MISSOULA — Two big planes circle over Sleeman Gulch, dropping loads of retardant on the Lolo Creek Complex fire.
One is a Korean War-era Lockheed P2-V, a converted submarine chaser with a distinctive rumble to its rotary propeller engines. The other is a British Aerospace BAe-146 jet, built in the 1990s with roughly twice the payload and twice the speed of the old warbird. Both belong to Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.
Neptune Tankers 40 and 41 – both BAe-146s – are the most modern firefighting jets in the wildfire business, but the company doesn’t know its future with the U.S. Forest Service. And according to a government analysis released last week, it’s not clear the Forest Service does either.
“That’s an issue we’re taking up with (Forest Service Chief Tom) Tidwell,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said during a visit to the Lolo Creek Complex fire camp. “There are ways to get these planes up. Neptune’s a good contractor. They’ve served this country very, very well. Those planes could have a real impact that could knock this fire down.”
Neptune has two more jets getting outfitted for firefighting at its hanger just east of Missoula International Airport. Last year, when it won one of the Forest Service’s Next-Generation Air Tanker contracts, Neptune appeared set on a 10-year course of building a new fleet of firebombers.
But last October, two unsuccessful bidders protested the Forest Service’s contract process. Last May, the agency issued new contracts. The two protesters, 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC and Coulson Aircrane USA, joined the next-gen fleet. Neptune lost out.
At the time, Forest Service national director for fire and aviation management Tom Harbour said the winning vendors produced the best offers after an earlier award was protested last August.
“In a nutshell, these awards to the five companies are as a result of evaluating all the bids and technical factors, and pricing,” Harbour said in May. “After the Forest Service clarified and revised the requests for proposal in November, all the vendors in the first group had a chance to go back and redo their proposals. That meant they could look at the technical factors, revise those, and could revise their pricing.”
The irony is that only one of the winning bidders had a plane available to fly in the 2013 fire season. That was 10 Tanker, whose DC-10 jumbo jet was initially considered too unmaneuverable to fight wildfires. The other four companies’ planes remain on the ground, in various stages of development or certification.
In 2004, the Forest Service had 44 large air tankers available for firefighting. This year, there are just nine, and seven of them belong to Neptune. The Forest Service has rented some extra planes from the state of Alaska, the Canadian government and the Air Force to fill out the retardant needs.
Neptune Aviation Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said Thursday that his company may have overbid the contract.
“Our pricing was too high compared to other operators,” Hooper said. “We filed a protest, but decided after consultation with our attorneys it was in the best interest of everyone to withdraw the protest. Our attorney and the government have told me we can’t discuss the details right now. But some discussions are going on as a result of dropping that protest.”
But a Government Accountability Office report released last week also criticized Neptune’s retardant tank design. The two BAe-146s have Neptune’s first retardant tank design, which sprays 2,600 gallons of slurry out of two gravity-fed chutes in the plane’s belly.
“During an initial assessment of the system in 2011, the Interagency Airtanker Board determined that the retardant delivery system did not meet established performance criteria and identified problems regarding the system’s design and performance,” the report stated. “However, in September 2012, the board approved, on an interim basis, the use of the retardant delivery system through the 2012 fire season.
“In December 2012, the Interagency Airtanker Board declined to extend the interim approval of Neptune Aviation Service’s BAe-146 system, citing the problematic retardant delivery system design and deficient performance during the 2012 fire season. In February 2013, however, the National Interagency Aviation Committee determined that the need for aircraft to deliver retardant for the 2013 fire season was sufficiently important to override the board’s decision.”
So Neptune’s Tanker 10 jet and the P2-Vs are operating on what’s known as “legacy contracts,” which the Forest Service offered planes that didn’t meet its next-generation requirements. Neptune has five P2-Vs on five-year contracts, one P2-V and one BAe-146 jet on one-year contracts with options for four additional years, and one more BAe-146 on a 120-day “additional equipment” contract.
Two new Neptune jets will have 3,100-gallon tanks with five chutes. One of those planes is expected to meet its certification requirements in the next two or three weeks. The second should be online in four to six weeks, Hooper said. Tankers 40 and 41 will then have their older tanks replaced with the new versions.
But Hooper doesn’t know what the Forest Service will do with those additional jets. The company doesn’t want to accept a “call-when-needed” contract, which 10 Tanker Air worked under for years before nearly going bankrupt. Only those companies with next-generation contracts have a solid 10-year commitment with the Forest Service to build a business plan on.
“It puts our long-term planning on hold,” Hooper said. “My energy has been focused on getting our planes ready to fly. That’s our strategy at this point. Then we’ll put our energy into a means of getting them under contract.”
The GAO report noted that Forest Service unpredictability was a problem throughout the firebomber industry.
“This inconsistency in the Forest Service’s large airtanker approach has increased the difficulty of making business investment decisions,” the report stated. The unnamed vendors cited agency plans to switch to all government-owned aircraft in 2005, followed by the offers of private next-gen contracts in 2011, and the wavering between five- and 10-year contract lengths. They were also concerned about Forest Service proposals to acquire surplus Air Force C-27J transport planes in 2012, along with the continued use of Air National Guard C-130 planes fitted with retardant tanks.
“The Forest Service estimates in its 2012 ‘Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy’ that each new (government-owned) aircraft would cost $79 million, not including costs related to operations and maintenance,” the report stated. “Since 2005, the Forest Service has submitted two proposals for the government purchase of a large airtanker fleet to (U.S. Office of Management and Budget) for review and potential inclusion in budget requests. However, OMB officials told us that the agency rejected both of these proposals because they were incomplete and did not meet agency guidance.”
It also questioned the decision to use Very Large Air Tankers like the DC-10.
“Specifically, about half of the large air tanker bases nationwide – 35 of 67 – are currently or potentially capable of supporting DC-10 operations,” the report stated. “The 747’s compatibility with bases is even more limited in that it can operate from approximately 12 locations, not all of which are air tanker bases.”
The military aircraft had problems as well. The report noted an investigation of a fatal crash of an Air National Guard C-130 in 2012 “found that the limited total firefighting experience of the crew – in particular, the number of drops accomplished prior to the accident – was a contributing factor to the accident.” It criticized the C-27J for having too small a retardant capacity and a delivery system that wouldn’t actually help ground crews on fire lines.
In its conclusion, the GAO advised the Forest Service to gather more information on aircraft performance, and to nail down what kind of planes it needs and should work with. It also told the agency to work closer with private fire aviation stakeholders to make sure its strategy reflects what they can provide.
The conclusion noted “the Forest Service generally agreed with our findings and recommendations and stated that it is committed to improving its collaboration efforts.” But it also observed the Forest Service remained interested in acquiring the surplus C-27J military transport planes under its own management.
“We acknowledge the Forest Service’s incentive to obtain the C-27Js free of acquisition cost and their potential use in multiple roles,” the report stated. “We also note, however, that the agency may face challenges regarding the retardant capacity and operating costs associated with the airtankers.”