USFS “shores up” air tanker fleet

In the aftermath of Sunday’s tragic air tanker accidents in which two pilots working for Neptune Aviation were killed, and a second air tanker made an emergency landing on disabled landing gear, the U.S. Forest Service announced today that they have “shored up” the air tanker fleet by temporarily adding some aircraft. They are arranging for two CV-580 air tankers to become available on a temporary basis. One is under contract with the state of Alaska and the other is being borrowed from the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre. The CV-580s can carry 2,100 gallons of retardant, about the same as the P2Vs that currently comprise eight of the nine air tankers on exclusive use contracts with the USFS, but they are speedier, cruising 115 mph faster than the P2Vs.

CAL FIRE reached out to the USFS and allowed the federal agency to arrange to bring on two CAL FIRE air tankers, presumably S-2Ts, one month earlier than they would have come on duty otherwise. These two aircraft will be used in California. An S-2T carries 1,200 gallons of retardant.

The USFS is also bringing on five large Type 1 helicopters earlier than previously scheduled.

When I saw the headline on the USFS news release announcing they were “shoring up” the air tanker fleet, I wondered if they were finally announcing that they have awarded multiple contracts for “new generation” air tankers. The solicitation for the next-gen air tankers closed in February, but as usual, the U.S. Forest Service office of Fire and Aviation Management has difficulty making decisions. There was also the possibility that they were going to announce exclusive use contracts or call when needed activations for the very large air tankers, such as the DC-10’s or the 747, but that did not happen either.

This “shoring up” tactic is smoke and mirrors — a band-aid on a serious case of analysis-paralysis cancer in the agency. It is simply a distraction from the real issue.

We have tried to find out the details of the USFS’ solicitation for a sixth air tanker study, which closed April 20, but calls to Kellan Logan, the USFS contracting officer in charge of the solicitation, have not been returned.

UPDATE AT 9:13 a.m. MT, June 7:

We heard from Mr. Logan today about the sixth air tanker study, which has been awarded.

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

23 thoughts on “USFS “shores up” air tanker fleet

  1. Bill you are so right about smoke and mirrors. I am sure that a containment lines built by helos and a couple of Convairs will get us through this summer. I doubt the Next Gen contract will really solve anything either. 3 planes (maybe) this year and another 4 (maybe) next year. Meanwhile they will let other viable options (vlats) simply go out of business. This USFS Fire Aviation leadership will go down in history as a big and dangerous failure.

  2. It is fascinating to me that in an election year, the USFS is ensuring the demise of US companies in favor of the Canadiens and even the Russians…glad we’re stimulating every one else’s economy.

    • Dee, before commenting on Canadian companies being the demise of our US companies you shoud get your facts stright. One of the Canadian companies who are helping us fight those Colorado fires injected a huge amount of money and partnered up with Aeroflight out of Arizona to help build up and sustain and American company with American employees to meet the needs of our failing Airtanker program and put up millions so that same American company could bid on those tanker contracts. Mabey you should give them some credit. They are helping us like they always have….from the wars we fight ( ya, thats right…wont hear that from CNN or FOX. they followed us when we asked and sacrificed hundreds and hundreds of their sons in Afganistan in the name of freedom ), to help bailing out our car companies and banks ( which they did ) whithout asking for a pat on the back. Time we recognized it. Thanks to our brothers up north…we have there backs and they have ours.

  3. Wow

    True smoke and mirrors…

    Those Convair 580’s are close to being as old as the P2 Victors

    We got some problems in River City, folks.

    Yep we got enough resources to take us through the 2012 fire season

    Wasn’t that what we were told earlier this year???

    The commentary here will only get deeper as the season goes on….bet on it!!

    • I sure hope the fire season stays SW of the Black Hills of South Dakota–there is so much urban interface with the forrest here that a very large disaster is very posssible and without proper airtanker support I worry–A LOT

  4. The Western Senators as a group wield a lot of power. A number of Western Senators sit on the Appropriations Committee including Jon Tester (D) Montana.

    Its long past time for the Senate to convene a committee to investigate the air tanker fiasco and then can everyone who has anything to do with fire aviation starting with the Secretary of the Interior.

  5. That people died in Colorado was negligent homicide on part of public officials. That 10 Tanker and Evergreen’s 747 aren’t under contract at this point is an unpardonable failure on part of the President to make changes at the USFS. I will be writing and faxing the President and my representatives on this matter and hope others will do the same.

  6. The Forest Circus is doing an excellent job of fooling the general public. “Shore up” what is there to shore up? It was stated that the fire on the Sequoia National Park has four heavy tankers on “stand-by”. They could be standing-by for ever. I like this one, we have about half the acres burned this year as last, our air program is doing just fine. If reducing the fixed-wing air program to near ZERO, why don’t we eliminate all but a few helicopters so there will be a huge reduction in acres burned? And for those Western Congress people thanks. Maybe we should look to Rands for who to vote for next time. Why in those smoked filled (forest fires smoke drifting into Washington D.C. from the West) is there such a resistance to use American-proven companies that are ready to go to work?

  7. Bill, can you please point me to your source regarding the early call up of the type 1 helos? Also, given the capacity of the S-64 (2650 gallons), low cost of operating, and ease of refilling (with water) compared to the 2100 gallon CV-580s and P2Vs, why wouldn’t the USFS contract for more helos? thanks for your insight. alex

    • Alex, the early activation of five Type 1 helicopters was part of the news release described above, which was issued by the USFS’ Boise office. And, the USFS is contracting for fewer, not more helicopters — 30 this year, down from 34 last year. Eight of those 30 “Type 1″ ships on contract this year are K-1200 (K-Max) helicopters that have a capacity of 680 gallons of water in an external load, according to the capabilities listed on two of the K-Max contractors’ web sites. They technically don’t meet the 700-gallon requirement to be classified as Type 1.

