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.