Aerial Firefighting Industry Disputes Near-Term Air Tanker Readiness

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.

Industry Group Cites Problems With Military Aircraft Acquisition By Forest Service

The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has cited significant airframe modification and operational issues, should the US Forest Service (USFS) pursue a proposal to acquire surplus C27J cargo aircraft for deployment as air tankers in wildland firefighting.

Under the National Defense Authorization Act of FY 2013, up to 14 of the twin-engine, turboprop airplanes—built in Italy by Alenia–would be transferred to the USFS, at no cost, from the Air Force, which no longer wants them. In a recent development, South Dakota Senators John Thune and Tim Johnson, as well as South Dakota Representative Kristi Noem, sent a letter to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell urging the agency to consider the C27J option. AHSAFA, however, alerted Congress and the USFS that it would be years before those aircraft would be mission-ready and that private industry offers a more immediate solution to increasing the number of large air tankers, and replacing the aging aircraft slated for retirement.

“What Congress fails to understand is that there is no existing, off-shelf, permanently mounted, or roll on/roll off tanking system available for those aircraft,” said Tom Eversole, AHSAFA’s Executive Director in Washington. “The engineering, design, installation, and certification would have to be totally customized, and would take at least two-and-a-half to three years to accomplish. It could be at least 2016, or possibly 2017, before these aircraft are ready for aerial firefighting—if they were acquired today.” For example, Eversole explained that Neptune Aviation Services, one of the two companies, currently operating large air tankers, is already deploying a modern system using a modified regional jet equipped with an approved fire-retardant slurry tank. “For the USFS to get into this business would be a terrible waste of money in today’s fiscal environment—when the industry is already there,” he noted.

In fact, said Ronald Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, it is not practical for the USFS to consider the C27J. “At least four private operators are well into development of retardant tanks for aircraft that are excellent candidates for large tankers. The industry could have as many as 26 large, next generation airtankers available within the next four years. But, if the USFS opts for the C27J, I estimate it would be at least six to seven years before an equal number of C27J aircraft would be operational for firefighting.”

Hooper cited the tanking system as a major concern. He reported that based on the C27Js maximum take-off weight, internal dimensions and cargo carrying capacity, it would be unable to meet the minimum 3,000 gallon capacity tank specified by the USFS for modern airtanker aircraft. “At best, you are looking at 1,800 to 2,000 gallons for a fixed tank, and 1,200 to 1,400 gallons for a portable, roll-on/roll-off system. That means that the C27J does not have the potential to be a large air tanker, as defined by the USFS. It is not appropriate as a large tanker, but industry can provide aircraft that are, and has already made investments in their infrastructure to support these newer aircraft.”

Bill Gabbert, of web-based publications Fire Aviation, and Wildfire Today, also has serious questions about the C27J’s viability as an air tanker. “The C27J is very appealing because, at an average age of five years, it’s practically a new aircraft,” he said. “However, it has been reported to be more costly to operate than the much larger C130, and maintenance and reliability have been issues.”

Al Ross of Reston, Virginia-based A.L. Ross Associates, indicated that manufacturer support for the C27J has been poor, given what he said is the Air Force’s experience to date. “Alenia has already demonstrated its inability to support this airplane in the field with parts and maintenance. It would be a huge cost to the Forest Service to keep them in the air.” Another complication, said Ross, is that nobody really knows what it would cost to develop the tank system, or the time involved. “I think a reasonable estimate would be about five years, and maybe $10-15 million for a MAFFS II (roll-on/roll off) type of system. Then, add about $2 million per tank. That’s a lot of time and money for about half of the capacity of the tanks being designed for the next-generation air tankers by private industry. It’s not enough airplane for the tanker role, along with high operational costs.”

According to Frank Gladics, of Gladics and Associates, a Boise, Idaho-based consulting firm focusing on natural resources and wildland fire policies, the C27J could cost five times as much as USFS estimates for the aircraft’s maintenance. This is based on an average of 400 flight hours in a typical fire season. “The point is, what will this aircraft really cost to operate,” Gladics asked. “Also, who is going to operate these aircraft? Nobody seems to know how good or bad these aircraft would be when used as an air tanker.” He added, “There are a lot of unanswered questions that need to be looked at before we leap off this cliff. Given the progress that has been made by the aerial firefighting industry for a large airtanker, the contractors will provide those aircraft, if they have a contract.”

AHSAFA is the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting. Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., is an AHSAFA member.