  8. Bill what is the stand by time for the different type of aircraft ? and what is the cost per hour to fly? and how much fuel ? just to draw a line between the different type of aircraft?

  9. As usual, misinformation runs rampant. One reason the 747 Supertanker isn’t on contract: it doesn’t exist as such any longer.
    The age of the Convairs (or most airtankers to be honest) has little to do with their suitability or safety. They have OEM support, have been maintained on an accelerated schedule since converted to their firefighting role and are subject to civilian commercial transport regulations. No P2V airtanker has ever, to my knowledge, been subjected to FAA oversight.
    The presence of foreign airtankers (helping the US by request in a time of need, so let’s remember to thank them) – pours far more money into local hotel, fuel, restaurant, rental car and airport authority coffers than is ever returned to the non-US economies that are lending them to us.

    Thank you Canadian airtanker staff. I’d thank the Russian too, but can’t figure out what they have to do with this discussion. Finally, ‘Alex’ mentioned the “low operating cost of the S-64 Skycrane – a machine that costs almost SIX times as much per hour to fly than them durned Convairs.

    • GeeBee: I talked with Evergreen a few weeks ago and asked them if the 747 Supertanker still existed, and they said it did. I did not ask them what the condition of the aircraft was or what it would take to get it ready to drop retardant on fires. However, they have no contracts with land management agencies as far as I know. The USFS only offered them a CWN contract, and Evergreen was not interested. If you have specific information that contradicts what I was told by Evergreen, elaborate and provide your source.

    • GeeBee:

      I can also back up Bill on the fact that the 747 Supertanker still exists. Evergreen did convert 2 774s as tankers, one is Tanker 947 (N470EV) which was converted back into a freighter about 3 or 4 years ago. The other is Tanker 979 (N479EV) which is currently stored at Victorville airport in ready storage.

      • Matt J,

        Go to sleep and stop confusing the stories and histories of the DC-10 and 747 platforms.

        Tanker 979 is BASED in Tucson… Tanker 911 is BASED in Victorville.

        • Anonymous:

          I am well aware of the fact that BOTH DC-10s are based at Victorville they are Tanker 910 and Tanker 911.A friend of mine that is in the Victorville area a lot saw Tanker 979 sitting there.we I also know that normally Tanker 979 is based in the at Marana.

  10. Hi GeeBee,
    that’s an interesting comment you made about “the S-64 Skycrane – a machine that costs almost SIX times as much per hour to fly” …. the hourly rate is pretty much inconsequential/meaningless in real life if you look at cost-per-gallon-delivered, which the USFS was intentionally ignoring back in the mid-1990s when they commissioned and published their 1996 National Airtanker Study ….

    The most recent “study of airtankers” excluded either VLATs and/or SEATs. Years ago, however, the FS commissioned studies that specifically excluded large helitankers. Try these:

    http://bit.ly/MfWKXu

    or this one from 1996:
    http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/publications/aviation/nats_final_phase_2.pdf

    or this one:
    http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/publications/aviation/nats1_report.pdf

    Now what’s your point again about hourly rates?

  11. Does it matter if it still exists? The prejudice against VLATs ensures that neither they nor 10- tanker will get a contract.

  12. I’m a complete rookie when it comes to this subject so please excuse any naive questions but, to a layman, I would think a heavy lift helicopter, like the S-64, would be able to drop a lot more water on a fire per hour of flight since it doesn’t require a return to base to refill (and, in theory, consumes less fuel than a fixed wing aircraft since it doesn’t have to fly back and forth to refill). As such, the higher “day rate” would be justified. I guess your point of cost her gallon delivered speaks to that point.

  13. Good point kelly,

    When compared to a given large fixed-wing airtanker, a heavy helicopter can appear to be either more or less efficient, depending on the dozens of variables of each specific incident. When delivering a chemical fire retardant, a Type 1 helicopter may have much shorter turn times, thus delivering a far greater gallons-per-hour figure than an airtanker with similar capacity. However, if we employed six fixed-wing airtankers at the equivalent cost of that single helicopter, there is no way that poor helicopter could keep up to the steady stream of retardant being delivered to that fire. Of course, we are assuming that progressive fleet management as found in certain areas in North America are employed. And let’s consider the reliability of the 6:1 ratio…if the helicopter has a mechanical problem, the retardant delivery stops. If an airtanker suffers a problem, well, there are five more airtankers still at work.

    Switching our focus to suppressants (water and foam), a helicopter can generally deliver a greater gallonage per hour than a large airtanker. But when compared to a pair of turbine CL scoopers or a group of four FireBoss aircraft…again, we will usually see the embattled helicopter lose in the cost, efficiency and effectiveness metrics. This is of course not the case in every single scenario. But it is compelling enough to give pause to those who may have their opinions firmly set towards a certain viewpoint.

    Alex, thanks for your points. Regarding the fuel consumed by a Type 1 helicopter vs a large fixed-wing airtanker, the helicopter will always have a greater consumption rate per hour and less endurance between fill-ups than an airplane. That’s just the way those things work and is regardless of how many or how few gallons of liquid it delivers.

  14. GeeBee,

    What about the cost of a Type 1 (or Type 2) helicopter delivering retardant from a portable batch plant near the fire?

    As someone who has used them extensively, they are both efficient and cost effective.

    It is important not to muddy the waters and start comparing apples vs. oranges…

    Apples. oranges, and even the occasional pomegranate has it’s place in the mix.

  15. Big Sky, you assume disrespect where none is intended. The Canadiens’ assistance is much appreciated. My issue is that US assets are not being utilized before seeking assistance internationally.

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