USFS starts over again with next generation air tanker contracts

C-130H and Firewatch 76
Coulson’s C-130H and Firewatch 76. Photo by Coulson.

After announcing on June 13 the awards for contracts for seven next generation air tankers, the U.S. Forest Service is going back to the drawing board. Their contracting office has notified the nine aircraft companies that submitted bids on the request for proposal (RFP) originally published November 30, 2011, that they will not be executing the awards for the four companies that appeared to be the winners, Neptune Aviation Services, Minden Air Corporation, Aero Air, and Aero Flite.

As Kelly Anderson reported for us on August 7, two companies protested the awards, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

Contracts for the air tankers were never issued or signed, only “letters of intent” were sent to the four companies. Matt Olson, the USFS contracting officer for the next generation air tankers, told Wildfire Today that the awards were contingent on negotiating with each company a “cancellation ceiling rate”, which would be the amount given to the companies if the government had to cancel the contracts before the scheduled end date. Those negotiations were underway when the awards were protested.

An amendment to the RFP will be issued, and all nine companies that previously submitted proposals, including the four vendors who were notified of pending awards in June, will have an opportunity to submit revised proposals once the amendment is issued.

Mr. Olson said the amendment will be issued either today or early next week and responses will be due about a month later. It most likely will not be posted online. (UPDATE: it was issued to the nine companies today, October 5.) He expects the second generation of awards for the next generation air tankers will be announced early in 2013.

The primary change in the new amendment to the RFP will be to clarify that the air tankers must be able to carry at least 2,400 gallons at sea level at ISA plus 30 degree Celsius.

Now that the USFS has published the dollar amounts of the awards, offering the nine companies the opportunity to revise their bids could result in an interesting dynamic and some very different prices. On the June 13 award announcement, the dollar amounts listed for the first year of the 5-year contract, with options for 5 additional years, were:

BAe-146 (Neptune had the high prices, and Minden the low)

  • Daily availability, $27,978 to $23,300
  • Hourly flight rate, $9,520 to $7,700

RJ-85, a variant of the BAe-146 (Aero-Flite)

  • Daily availability, $29,661
  • Hourly flight rate, $5,719

MD-87 (Aero Air)

  • Daily availability, $23,614
  • Hourly flight rate, $6,600

The above rates are “dry”, and do not include fuel.

The two companies that protested the awards, Coulson and 10 Tanker, would like for their aircraft to be considered more on a cost per DELIVERED gallon of retardant, and not primarily the daily and hourly rates. Coulson has purchased a C-130H and owns the rights to build an Aero Union designed constant-flow tank that could hold up to 5,000 gallons. 10 Tanker’s two DC-10 air tankers carry 11,600 gallons and don’t have to download based on density altitude like all other air tankers.

Using the USFS’s logic of the lowest price for one load of retardant, an 800-gallon aircraft with a low operating cost would be the best bet. But if the incident commander needs more than 800 gallons, or more than one load, an air tanker that can carry many thousands of gallons of retardant could cost less to get the job done, and get it done more quickly. Remember what we keep saying… fast aggressive, initial attack can keep small fires from becoming megafires. The federal government’s policy of trying to suppress fires on the cheap has limitations.

As a comparison of air tanker rates, in 2011 the average costs for a P2V on an exclusive use contract were $9,700 for daily availability, plus $6,500 per flight hour. In 2012, the rates for a DC-10 on a Call When Needed Contract are $50,021 for daily availability, plus $21,253 per flight hour including fuel, or $7,445 without fuel. CWN rates have to be much higher than for an extended exclusive use contract, since there is no guarantee that the aircraft will be used at all, or for more than a few days each year.

Tanker 41
Tanker 41 at Missoula, August 11, 2012. Wildfire Today photo.

The two next generation BAe-146 air tankers operated by Neptune were brought on not through the next generation RFP, but were added to the company’s existing legacy air tanker contract as “additional equipment”. The contract for Tanker 40, which first dropped on a fire in September of 2011, ends today, October 5, but was extended by a few days due to having missed some of its Mandatory Availability Days (MAP) when it was down for maintenance. Tanker 41 first came on contract September 1, 2012 and was scheduled to go off on November 9, but it will also be extended a few days because it missed some MAP days while undergoing maintenance.

The RFP for the next generation air tankers allows for between 7 and 35 additional air tankers to be brought on. At this time funding available to the USFS will only allow for 7. Mr. Olson, the contracting officer, told us that he expects there to be a 5 percent reduction in funding for the USFS, so it is unlikely that any more than 7 will receive next generation contracts in the next year.

Still pending are award announcements for the RFPs for “legacy” air tankers such as the P2V which can carry at least 1,800 gallons, and Call When Needed contracts for Very Large Air Tankers that have a capacity of at least 10,000 gallons. The existing contracts with Minden and Neptune for the legacy air tankers expire within the next few months. The new ones will begin on February 20, 2013 … IF this RFP goes much more smoothly than the one for the next generation air tankers.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

15 thoughts on “USFS starts over again with next generation air tanker contracts”

  1. Read what RonP said…..

    Pretty sad day when the bank owns the airplanes and has no buyers.

    Also….. pretty sad when the Agency that purports efficiency and safety in aviation has culpability in this little operation. I will continue to state…..where is the documentation that that whole fleet was grounded due to one aircraft?

