Contracts part of effort to modernize airtanker fleet

Jun 15, 2012

While it may come a few weeks too late for the recent spring fires burning throughout drought-stricken Midwestern states, there’s hope that recent contracts between the government and airtanker fleets will help put out future fires much quicker.

Following the recent tragic accidents of two aging airtankers, several politicians, including Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, have campaigned for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to modernize its fleet of firefighting airplanes.

Earlier in June, a Missoula-based Korean War-era P2V airplane fighting a wildfire along the Utah-Nevada border crashed, claiming the lives of its pilot and co-pilot. A second accident also involving a P2V occurred the same day near Reno, NV.

USFS currently has nine large airtankers in operation, down 75 percent from a decade ago. All of the agency’s remaining planes are aging P2-Vs, according to Tester.

Tester, who first called on the USFS to upgrade its airtanker fleet in February, said the agency needs to move fast to fight what is already an active fire season—with as much safety as possible.

“These incidents indicate the need to swiftly replace the aging air fleet and begin contracting new planes for the Forest Service fleet,” Tester wrote USFS Chief Tom Tidwell.

Dating as far back as World War II, and used in the Cold War as a submarine attack plane, the P2V is a perfect example of a plane possibly due for retirement. It has remained a mainstay of the nation’s aerial firefighting arsenal, and is a growing cause of concern. The planes have crashed at least seven times from either mechanical problems or pilot error, causing 16 deaths, since 1990 when the planes began to be seen fighting fires.

The Montana plane that crashed was owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, MT, and was built in 1962, according to federal aviation records, but had been modified to fight fires and was among only a handful of airtankers available nationwide.

Another P2V, this one owned by Minden Air Corp. in Minden, NV, was fighting a wildfire south of Reno. Its crash-landing at Minden- Tahoe Airport was captured on video, with the plane dropping to its belly and sliding across the runway. Fortunately, no one was injured in that crash.

The government previously had relied primarily on C-130 cargo planes for firefighting efforts but started slowly adding P2Vs to the fleet in the early 1990s, and began relying much more on the planes after two C-130 crashes in 2002.

The number of large firefighting aircraft has steadily dwindled since 2004 when USFS grounded 33 airtankers after a number of highprofile crashes. Two of those involved the wings falling off the aircraft as they were fighting fires.

While USFS has been working on their plan for several months, some companies decided not to wait.

Tester noted that Missoula’s Neptune Aviation recently bought and retrofitted new planes in an effort to modernize its fleet.

But responding to the much needed upgrades, Tidwell announced last week that USFS has awarded contracts to four companies to provide a total of seven nextgeneration airtankers for wildfire suppression.

The announcement follows the president’s signature of S. 3261, a bill that cleared the House and Senate last week, which expedites the USFS contracting process that had been underway.

“This is a major milestone in our efforts to modernize the large airtanker fleet, which plays a vital role in wildfire suppression,” said Tidwell.

USFS initiated the process to develop and issue these contracts last fall. In February, the Obama administration, led by USFS, issued a Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy and the president included $24 million in the 2013 budget for this purpose.

The exclusive use contracts were awarded to Neptune Aviation Services, Inc. of Missoula, MT; Minden Air Corporation of Minden, NE; Aero Air, LLC in Hillsboro, OR; and Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, AZ.

The agency was required by statute to wait to award these contracts for 30 days after notifying Congress of its intent to award them. However, the agency’s request to Congress to waive a waiting period required by the Federal Acquisition Regulation was supported by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, and other lawmakers and enabled the agency to accelerate the contracting of the aircraft.

“We commend the House and Senate for moving Sen. Wyden’s bill through both chambers so quickly,” said Tidwell. “These contracts will provide three new airtankers for our fleet this summer and four more the following year. In what’s already shaping up as serious fire season, it is essential to have modernized new tankers joining our fleet.”

Under the contracts, the four companies will provide three next-generation airtankers in 2012 and four next generation airtankers in 2013 as follows:

• Neptune Aviation Services, Inc. will provide 2 BAe-146s in 2012;

• Minden Air Corporation will provide 1 BAe-146 in 2012 and 1 BAe-146 in 2013;

• Aero Air, LLC will provide 2 MD87s in 2013; and

• Aero Flite, Inc. of Kingman, AZ, will provide 1 Avro RJ85 in 2013.

The contracts allow these companies to provide additional next-generation airtankers in 2013, 2014 and 2015, contingent on funding and other circumstances.

The contracts are for a base period of five years, with five one-year options for contracts awarded for 2012 and four one-year options for contracts awarded for 2013.

All of the next-generation airtankers are turbine powered, can carry a minimum of 2,400 gallons of retardant, and have a cruise speed of at least 300 knots when fully loaded. The companies that are providing them are required to comply with stringent safety requirements in their contracts.

USFS is working with Neptune Aviation Services, Inc. and Minden Air Corporation to bring the three BAe-146s into service by late summer. Both companies currently hold exclusive use contracts with USFS to provide airtankers for wildfire suppression.

Federal wildfire officials, including USFS, USDA, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, continue to monitor wildfires in the western states while thousands of first responders and firefighters from local, state, federal and tribal agencies suppress fires in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Federal agencies have made about 5,000 firefighters available to suppress fires so far.

On Monday of last week, USFS announced the agency had mobilized eight additional aircraft to its firefighting fleet to ensure that an adequate number of airtankers are available for wildland firefighting efforts. With these additional airtankers, the USFS has 16 large airtankers and one very large airtanker available immediately for wildfire suppression. USFS has the capability to mobilize an additional 11 large airtankers, should circumstances require it. The new airtanker contracts will supplement these aircraft.

Additionally, USFS and the Department of the Interior fire agencies can mobilize hundreds of helicopters and dozens of smaller aircraft, called “single-engine airtankers.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor