Forest Service has been dithering about a new air tanker contract for 433 days

Our take: The planning for utilization and contracting of air tankers has been broken since 2002

DC-10 air tankers

(Above: File photo of three of the four DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers at Albuquerque, NM May 3, 2019:  Tankers 910, 911, and 914. Photo by Bill Gabbert.)

Two of the four DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) have been working for a while this fire season on exclusive use (EU) contracts, but the remaining two were activated today, August 6, on call when needed (CWN) contracts. The two previously on duty were T-911 and T-912. Called up today were T-910 and T-914.

This begs the question. If there is a need for all four of the VLATs operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, what is the status of the single 747 VLAT? Andrea Avolio, a vice president of the company, said their SuperTanker is available, but presently does not have an exclusive use or call when needed contract with the federal government, but they do have contracts with the states of Oregon, Colorado, and California.

The CWN contract used to activate the two DC-10s has been in effect for at least a couple of years. The U.S. Forest Service has been dithering about a new CWN contract for large and very large air tankers since May 30, 2018 — for the last 433 days. Many vendors submitted bids on the contract.

Our take:

Since that new CWN contract was first advertised, we have gone through one full fire season and half of another.

The planning for utilization and contracting of air tankers has been broken since 2002. After the two crashes of air tankers that killed five crewmen in 2002, the older models were black-listed and the fleet atrophied from 44 down to 9 in 2013, with nothing being done by the federal land management agencies in the interim to rebuild the fleet or plan for the future. In 2014 the Forest Service began very slowly to introduce “next-generation” aircraft, and this year there are approximately 13 large air tankers on EU contracts. An additional 11 are on the existing CWN contracts and can be activated at much higher daily and hourly rates if they are serviceable, available, and have crews to fly and maintain them.

It took the Forest Service 555 days to award the first next generation air tanker contract June 7, 2013. Other contracts have also taken hundreds of days.

Part of the blame for the failure to contract for an appropriate number of air tankers lands on Congress for not appropriating enough funds to protect our homeland. The Forest Service is using a work-around, activating CWN aircraft because paying for them comes out of a different, virtually unlimited fund — emergency fire suppression — even though it costs much more than the exclusive use rates.

An analysis Fire Aviation completed in February, 2018 found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than Exclusive Use aircraft that work for an entire fire season. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

Another issue that could have long term adverse consequences is the Forest Service’s trend to only issue one-year EU contracts, with options for up to five additional years, one at a time.

Air tankers are very expensive to purchase and retrofit. Most of the jet-powered tankers being used today before being converted were retired from their original mission and are decades old, but two models of scooper or large air tankers can be purchased new. The CL-415 amphibious scooper cost about $37 million in 2014 but Bombardier stopped building them in 2015, and the new owner of the business, Viking, has not resumed manufacturing the aircraft. A new Q400 can be ordered from Bombardier with an external retardant tank for around $34 million.

Most air tanker operators in the United States prefer to buy retired airliners like the BAe-146,  DC-10, or variants of the C-130 and convert them to carry and dispense retardant. Retrofitting alone runs into the millions. Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.

Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.

The province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

If the occurrence of wildfires was rapidly declining, reducing the air tanker fleet would make sense. However everyone knows the opposite is happening.

USFS provides tips on VLAT use in response to suggestion in Yarnell Hill Fire report

DC-10 drops on Powerhouse fire
DC-10 drops on Powerhouse fire.

One of the recommendations from the first report on the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30, 2013, was:

The Team recommends that the State of Arizona request the WFLC/NWCG to develop a brief technical tip for fire supervisors/agency administrators on the effective use of
[Very Large Air Tankers] VLATs. These are new, emerging fire suppression tools that the ground-based fire supervisors may be utilizing regularly in the future.

Before that report was made public, the state of Arizona released information on July 16, 2013 about the resources deployed on the Yarnell Hill Fire, saying in part, that a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) was in Albuquerque and available on June 29 (the day before the fatalities), but was not ordered then due to Air Attack’s concern about its effectiveness in steep terrain and inability to deliver retardant before cut-off time. Dispatch offered the VLAT, a DC-10,  to air attack at 5:43 p.m. Few people with knowledge of the terrain on the fire and the capabilities of the DC-10 VLAT would conclude that the terrain was too steep for the DC-10. In fact the next day both DC-10s were used on the fire, making 8 sorties and dropping over 88,000 gallons.

Albuquerque is 308 nautical miles away from the fire, and sunset that day was at 7:47 p.m. The DC-10 cruises at around 370 knots (TAS), so it seems likely that the VLAT could have easily made one drop, 11,600 gallons, before cutoff time of 8:17 p.m., 30 minutes after sunset. The Yarnell fire was not doing too much that day, so a VLAT load of retardant might have made a difference. At 5:30 p.m., before a slopover occurred, there were 13 firefighters working on the fire and only six acres had burned. The fire was not staffed that night, so taking advantage of the drop by ground personnel may have been problematic.

In response to the suggestion in the report about “brief technical tip” for the use of VLATs, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group distributed the below information to the Geographic Area Coordinating Groups on March 27, 2014. One interesting fact that the USFS developed — for a 100 nm dispatch it costs more than twice as much per gallon (the “user cost”) for four P2V air tankers to deliver 8,320 gallons of retardant than it does for a DC-10 to deliver 11,600 gallons.


