The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) is extremely concerned about a shortage of fixed wing slurry bombers for the upcoming fire season and has cited the US Forest Service (USFS) for prolonged lack of action toward replacing a dwindling number of large airtankers with a modern fleet, and has urged the agency to avoid further delays with contract awards to private operators.
Tom Eversole, AHSAFA Executive Director, noted that the Forest Service and the aerial firefighting industry have been discussing specifications and replacement options since 2006 for the large, fixed wing tankers, now comprised mostly of 10 propeller-driven Cold War Era former P2V Navy patrol aircraft, with an average age of nearly 60 years. The industry group and the Forest Service have estimated a need for 24-26 modern large airtankers within the next five years to meet today’s fire threat.
“Despite years of discussions and studies, little progress has been made toward replacing the legacy fleet, which is rapidly reaching the end of its useful life, and will be retired within the next 5-7 years,” Eversole cautioned. “The only viable replacements placed under a USFS contract to date are three BAe 146 passenger jets modified for aerial firefighting by Neptune Aviation, one of the two remaining P2V tanker operators. Three other companies are also modifying aircraft that will be available this summer. If more companies are to become interested in getting into the airtanker business with next-generation airtankers, the USFS has got to get serious about awarding contracts before the fire season starts.”
The Forest Service, in fact, announced its intent last year to award $261 million worth of operating contracts to four companies to provide a total of seven, next-generation air tankers by 2015, under legislation co-sponsored by Senator Mark Udall (D-Col). However, protests by two losing companies resulted in the original request for proposal (RFP) being reissued with some changes. Currently, the Forest Service is evaluating the responses to the revised RFP, which closed last November, and has just announced a contract award decision will be made in the next sixty days.
Eversole pointed out that while AHSAFA supports Senator Udall’s efforts to fast-track a modern, privately-operated airtanker fleet, the industry disagrees with his suggestion to transfer seven excess tactical airlift aircraft–C130J or C27J–from the Air Force to the Forest Service for aerial firefighting. That is not the solution to the immediate problem,” Eversole stressed. “Even if the aircraft were transferred tomorrow there is no tanking system available for the C27J and C130J, and no complete engineering data package exists to produce the retardant tanks. Assuming that someone would be interested in developing a tanking system for the aircraft, we project it could be at least four years before the first tanks would be installed and certified–and that’s under a best case scenario. That means it would be 2016, at the earliest, before those aircraft could be ready for wildland firefighting deployment–if the process were started today.”
As Eversole explained, the aerial firefighting industry proposed an airtanker fleet modernization plan to the Forest Service in 2011. The proposal, he explained, called for a five-year initial operating contract, with options for up to five additional years, and with aircraft acquisition costs to the be borne by the industry.
“The Forest Service agreed that the industry’s proposal fit very well with its own ideas and goals, that the operators of large airtankers can no longer rely on excess military aircraft, and is aware that no, off-shelf, purpose-built large airtanker exists today,” Eversole remarked. “But, the industry has demonstrated that it has the ability to furnish modified commercial airliners, which are still supported by their manufacturers, at a cost of $3-5 million per aircraft.”
And while this may result in higher contract availability and flight rates, those costs, said Eversole, will be offset by reduced downtime and lower maintenance costs, along with greater efficiencies in the delivery of fire retardant due to higher capacity–3,000-4,000 gallon–tanks and faster transit times.
“We are trying to work with the Forest Service toward a shared goal, which is to phase out the Post-World War II era aircraft used today for aerial firefighting,” Eversole added, “But the time for action on this is now.”
The American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) is the Washington, DC-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.