Will 12 air tankers be enough this year?

P2 air tanker
P2 air tanker on Whoopup fire near Newcastle, WY, July 18, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The 2011 wildfire season was relatively slow in the United States with the exception of Texas and two very large fires in Arizona and New Mexico. During most of the season there were only 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and this year we are starting with 12. Ten years ago there were 44.

Air tanker contract list 2012

The request for proposal that the U.S. Forest Service issued on November 30 could result in as many as seven additional air tankers on contract over the next two years — up to three this year and four in 2013. However, these additional “next generation” air tankers that can hold 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant and cruise at 300 knots do not exist. Potential vendors will have to be given contracts and then they will begin converting recycled airliners into air tankers, a lengthy and very expensive endeavor. After that, the aircraft will be required to undergo extensive testing which could lead to approval by the Interagency Air Tanker Board (IATB).

Minden BAe-146 in hangar
Minden’s BAe-146 during the conversion process. Photo: Minden, used with permission

One next-gen air tanker has partially completed this process. Late last year Tronos and Neptune received interim approval for a converted BAe-146 airliner which is being leased and operated by Neptune. At the end of 2012 the IATB will consider it for full approval, based on its performance on fires and how it functions at air tanker bases. Minden Air Corp. is also converting a BAe-146 and hopes to have it flying over fires this year.

The Chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, told a congressional committee on March 6 that this year the USFS will contract for two scooper air tankers (presumably CL-215s or CL-415′s) for the first time. We have a call in to the agency to find out if they will be on exclusive use or call when needed contracts. If they are exclusive use, this would bring the total up to 14 (counting the interim approval of the Neptune/Tronos BAe-146), still less than one-third of the size of the air tanker fleet 10 years ago.

In a letter dated March 7 that Ken Pimlott, the Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) wrote to Mr. Tidwell, he expressed concern about the decline of the USFS air tanker fleet, which has put pressure on CAL FIRE to bail out the USFS when there are fires on federal lands within the state. Mr. Pimlott also said that the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy developed in January is not sufficient “to meet the needs of the combined federal, state and local wildland firefighting missions” and that it does not consider the potential of very large air tankers (VLAT), such as the DC-10s and the 747.

The USFS has no interest in awarding exclusive use contracts for the VLATs, and has only offered call when needed contracts with no assurance that a company will receive any income. Evergreen said their business model for their 747 air tanker can’t be sustained with occasional use and did not sign a CWN contract. 10 Tanker Air Carrier is struggling to maintain one of their two DC-10s and a crew on a CWN contract.

An article by Ben Goad in the Press-Enterprise also addresses these issues. Here is an excerpt:

…Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been critical of the Forest Service’s handling of the situation, said she agreed with Pimlott that the Forest Service’s plan falls short.

“Millions of Californians work and live in high-fire threat areas, and a failure to address this issue jeopardizes lives and property,” said Feinstein, D-Calif. “Chief Tidwell admits the Forest Service lacks aviation assets to meet the wildfire response need, yet he has not requested sufficient funds to make the acquisitions, nor has he provided Congress with a timetable.”

Harbour maintained that the Forest Service is actively pursuing new contracts with tanker vendors and said he hoped to bring as many as eight into operation over the next two years, with two or three going into service this year. He acknowledged that the shortage could strain resources in the coming fire season.

“I worry about it, but that’s why 900 engines and 11 air tankers and 120 helicopters and eight (Defense Department) aircraft make me sleep a little bit better at night,” he said. “I worry about it, but we plan and prepare to deal with it.”

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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 “Will 12 air tankers be enough this year?”

  1. panhandle
    Can I say……I stand corrected??

    Where is new info found lately?

    Maybe I was relying on 5-10 yr old information….about how long it’s taking to assemble a new airtanker program..hehhe

    Plenty o folks here spout as well as I do and nary a mention of standing corrected

  2. Leo,
    Not sure where you get your wage info but most co pilots make a minimum of 65-75 a season with senior copilots making more and dependent on contract length. The fellas in the left seat make about double.

