Feds Seen As Coming Competition To Private Aerial Firefighters

The nation’s privately operated aerial firefighting industry is growing increasingly concerned about greater federal government involvement in wildland fire suppression through deployment of Air National Guard assets, and a recent agreement by the US Forest Service (USFS) to acquire seven former US Coast Guard C-130s for air tanker missions.

In a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) last November in Boise, Idaho, Tom Eversole, the industry trade group’s Executive Director, said that government competition with private enterprise topped the list of subjects discussed with the USFS and Congressional staff over the past year.  “We have also spent time expressing our concerns about the USFS’s large air tanker contracting procedures, which are constantly changing and open to protest,” he stated.

The USFS, reported Eversole, has expressed a need for 24 to 28 additional large air tankers which now would be partially filled by the seven surplus Coast Guard C-130s. This reduces the number of aircraft commercial operators would provide, aircraft already being configured for firefighting at considerable costs to the companies. While the current plan is for the C-130 aircraft to be government-owned, but contractor operated, Eversole sees a competitive threat to the private aerial firefighting industry.  “Private companies that own and operate their own equipment would be at competitive disadvantage when bidding against contractors flying government-owned tankers, since those companies would not have to absorb acquisition costs,” he explained.  “We will continue to work with the USFS in 2015 to work out an equitable solution to the C-130 issue, and other issues regarding the future airtanker program.”

As Eversole noted, the private aerial firefighting industry, once again, proved its effectiveness during another long, and challenging fire season, particularly in the drought-impacted Western United States.  For example, Neptune Aviation Services, the Missoula, Montana-based large airtanker fleet operator, deployed as many as 10 aircraft, including its six P2V Neptunes, and four converted BAe 146 airliners, starting last January.

“Because of the early start to the fire season in California, we deployed those aircraft at least two months earlier than we normally do,” said Dan Snyder, the company’s Chief Operating Officer.  “California, Oregon and Washington had a particularly above average fire season.”  Neptune was also actively engaged on fires in New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, reported that the operator added three Army surplus CH-47D Chinooks to its fleet late in the fire season.  “One of the Chinooks is currently stationed in Sacramento, and carded by the USFS and CalFire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection).  “Our goal for 2015 is to be able to provide these aircraft to any local, state, or federal agency that has a need for a Type 1 aircraft for fire or disaster services,” Kelly said.  He added that CHI Aviation’s three Bell 205A-1++’s and one Bell 212 HP flew 946.5 hours on fires in support of our government contracts during 2014.

Other helicopter operators reported heavy use of their assets in wildland firefighting missions.  Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters flew in excess of 1,100 flight hours, with four Vertol 107-IIs, and one Model 234 Chinook on fires in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico.

A Bell 212, operated by Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, flew some 220 hours last year on a mix of firefighting missions, including water dropping, rappelling of fire fighters during initial attack phase, and ferrying of supplies—mostly in Washington and Oregon.  In preparation for 2015, the helicopter is being upgraded with a new Garmin 625 primary display system, and satellite weather radar, according to company president Drew Njirich.  “We are upgrading the avionics to make the helicopter more user-friendly and attractive to our contract customer,” he said.

Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Rogers Helicopters in Fresno, California, reported that they deployed a fleet consisting of two Bell 212HP, three Bell 212s, and two fixed wing Commander 690 twin turboprops—used in air tactical operations in support of firefighting—flew a combined total of nearly 1,100 hours, under USFS Exclusive Use contracts in Oregon, and California, and Alaska—for the Alaska Division of Forestry.  Another Bell 212, flew 275 hours under USFS Call When Needed contracts in Oregon and California.  All of the helicopters flew a variety of missions including water dropping, cargo and passenger transport missions.

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C. headquartered trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.