One of the likely reasons that the US Forest Service refuses to offer an exclusive use contract for a Very Large Air Tanker such as Evergreen’s 747 or 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 is the agency assumes they cost more than smaller “large” air tankers like the P2V or BAe-146 that have a capacity of 2,200 to 3,000 gallons. Rick Hatton, the president of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, is attempting to change that perception. The company has a very popular page on Facebook that has accumulated over 9,000 “likes”. Today they posted an infographic claiming their two DC-10s can deliver retardant at less than half the cost of a BAe-146; about $4 a gallon for a DC-10 versus about $8 a gallon for a BAe-146. These prices do not include the cost of the retardant itself, just the costs for getting the retardant to the fire. In September, 2010, the price of retardant on the Fourmile Fire near Denver was $1.97 a gallon.
DC-10 air tanker cost per gallon to deliver retardant. Credit: 10 Tanker Air Carrier. Used with permission. (click to enlarge)
There are many costs and variables that go into calculating the cost per gallon for delivering retardant, including daily availability rate for the air tanker, hourly rate, fuel costs, turnaround time for each aircraft, and retardant capacity of the air tanker.
Mr. Hatton told Wildfire Today that for their calculations they assumed a one hour turnaround time (very quick for a DC-10 which has to wait while 11,600 gallons of retardant are transferred into its tanks), a typical fuel burn, contract prices for fuel, both aircraft were on exclusive use contracts, and at least 11,600 gallons were delivered.
The most important variables are the daily and hourly rates for the air tanker. We asked Mr. Hatton what the rates are for his DC-10s and he did not answer. So it is impossible to verify his conclusions without knowing the costs for both aircraft.
According to the Billings Gazette, in 2012, the 50-year-old P2V air tankers, which can carry about 2,200 gallons, have an average daily availability rate of $10,000, plus an hourly flight rate of $5,750. The BAe-146 jets with a 3,000-gallon capacity have a daily availability rate of $23,500 and an hourly flight rate of $9,520.
On the Fourmile Canyon fire west of Boulder, Colorado in September, 2010, the cost of delivered retardant by large air tankers on the fire, P2Vs and P3s, was $3.55 per gallon. This included the cost of the retardant which was $1.97/gallon. So the cost of just the delivery of the retardant was $1.58 per gallon.
The round-trip time for each air tanker to drop, reload, and drop again on the Fourmile fire was 0.55 hour. This is extremely quick and is due to the fact that the air tankers were reloading at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near Boulder, Jeffco air tanker base, about 15 air miles from the fire. This helped keep the cost per gallon of delivered retardant lower than on your typical fire, which is normally much more than 15 miles away from the reload base. Usually an air tanker spends at least 15-20 minutes on the ground, which includes landing, taxiing, refilling with retardant, taxiing again, and takeoff. If they have to refuel, it takes much longer. If as in Mr. Hatton’s calculations you assume a 1 hour turnaround time, it would have added approximately $1 a gallon to the costs on the Fourmile Canyon fire.
I am not saying that the cost of a delivered gallon of retardant is the most important factor in awarding or not awarding an exclusive use contract for an air tanker. You should also consider the age, safety, and dependability of the aircraft, as well as the exposure to risk –how many hours will be spent in the air flying low and slow over mountainous terrain in turbulent and smoky conditions. And, how many gallons can be delivered in a given length of time, to help achieve, working with firefighters on the ground, fast, aggressive initial attack on new fires with overwhelming force.
As William Scott said in his talk about wildfire arson and economic terrorism, the land management agencies “suffer from a culture and attitude of what firefighters call ‘cheapism’, the idea that we can fight wildland fire on the cheap. And that’s no longer acceptable.”