U.S. Forest Service to Fly Next Generation Tankers

June 1, 2013
For two years the U.S. Forest Service has tried to put together a fleet of new tankers to supplement its own aging firefighting fleet by contracting with other agencies.

June 01--After weeks of limbo, on Thursday the U.S. Forest Service went from having no next-generation air tankers to three, one of which will be fighting wildfire in California Saturday morning.

Rick Hatton, president of 10 Air Tanker Carrier, said Friday that Forest Service officials ordered his company's DC-10 -- a "very large air tanker" to San Bernadino to help douse a fire. Two other companies, Minden Air Corporation and Coulson Aircrane (USA) Inc. were also given five-year contracts with the federal fighting agency, said Bruce Palmer, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center, a branch of the Forest Service.

When the DC-10 deploys on Saturday it will become the first next-generation air tanker to join a federal fire fight, after nearly two years of industry squabbles over the coveted contracts.

For two years the Forest Service has tried to put together a fleet of new tankers to supplement its own aging firefighting fleet. Without the new air tankers the agency has had to rely on planes loaned from Canada and Alaska, and the Department of Defense. For two years, aircraft companies have vied for the multi-year federal contracts and have protested the Forest Service's choices for the contract awards. In early May, the Forest Service announced that 10 Air Tanker Carrier, Coulson Aircrane (USA) Inc., Aero Air LLC, and Aero Flite, Inc. would receive contracts for next-generation air tankers but Neptune Aviation, another aircraft company, protested the awards. Because of the protest, the seven potential tankers were expected to remain idle until the agency decided how to handle the protest.

Meanwhile, the North American wildfire season is underway, with fires already burning in southern California, Florida, and northern New Mexico. Last year, the agency had 11 large air tankers; this year, not counting the next-generation aircraft, it has eight.

But a loop-hole in Neptune's protest has allowed three of the seven air tankers to take to the skies earlier than expected, Palmer confirmed on Friday. Hatton got the news on Thursday that his company's DC-10, which he says is ideal for "rugged terrain" fires, had received a contract. Minden Air Corporation, Parker's company, also received a contract for one BAE-146 plane, which can hold up to 3,100 gallons of retardant. Coulson Aircrane received a contract for one C-130, which will be available Aug. 1, said Wayne Coulson, the company's chief executive officer.

The other next-generation contracts, with Aero Air and Aero Flite, are still under protest. In May, Sen, Mark Udall, who has championed the tanker issue after Colorado's 2012 summer of destructive wildfires, urged the Forest Service to override the protests and get all seven of the new tankers into the air quickly. The Forest Service has until August to decide how it will handle to protest.

Dan Snyder, chief operating officer for Neptune, did not return phone calls requesting comment on Friday.


Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

Copyright 2013 - The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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