“US Forest Service
Fire & Aviation Management
DC-10 Briefing Paper

Updated May 1, 2014

Topic: Follow up – DC-10 Very Large Airtanker (VLAT) Operational Considerations
Issue: The DC-10 has unique operational considerations including low level supervision, terrain, facilities, and cost.

Background: 10 Tanker Air Carrier was awarded a line item for a DC-10 on the Next Generation Large Airtanker Exclusive Use contract and a line item on the Very Large Airtanker (VLAT) Call When Needed contract. These aircraft remain a VLAT in category and require special considerations for use.

Key Points:
Low Level Supervision: Aerial supervision is required for this aircraft while dispensing.

  • The 10 Tanker flight crews will not be issued an initial attack (IA) approval card, so a Leadplane or Aerial Supervision Module must be on scene to direct the resource to the intended dispensing locations.
  • The cruising speed of the DC-10 is around 370 knots (TAS) which is greater than Large Airtankers (LATs) and leadplanes. Users/ dispatchers need to insure that a LP/ASM will arrive in time to provide aerial supervision.
  • Trainee Leadplane Pilots (LP) under the supervision of an onboard Leadplane Pilot Instructors (LPI) may conduct VLAT operations. All LPIs are now qualified for VLAT operations and will supervise the trainee during these missions.

Terrain: VLATs are less maneuverable than LATs and should be used in less challenging terrain that affords better maneuverability for dispensing.

  • The DC-10 is relatively agile for its size; however the momentum is greater and requires planning by the supervising aircraft to provide a stabilized path for delivery.
  • The VLATs minimum drop height is 200 feet above the top of the vegetation with a target height of 250 feet.

Facilities: The DC-10 weighs between 340,000 and 400,000 lbs. in contract configuration. It has a Dual Tandem wheel configuration.

  • Tanker Base and parking ramps must have a weight bearing capacity sufficient to support the DC-10. Local bases need to insure both the airport and agency engineering have information indicating ramp capacity. Letters documentation and drawings of the ramp structure must be on file at the airtanker base.
  • Congestion at a base may preclude operations due to conflicts with other aircraft types.
  • Air stairs are needed for the crew to enter/exit the aircraft. 10 Tanker is responsible for the payment of the stairs and airtanker personnel are not to operate the equipment.
  • Loading the aircraft will take anywhere from 12-15 minutes with a three pump/hose configuration or 25 minutes with a one pump/hose setup.
  • Simultaneous Loading and Fueling and/or Hot Retardant Loading (HRL) is acceptable only after approval of the corresponding Regional Aviation Officer and the local line officer and being added to the base operations plan. The local airtanker base manager (ATBM) is delegated the decision authority once this is in the base plan.
  • Facilities that accept the DC-10 will need to provide offload capacity of at least 10,000 gallons.

Cost: The FS funds the availability of $27,285 per day. The rate is on par with Next Gen LATs awarded under this contract.

  • The dry flight rate is $12,750/hour when the aircraft is fully loaded with retardant to 11,600 gallons. When the aircraft is carrying 5500 gallons or less the rate drops to $4598/hour. After 150 hours of use, a further price adjustment occurs.
  • The DC-10 has an hourly fuel consumption of 2275 gallons when carrying 5500 gallons or less and 2550 gallons per hour when fully loaded. The Forest Service utilizes the Aviation Into-plane Reimbursement (AIR) cards sponsored by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) for purchasing fuel. This provides the government a cost savings of about $1.50 per gallon from the retail rate.

Contact: Scott Fisher, WO-FAM National Airtanker Program Manager (208) 387-5968.”

VLAT to Large AT comparison

Petition drive organized to hire the DC-10 air tankers

DC-10 departing McClellan
DC-10 departing McClellan
DC-10, Tanker 911, departing McClellan. Photo by Nate Allen

The managers of the Facebook page for the DC-10 air tankers have organized a petition drive designed to convince the US Forest Service to award a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that owns the aircraft.

We checked, and the way the petition works is that you complete a form at the site, submitting your name, address, and email address. You can edit the text if you want, part of which includes this:

…For the health of our forests and the safety of our citizens, I urge you to offer a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier….

Then it is converted to an email that is sent to Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS at his publicly listed email address. Your name and address will appear in the signature of the message.

10 Tanker Air Carrier will retain your name and email address and may use it, according to the company, to “send an e-blast no more than once/month with news, updates etc. Supporters can unsubscribe at any time. Contact information is kept strictly confidential and will NOT under any circumstances be shared or sold to any other party.”

The most recent request for proposal (RFP) for exclusive use contracts for next-generation air tankers had a response due date of November 1, 2012 and awards based on the submissions could be announced within the next few months. So while the USFS is pouring over the submissions from the air tanker companies, 10 Tanker Air Carrier hopes to influence the decisions that are being made by the federal government either on that RFP or those that may be issued in the future.

It does not appear that the USFS will award any contracts for very large air tankers (VLAT) like the DC-10 on this most recent RFP and will most likely limit the awards to smaller “next-generation” air tankers that have a capacity of 2,400 to 5,000 gallons. However the agency has issued a “request for comments” on a draft VLAT RFP for call when needed aircraft only. The two DC-10s operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier carry 11,600 gallons.

The US Forest Service has not been interested in offering long-term exclusive use contracts for very large air tankers like the DC-10 or 747, and have only made call when needed contracts available.