USFS to contract for 7 to 35 turbine-powered air tankers

Tanker 25, a P2, on the Whoopup fire
Tanker 25, a P2, on the Whoopup fire
Tanker 45, a P2, on the Whoopup fire, July 18, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert/Wildfire Today

The U.S. Forest Service intends to add 7 to 35 turbine-powered air tankers to their contracted air tanker fleet. On November 30 the agency posted a solicitation for “Next Generation Airtankers”. These aircraft must be powered by turbine engines and have a “target” capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons, with 2,400 gallons being the minimum acceptable. They must be able to cruise at 300 knots at 12,000 feet.

The USFS expects to contract for a minimum of 7 of these air tankers; three in 2012 and four additional in 2013, with options to bring on up to 28 more, for a total of 35 additional air tankers. Of course, having the option to add more does not guarantee they will. Three of the air tankers would start in May through June, 2012, and the additional four (of the basic seven) would start April through May of 2013. The air tankers would have 5-year contracts with options for 5 more.

The bids for this new contract must be received on January 10, 2012. The solicitation says the contracts will be awarded in January, 2012. The start date of May, 2012 does not leave much time for the USFS to evaluate and award the contracts, and for the potential air tanker operators to acquire and convert, if necessary, new aircraft and obtain certification from the FAA and Interagency Air Tanker Board.

The USFS only has 11 large air tankers under exclusive use contract now, all P2s operated by Neptune and Minden. They also have a short-term contract that expires this month for Neptune’s BAe-146 turbofan-powered air tanker which has “interim” approval from the Interagency Air Tanker Board. P2s were first manufactured in 1945 and have huge radial piston engines that require much maintenance and gallons of oil at frequent intervals. They carry 2,000 to 2,400 gallons of retardant and have a cruise speed of 195 knots (225 mph).

We have been very critical of the USFS for sitting on their hands for the last 10 years as the fleet of large air tankers, through inertia, incompetence, and an inability to make decisions, declined from 44 to 11. This is a huge step in the right direction and the agency should be congratulated for publishing the solicitation. But what they do in the next several years will be critical. We’ll wait to see if they actually award the contracts for the first seven air tankers, and if they exercise the options to continue to build the fleet beyond that. Seven newer air tankers to eventually replace the eleven 60-year old P2s, will help, but we need more than seven. The USFS has the ability to do the right thing, if they follow through. Let’s hope they do.

Tomorrow we will write about the aircraft that the air tanker vendors may be considering for this new contract.

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. Google+

8 thoughts on “USFS to contract for 7 to 35 turbine-powered air tankers”

  1. Bill

    Iwould LUUV to support the USFS on this endeavor…BUT seriously this is crisis management and someone must have said something on the Hill today after the meeting with with Ms Hersman (sp) and the NTSB that “all of sudden it’s light and sireeens” for 2012.

    Land management agencies should have been able to ID these problems when they went after H&P in 2001 and 2002. The turbine engne and its availability have been around LOOOONG enough for enough of us to PLAINLY see that ther is both a CULTURAL and SAFETY problem with the leadership running this operation and to say that 7 to 35 turbine powered acft is all of suuden going to solve the upcoming 2012 fire season is once again ….knee jerk reaction.

    Hope the contract office can hire enough permanent staff as CORs. This will be interesting especially with a CR (continuing resolution). Will the USFS ask for an exemption and a waiver to that??

  2. Well it looks like they may be heading in the right direction, we can only hope. I am waiting to see what they do in the area of the VLAT’s, still looking for 10 TAC and a 747 to get a contract till they get around to dealing with that type of craft, doubt I will see that happen, so that leaves me to hope, as you say that they do the right thing, but I’am afraid they will use those 7 to replace the 11 and that’s just bad math to me, but then useing 1 C-130 on 3 trips or 3 C130 on one trip to do what 1 DC-10 can do in one trip isnt good math on there part either, so the feet are proped up and a cup of coffee waiting to see what the USFS does next.

  3. Just got back from the air tanker store. They were all out of Turbine powered air tankers that meet the minimums. Nothing like MBO (management by objective). Maybe Santa will deliver some from the North Pole. I wonder if he has been checking his list for those who have been naughty or nice?

  4. I like you guys “Leo” and “Johnney Coldwater”…….you’re smarter than the average……Thankyou!

  5. I spent 12 years flying airtankers until those jobs dried up. I’ve been flying helicopters for 9 years now waiting for those in charge to make up their minds and follow through. MAYBE, before I retire, we MIGHT have a solution from these clowns. They arent many of us left. Where are they going to find a training cadre?

  6. You know ex tanker pilot,

    You speak the truth. Congress needs to step in and give the land management agencies one of two choices….managing the land or managing aviation resources according to the FAA not their ” stringent standards.” When the Agenicies are going to NASA and others in the quest for collaboration, it proves that that they really do not have the true SME’s they needed for the last 60 years. Now I know the FAA has some blame in this, but the arguments of off and on airspace system issues and issues of air safety over Agency administered lands and grounding aircraft over single source NDT operators and grounding entire fleets of 3000 gallon carrying aircraft that were not purpose built for the mission proves that there was no planning in the early daze of airtanker use 60 some years ago.

    Agencies were just comfortable with what they had and probably no forethought of aging aircraft issues until approx 15 – 20 yrs ago wheen the true aviation industry identified…then and only then…. the agencies got on the band wagon… with it.

    So I am with you as a pilot and mechanic. All the HR, IT, and so called important issues such as managing timber and aircraft, together, has been an issue that the Agencies need to deal with. Either deal with one or the other and let some other Agency (FAA) get the aviation funding that the land mangement get and let it be re worked by them. We pilots and mechanics are certified to operate by stringent standards by training, medical qualification, etc that IS administered by one Agency specializing in aviation. Time for the airtanker portion be housed under that also. I know there would be ALOT of bellyaching if that were to happen. But then MAYBE those issues of CIVIL vs PUBLIC USE would all be ironed out under one house Part 61,91, portions of 121 OPSPECS, 141 training, etc etc etc etc etc, that we airman are all expected to live by. Maybe then and only then some of us to come to respect them if they REALLY truly had a plan for purpose built fixed wing airtankers and were really ponied up some R&D to the tune of approx one -half their operating budgets, then the land management types would then truly see the costs of aircraft and not what is convienient to their operations. The daze of nearly free aviation operations are nearly over!!!

  7. Correct me if I’m wrong. With the troop drawdown overseas, I would immagine that would free up some military aircraft. I would immagine that there are some newer C-130’s and P-3’s in the desert not doing anything. One would think that the government would work with a company offer some good tax brakes and low cost incentives to convert some of these aircraft. I always thought that the C-130’s that Hawkins & Powers and TBM had good tank systems and seemed to work well. If the government was willing to work with a contractor to help put some of these mothballed aircraft in the air that would be pretty awesome. Just look at CDD,when the S2A’s came on board. You had Aero Union, Sis Q flying service, TBM all played a roll in that major operation of development and look at how long the A models stayed around. Even the Forest Service had Aero Union build there own Neptune tanker. I know times are tough right now financially on everyone but there are ways around it. We need to keep this in our own country!
    Use our own people and our own planes. And it will create more jobs that have been lost.

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