  3. You know Rileymon

    I know some Delta Delta senior captains and midlevel airline drivers and codrivers

    Let me tell you this…they are worth every !@# nickel they are getting paid granted alot of suff is flight management system and autoland BUT every responsible airline driver I have met makes better and sound decisions than MANY at the land maangement organizations…….u know we care about our firefighters, employees, etc and wanting to get every PR plug they can get. Most of the senior pilots at the airlines making daily decisions don’t get the air time your folks do every fire season. I venture to guess those folks I know are as humble as less then SES GM andGS9 firefighter types

    We/ I already know the condition of the airlines industry……your industry especially the airtanker side is going down THAT ROAD with your current leadership.

    YOUR industry depends on our industry to get u around and OUR industry to deliver retardant and water otherwise u land mgmt types are back to 4X4’s, horse, and pack mules. Perhaps you land mgmt types would like to back to the good ol daze. Might be easier on the the contract office, too, huh???

  4. Ex-tanker pilot,

    Obviously you’ve got a bone to pick with dispatchers somewhere. I wish you the best in overcoming whatever is disturbing you.

    In any case… no dispatchers in the federal governement make $155,000 per year unless they are a GS-11 Step 10 and get atleast 1200 hours of overtime… an amount of overtime that exceeds what most Hotshot Crews dream about.

  5. From what I remember, correct me if I am wrong….

    Did not the USFS go to NASA to “assist” in the evaluation for the 74 and the -10 as far as airliner type aircraft effectiveness? How much did the USFS spend on that little mission? How much did Mr Hatton at 10TankerLLC and the good folk at Evergreen invest in their own dinero?

    We already know what the Aussies said about the -10 BUT when you have a large land management agency (USFS) going to NASA for assistance (sure was no money there,huh?) and then not to use them….well u get the drift. Even Evergreen was in Haifa, Israel in the last two years, delivering the goods… There needs to be an ACTIONABLE process to force the land management agencies to……. if they are going to spend research money on something as large as this……THEN there ought to be a requirement to force interim contract issues on money well spent attempting to prove an airtanker that it TAKES 6 months of testing at land management expense and if it doesn’t pass muster…AALLLLLLL costs reimbursed to all from the land management accounts, severity accounts, force accounts and paid back to all the industry types that participated UNTIL they can prove they can get with industry and real professionals such as CalFire does with their operations. Sounds Harsh?? Sounds like a pissing contest, issue with turf protection? All these Feds talkin “collaboration, interagency this and that??? Time to to start doing and stop alllllllllllllll that talkin!!!

    MAYBE what it will take is this …..Congress hopefully will force the USFS to use these aircraft and then BILL the all the land mgmt agencies as a little corrective action to get these clowns to move off center.

    I am fairly sure there are going be some HARD HARD looks from Congress this year and hopefully there will be an equally HARD corrective action process applied to these folks and when come to their yearly budget requests……this will allllll come into play and then we will see what they are managing in the future!!!

  6. Is 11 enough? One down ten to go. I’m not an expert like the folks in the Forest Service, but as a taxpayer and a land owner surrounded by National Forest just maybe we should swallow our pride and come to the table with the VLAT and Martin Mars providers. Lunch issue: I agree, on fires the contractor should provide lunches for the pilots, which will save the incident (2x$8.42) $16.84 per operational period. Or lets come to the table on this issue, one lunch provided by the hiring agency, one provided by the contractor. What if there is a third person needing a lunch? Contact Rand for a study.

  7. Ken all you gotta do is walk acroos YOUR ramp, they are in there, eating the food that was brought for the pilots. Its funny, when these very same dispatchers come into the pilot shack and see food sitting there, they help themselves. Clearly forgetting that the food is intended for pilots who very well might still be out flying. But by god you had better NOT step foot in their office, because THATS off limits to you stupid contractors.

