1:30pm

Fri May 17, 2013
Wildfires

New Protest Could Delay Next-Gen Firefighting Air Tankers

The U.S. Forest Service announced May 6 contracts had been awarded for seven new next generation firefighting air tankers. Now there’s another hang-up.

The contracts should have been awarded in late 2012, however protests were filed by two losing companies. That forced a second solicitation for bids. Now, another company has filed a protest of the recently awarded contracts.

That could trigger a third solicitation for bids and prevent any next generation air tankers from entering service for many months, possibly this entire fire season.

The company filing the new protest, Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Montana was originally awarded a contract in June of last year. When Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier protested the awards, the June contracts were nullified and bidding was re-opened in November.

The most recent announcement from the U.S. Forest Service indicated that Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier were awarded contracts during a second round of bidding. Neptune Aviation was not.

According to fireaviation.com, Neptune has already made investments in anticipation of the contract awards:

Neptune has invested heavily in four BAe-146 aircraft, retired airliners with more than 20 years of service. Two have been converted to air tankers, Tankers 40 and 41, and have interim approval from the Interagency Air Tanker board. But their retardant delivery performance has been criticized, since the last several hundred gallons of retardant does not exit the tanks quickly enough. Neptune thinks they have a fix for the problem and the next two BAe-146s being converted now, Tankers 10 and 01, will have an improved tanking system. They expect to begin drop tests with Tanker 10 no later than June 10 of this year, Ron Hooper, their Chief Executive Officer said. The company will retrofit the tanks in Tankers 40 and 41 with the new variant of the tank next winter. One of them is currently on the USFS legacy contract for this year.

Colorado Senator Democrat Mark Udall says the protest could delay the tankers from entering service until after the 2013 fire season. He’s urging the U.S. Forest Service to declare emergency circumstances and override the new protest.

"Wildfire season is coming, and I refuse to force Colorado communities to watch as preventable and containable wildfires are allowed to threaten lives and homes simply because of contractors' squabbles,” said  Udall. “Make no mistake about it: This is an emergency, and this shortsighted protest will leave the U.S. Forest Service with outdated, Korean War-era air tankers to fight modern mega-fires."

Currently only eight Korean War era planes, or legacy tankers, are on exclusive use contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Those contracts were awarded earlier this year. Neptune was awarded one of those contracts.

The Forest Service is confident there are enough air tankers to cover this fire season. The agency has access to Canadian and Alaskan tankers as well as military C130’s equipped with MAFFS.