Four Key Firefighting Airtankers Grounded Due to Bid Protests

A DC-10 aerial tanker drops a line of fire retardant along the foothills of the Angeles National Forest Sunday.

A DC-10 aerial tanker drops a line of fire retardant along the foothills of the Angeles National Forest Sunday. Reed Saxon/AP

Senators urge quick resolution as extreme fire season looms.

The Forest Service can deploy only three out of seven new tankers to replace Korean War vintage aircraft as the summer fire season heats up, due to a contract protest.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, told a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday that he wants to cut through the legal process to get the entire fleet in the air as soon as possible. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., joined him in pushing for a quick resolution.

Last month Udall urged the Forest Service to override the protest. “Lives and homes are at stake, and I refuse to stand idly by as red tape suffocates any chance of the U.S. Forest Service finally acquiring these much-needed air tankers," he said. Udall added that residents of fire-prone areas should not be held hostage to “contractors’ squabbles.”

The Forest Service on May 6 awarded seven companies five-year contracts valued at a total of $159.4 million to supply it with Next Generation Airtankers. Neptune Aviation Services Inc. of Missoula, Mont., on May 16  filed a Government Accountability Office protest of the airtanker contract award, with a decision not due until Aug. 26, the tail-end of the fire season.

Thomas Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, did not promise any speedy resolution of the protest, and told the hearing it has to go through the legal process.

Last Friday the Forest Service awarded five-year airtanker contracts with a total value of $71.7 million to Minden Air Corp. of Minden, Nev.; Coulson Aircrane USA of Portland, Ore.; and 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC of Adelanto, Calif.

Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said the department was able to award these contracts because they were “outside the scope” of the protest filed by Neptune. She added Tidwell also has the authority to override the suspension of the other four contracts, and is considering such a move.

Jones said Minden will provide the Forest Service with a British Aierospace 146 four engine regional jet modified for firefighting; 10 Tanker will offer a modified DC-10 tri-jet; and Coulson, a modified military C-130 four engine tuboprop. These aircraft can dump 3,000 gallons, 12,000 gallons and 5,000 gallons respectively from internal tanks on a fire. Neptune provided the Forest Service with British Aerospace 146 airtankers last year.

Aero Air LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., was awarded two contracts to supply MD-87 twin jets, and Aero Flite Inc. of Kingman, Ariz., was awarded two contracts to supply a stretched version of the 146. These contracts are still suspended.