    Being in the banks hands is also like aviation in the LMA’s hands…..the both REALLY do not have expertise in aviation operations….only the money and contract parts.

    Well the banks own ’em now. Neptune and others need to ” check six” and stay ahead.

    Because when banks own aircraft its another sad and no one is flying them for so long a duration…that the next operator WILL incur a whole new set of inspections due to non use….

  2. USFS/BLM air programs should stop managing any Air Program.
    Instead, Ministry of Interior should be creating 1 independant Agency Branch dedicated to Federal Aerial Fire Fighting with real experts and Leaders to manage it. No need for hundred guys, just 10, 15 Maybe…
    – Contracting (all types of aircraft and contracts) with privately owned companies. (No Fed owned fleet! Private contractors! )
    – Training, Carding; programs. procedures, supervision
    – Auditing for performances
    A small group of people with flying experience and Leadership to steer the Fed Air program to the correct direction… finally!

  3. Behind the airport fuel filling drama, is when can the airport fuel provider provide the fuel? Example if four or five tankers are launched at about the same time (carrying the contract fuel minimum) all will need fuel at about the same time. So after numerous sorties (need fuel) everyone is sitting on the ramp waiting for the fuel truck to arrive and nothing is getting done on the fire. It is important to plan your fuel delivery (out of sequence with other tankers) to keep the I.C. happy.

    1. Yep, JC remember when I would be fueling
      with a quick 300 gal/tank(X4) just to get out of the fueling crunch that would come when all five or so tankers would need fuel…

  4. Randy, in regards to why the 10 refueled after a 20 minute flight, you answered your own question. If they have a minimum fuel load (2.5 hrs) and they flew for 20 minutes, then they don’t have the minimum any more. They refueled so as to comply with there contract. You may have also noticed that they flew out of the same airport as the 20 minute flight on fires 130 to 150 miles away with full contract loads. So it would appear that they weren’t downloading fuel at all.

    Or maybe the minimum fuel is an amount that the tanker must be able to carry with a full contract load, but is not required every trip. Especially when the fire is only 12 miles away. It takes fuel to carry fuel. The more fuel one carries, the more fuel is burned. So maybe the crew was just being responsible and trying to keep an eye on cost. Because in the end, you and I pay for it.

    Either way, I don’t believe they were downloading fuel to carry a contract load.

    As for landing weight, they almost always take off with a full load at a weight less than landing weight. Only on a dispatch greater than 600 miles or so do they take enough fuel to be over there landing weight at takeoff. And we all know they can’t land loaded, so there is never a problem with landing weight.

    1. You’re speculating out loud Parvis. Why act like you know the answer to Randy’s question when it’s obvious you don’t?

  5. Randy they fuel n load at same time fueling is faster than loading. There turn arounds on the ground are 20-30 mins so refueling for them is not a factor

  6. Nothing surprises me anymore… You’d almost think that the “contracting shop” doesn’t work for/with the “fire shop”??…. WAIT.. they DON’T!!

    Nearly every “essential” function within the Forest Service has been centralized for efficiency under the appropriate STAFF FUNCTION.. but the FIRE PROGRAM is still disjointed and decentralized.

    If I could draw the “org chart” for the FIRE PROGRAM, it would be easy to see where the latent traps and dysfunction start. After nearly 30 years with the USFS… I can’t even begin to connect the dots and draw the lines.

    District Fire Staff works for the District Ranger.
    Forest Fire Staff works for the Forest Supervisor.
    Regional Office Fire Staff works for the Regional Forester.
    Washington Office Fire Staff works for the Chief.

    NOWHERE within the “fire program” are policies, guidance, and direction “centralized” under a clearly defined program of LEADER’S INTENT. A program change similar to the Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations (LE&I) program is sorely needed.

    “Line Authority” for the LE&I program comes directly from the Chief of the Forest Service downwards to the field level LEOs through a clearly defined “org chart” and a structure of Leadership, Command, and Expertise… not so much in the “fire program”.

    The “fire program” is disjointed through a design flaw that simply gets worse.. and worse.


  7. This isn’t meant as a jab to 10TAC as they are a valuable asset. But I have to ask why they had to fuel after the first turn on a fire 12 miles away (20 minute flight time) this year on a load and return. Are they not “downloading” retardant but fuel to carry the full 11,600 every time? Is this based on landing weight on short turns? Because they are CWN, do they not have a contract fuel load like the rest of the tankers? If they had a 3+ hour fuel requirement I bet you any amount of money, certain times at certain airports they would have to download retardant. Just making sure the facts are right with the statement “10 Tanker’s two DC-10 air tankers carry 11,600 gallons and don’t have to download based on density altitude like all other air tankers.”

  8. OK for the “Legacy” aircraft-what about the P-3’s and DC-7’s
    -which, btw rarely downloaded for Density Altitude.
    Anyone of the Aero Union folks have heard what is going on with the parked aircraft? Maybe we will have a fleet again..

    1. Getting flat spots on the tires is whats happening. The aircraft are owned by the bank and have moved from paying two former employees to completing weekly inspections to contracting a company on the McClellan to performing them. The auctions are complete and just about all the support equipment is gone.


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