    Government employees—–the REAL 1%

  8. Well Ken

    Thank you for the data

    Maybe ExTP made a mistake

    Still QUITE a bit more money than MOST mechanics, first thru 5-10 yr copilots, and I would venture to guess, more than most tanker captains. These folks don’t have a nice 37 to 57 fire retirement program either.

    These folks are the folks who are as passionate as ANYONE in the fire business maybe more so because they the big picture of fire.

    Thanks for the data, this should help balance some things out. Maybe more retired aviation types ought to be scoring up those positions at the Fed level. Oh wait someone would tell me that is a FIRE position…u know …. get there when your 37 and not a day over go til 57 and then voila go AD later in life.. Some of know how it works……

    NAAAHHH I think they would rather fly the tanker and turn a wrench than listen to office chatter and look at some screen in some AC’d office

  9. Unfortunately, we won’t have the answer to this question until the end of the 2012 fire season. But the Forest Service has to be ready, and indeed they are far from it.

  10. Bill you might want to check the tanker list. My understanding is that T-10 is grounded because it had the wing spar crack that you wrote about a few months ago. But even if we had all 12 airplanes it is not enough we need at least 30 airtankers. I would be much happier with over 50 but I don’t see that happening ever again. Atleast not with the current forest service leadership.

  11. Ex-tanker pilot,

    Hopefully this will clarify my question, “Exactly where in the Forest Service do dispatchers make $155,000 per year?”.

    I’d like to know.
    In the Los Angeles “Locality Pay Area” (one of the highest in the nation), dispatchers are paid the following if they are Step 10:

    GS-11 Dispatch Center Manager (Top Step/Step 10)
    $83, 126 (Difference from $155,000 = $71,874)
    Normal OT Rate: $41.84/hr (maxed out)
    “Fire” OT Rate: $59.75/hr
    “Fire” OT Hours Needed to Reach $155,000: 1203
    Normal OT Hours Needed to Reach $155,000: 1718

    GS-09 Dispatch Center Operations Supervisor (Top Step /Step 10)
    $68,702 (Difference from $155,000 = $86,298)
    Normal OT Rate: $41.84/hr (maxed out)
    “Fire” OT Rate: $49.38
    “Fire” OT Hours Needed to Reach $155,000: 1748
    Normal OT Hours Needed to Reach $155,000: 2063

    GS-07 Dispatcher (Top Step /Step 10)
    $56,174 (Difference from $155,000 = $98,826)
    Normal OT Rate: $40.38
    “Fire” OT Rate: $40.38
    “Fire” OT Hours Needed to Reach $155,000: 2447
    Normal OT Hours Needed to Reach $155,000: 2447

  12. Maybe if they quit paying dispatchers $155,000 a year, we might be able to afford some airplanes. Take a good look at how much these dyslexic morons are paid. I’m going to quit flying and become a dispatcher, THAT’S where the money is!

    1. You’re painting this picture with a very broad brush: dispatchers in Dillon, Montana or Prineville, Oregon or hundreds of other Fed Dispatch Offices around the counrty have never seen those levels of wages. I’m sure that if I used the salary of a Delta Airlines 747 Senior pilot to described how much all pilots make that we’d hear the screaming all across the West and beyond.

  13. ooooooohhhhh

    eight tankers over 2 years. NOW that is a REAL strategy.

    Will 11 tankers be enough this year? Ask the Tom twins. They seem to have the pulse on all things aviation. Do not let any other emergency ( quakes, windstorms, etc) derail these folks. Any other emergency other than wildfire, the USFS should not be tasked with unless the can demonstrate “minding their own store.”

    Let them demonstrate taking care of wildfire and natural resource infrastructure protection of the Federal lands they administrate BEFORE getting asked to the table of any other incident……

    The only multitasking the USFS should be considering this year is their programs and solutions for this problem before they are asked to do any other type of incident management for the next 5 years or better…seeing how they have done in the past with this (airtanker) program.


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