On the eve of its 2014 Annual Meeting in Boise, Idaho, on November 20, the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has cited some progress over the past year toward airtanker fleet modernization, along with on-going opposition to any increased role for government in the aerial firefighting business.
“After years of discussions between AHSAFA, US Forest Service (USFS) officials, and Congress, multi-year, operating contracts—worth $261 million—were awarded last spring by the USFS to five companies for seven next-generation large airtankers, to be available for the 2013 fire season,” said AHSAFA Executive Director Tom Eversole. “The USFS has said there is a need for as many as 26 modern large airtankers within the next five years. We consider the contract awards to be a major step toward the replacement of the current large airtanker fleet, consisting of seven to eight Cold War Era military surplus aircraft. All indications are that the USFS will not contract for these legacy aircraft beyond the current contract period, which ends in 2018.”
At the same time, Eversole reported that AHSAFA actively opposed the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012, which would have transferred 14 C27J cargo aircraft from the US Air Force to the Forest Service for aerial firefighting—in direct competition with private industry.
“The C27J transfer appears to be on hold, at least for now,” he said. “But there is language in the Farm Bill now being debated in Congress to authorize the USFS to lease five C130 aircraft for firefighting, and we continue to hear proposals to give Air National Guard units an expanding role in wildland fire suppression.”
AHSAFA, Eversole stressed, will continue to support the idea of expanding the use of commercial operators in aerial firefighting. “Commercial operators are increasing the number of aircraft with their own funding to meet the challenges of the coming fire seasons and we don’t believe the USFS should be in the business of operating their own fleet of aircraft placing the government in competition with private industry.”
For operators of the helicopters and airtankers supporting the firefighters on the ground, the ongoing specter of government budget constraints continues to add uncertainty.
“I think our biggest concern over the past year was the effect of sequestration on the government’s firefighting budget,” said Todd Petersen, Vice-President Marketing for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon. “As it turned out, there was no major impact, but that does not mean there won’t be in the future. This hinders our ability to plan. For example, will the government pick up the options on the remaining two years of our exclusive use contracts?”
Petersen also cited a proposal by the Internal Revenue Service to eliminate the previous exemption to the tax on fuel used by helicopters in firefighting. “This is to be a topic of discussion at the AHSAFA annual meeting,” he reported.
For Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Missoula, Montana-based airtanker operator Neptune Aviation, the major issue for 2013 was the contract award decision by the USFS for seven, next-generation airtankers from five companies. “Beyond that, the only significant concerns have been about ongoing budget issues, and USFS policies as to how they will fight fires,” he remarked. “For instance, will there be any policy changes regarding aircraft types? Will there be an increase or decrease in assets?”
While Neptune was not awarded a next-generation airtanker contract, it has continued to develop a new-generation tanker, based on the BAe 146 airliner, using internally generated funding.
“We are waiting to see just how those who won the contracts actually perform. Based on their performance, we will get some idea as to what that will mean for our company,” Snyder explained.
According to Rick Livingston, President of Sonora, California-based Intermountain Helicopter, the industry is seeing an emerging trend toward a pilot and mechanic shortage, along with escalating training costs. “It’s getting more difficult to find and qualify people who can do the job at a reasonable cost, particularly for a small operation like ours,” he said. “In fact, I am hearing the same thing from other operators, as well. Training costs are becoming more expensive, particularly when it comes to teaching long line skills. At the same time, it’s not just about flying. It’s having the ability to get along with the customer.” Livingston added that he does not see this problem going away anytime soon.
Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, agreed that the industry is “on track for a helicopter pilot crunch” within the next five years.
“The Vietnam Era pilots are retiring, and more of the younger pilots have low time, and little to no turbine engine experience,” he cautioned. “We can’t afford to hire a pilot and train him to where he meets USFS requirements, which are upward of 1,500 hours total pilot in command time. That includes least 100 hours in turbine powered aircraft, 50 hours in the specific type of helicopter (make and model) to be flown, and 200 hours or more in mountain flying.”
Columbia Helicopters, CHI Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington, DC-headquartered trade association representing the private aerial firefighting industry.