away their opportunity to supply more air tankers.

But, it is painful to see four recently retrofitted, freshly painted, jet air tankers sitting on the tarmac — with a rather bleak future.

A sole source air tanker award, how it developed

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
A Neptune BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McCLure.

Today, March 11, the Government Accountability Office will hold a hearing at their office in Washington, DC to consider the protests filed by three air tanker companies over the propriety of the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) noncompetitive contract award to Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., for next-generation large airtankers. The hearing was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. ET, but was a closed session, open only to GAO personnel, attorneys for the three companies that protested the contract, and two individuals from the Department of Agriculture who have been asked to be available to testify, Lisa Wilusz, a Senior Procurement Executive, and Gregory Parham, the Chief Acquisition Officer. Even the owners of the protesting companies are prohibited from attending, to prevent them from being exposed to their competitors’ trade secrets.

Protesting the sole source award for two BAe-146 air tankers to Neptune, are Coulson Aviation (USA), Inc; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; and Minden Air Corp. If only the basic two air tankers are signed up, the value of the contract would be about $141 million. If the options for the five additional tankers are utilized, it would be hundreds of millions.

The GAO is required to make their decision about the propriety of the sole source award by March 28.

Fire Aviation has reviewed almost three dozen documents filed by the protesting companies as well as the USFS’ Motion to Dismiss the protests. The files contain letters of protests, supplementary protests, transcripts of Congressional hearings, “declarations” written by some of the principles, an NTSB report, and an article from FireAviation.com. While it remains to be seen which side the GAO will favor, regardless of the outcome it is clear that after the dust settles the attorneys will probably close shop for two weeks and take their families to Bora Bora.

Most of the documents have redactions, some more than others. One or two are virtually useless as a result, but most still contain a great deal of information. We will elaborate on them, but first, get a cup of coffee–it’s a long story.
Continue reading “A sole source air tanker award, how it developed”

Neptune to have 11 air tankers available this summer

T02 arriving at Missoula 2-2-2014
Tanker 02 arriving at Missoula for the first time, February 2, 2014. Photo by Bill Moss.

Neptune Aviation received their fifth BAe-146 February 2 when it arrived at Missoula on a snowy Sunday. The aircraft is still painted in the colors of United Express it had when the aircraft was operated by Air Wisconsin, but will soon take on Neptune’s white with red trim color scheme, and will have a big 02 on the tail. The work to build the tank system began even before it arrived in Missoula but there is still much to do before it can drop retardant over fires. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, told us that they expect to have it ready to go by the first of August this year.

Tanker 02 will receive the new, upgraded tank system that has already been installed on two of their other BAe-146s, Tankers 01 and 10. The modifications will help to correct some of the bugs in the first generation of the BAe-146 tank, which was criticized for inconsistent flow rates, especially when dropping downhill and for the last several hundred gallons in the tank. Neptune is calling the redesign the “Rev 300”. Mr. Snyder said it has received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA, and in August it also passed the new more stringent requirements introduced in 2013 for static and grid testing required by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). The air tankers with the Rev 300 will have interim approval from the IAB to operate without restrictions.

Tanker 01 at Missoula 2-2-2014. Photo by Bill Moss.
Tanker 01 at Missoula 2-2-2014. Photo by Bill Moss.

In addition to the three air tankers above, Neptune’s other two BAe-146s, Tankers 40 and 41 are also getting the redesigned 3,050-gallon tank system installed.

Mr. Snyder described the tank:

In addition to meeting the new 2013 IAB criteria, Neptune fielded a lot of new technology in this system that has never been used in large airtanker tanking systems to date. The systems have been significantly changed from the original tanks seen during operations last year. Additional exits have been added to give the tank excellent performance in all pitch attitudes, including down-hill drops.

The new gating system has the ability to be adjusted during a drop. Enhanced computer sensing and control have taken constant flow tanking to a new height, “Active Control”. Active Control allows the computer to actively monitor the flow performance and modify the exits to maintain the selected coverage level, based on aircraft ground speed, tank flow-rate, g-loading, and aircraft pitch attitude.

The new sensing and control system has yielded a tank that has a very high level of repeatability and consistency under all flight conditions. All these enhancements are significant improvements over the concept of Constant Flow tanking systems of years past.

Neptune will have six P2Vs and one BAe-146 on contract in what the U.S. Forest Service calls the “legacy” air tanker category this year. A second contract that the USFS awarded without competition to Neptune on December 12 for two BAe-146s is being protested by four other air tanker companies. Until it is settled, which should happen by March 28, it is unclear what Neptune will have in the air this year other than the seven air tankers on the legacy contract. In addition to those seven, Neptune will have at the beginning of the summer, three other BAe-146s ready to fight fire, with a fourth coming on line by the first of August.

This latest protest, which has become routine in the USFS air tanker contracting process, and the recent acquisition by the agency of seven, 27+ year old C-130s discarded by the Coast Guard which will be converted into air tankers, makes it difficult for Neptune and other vendors to make long range plans about the acquisition of millions of dollars worth of aviation assets that may or may not be wanted by the federal government.

Mr. Snyder said that if there is a need, they can acquire additional BAe-146s and convert them in about four months — several airframes concurrently if necessary.