The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) disputes the claims by several member of Congress that multiple, next generation large air tankers could be deployed in wildland firefighting as early as this year, if recently announced contract awards by the US Forest Service (USFS) go unprotested. Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Montana, which failed to secure one of the multi-year contracts, has stated that it intends to lodge a protest with the Government Accountability Office, following the operator’s requested debriefing from the Forest Service.
“Of the five operators to whom the USFS says it intends to award contracts for seven next-generation air tankers, only one has Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval, and is operational today,” said Tom Eversole, AHSAFA’s Executive Director. “There is no assurance the other proposed aircraft and their fire retardant tanking systems will have the mandated IAB and FAA approvals this year.”
Eversole pointed out that Neptune Aviation, which is an AHSAFA member, was originally among those operators selected for a contract award last year. That, and other contract awards intended to be made at the time were successfully protested by two competing companies. “We believe the USFS has been extremely unfair to Neptune, encouraging then to spend millions of dollars to continue developing a next-generation tanker that has already proven itself as an effective wildland firefighting tool then not selecting them for these new contracts.”
Ron Hooper, Neptune Aviation Services’ Chief Executive Officer, reported that in tandem with filing the protest, it will continue to move ahead with the completion of a new version of a retardant tank for installation in two of four BAe 146 regional jets it has acquired to date for modification as air tankers. The aircraft, which Hooper identified as “Tanker 10” and “Tanker 01,” will have the improved tanking system. “We intend to go to grid with the new tank (the retardant application testing process required for IAB approval) with Tanker 10 no later than June 10 of this year,” said Hooper. It was those two aircraft that we offered to provide under the next-generation tanker contract.”
Neptune Aviation Services has two other modified BAe 146s with an earlier version of the tanking system, which have been operating under interim IAB approval. Those aircraft, Hooper explained, will be retrofitted with the new variant of the tank this winter. One of those aircraft is currently on the USFS legacy contract for this year.
AHSAFA is the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.