The threat of a “catastrophic” wildfire season has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to bring on three of Neptune Aviation’s disputed BAe-146 jet retardant bombers.
The agency has awarded short-term contracts for three Neptune planes, along with a fourth DC-10 air tanker, to the national fleet of firefighting aircraft. That brings the total to 21 planes, including six of Neptune’s P2-V propeller-powered bombers and a fourth BAe-146.
“Needless to say, now I can sleep at night,” Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said Tuesday afternoon in Missoula. “The agency needs additional capacity, and this allowed them to reach out for three additional aircraft from Neptune.”
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell cited a growing threat of wildfires in the Southwest this summer in his announcement of the extra planes. Despite an effort to modernize the Forest Service aerial firefighting fleet, several contractors failed to deliver their planes last year and haven’t produced them this year either.
“We continue to increase and modernize the fleet of aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities,” Tidwell said in an email statement Tuesday. “These new planes will combine with our existing fleet to support our heroes on the ground fighting wildfires to keep our resources and communities safe.”
Missoula-based Neptune has struggled to win support for its modern jets since the Forest Service announced a next-generation aircraft contract opportunity in 2012. At the time, only Neptune and Nevada-based Minden Aviation had fire bombers available for wildfire service. And both companies relied on the P2-V, a Korean War-era submarine hunter converted for retardant dropping.
Neptune initially won two next-gen contracts from the Forest Service. But two unsuccessful new companies, 10 Tanker Air LLC and Coulson Aviation, protested the results. The Forest Service changed course and gave Neptune’s contracts to the challengers. Neptune still had five-year “legacy contracts” for one of its BAes and six P2-Vs.
Neptune in turn challenged the results. Before that could be resolved, the Forest Service offered the company a no-bid contract in December for three of its BAe jets. Several other companies challenged that move, and a Government Accountability Office review found serious errors in the contracting process. The GAO recommended the Neptune no-bid contracts be rescinded.
“As a result of the GAO decision, the Forest Service did terminate the contracts awarded in December,” Hooper said.
Tuesday’s announcement only puts the Neptune planes on 120-day legacy contracts for this year, according to Forest Service spokesman Mike Ferris. He did not know if there was an option for renewal.
“We’re still waiting for the GAO process to finalize,” Ferris said.
In addition to Neptune’s 10 planes, 10 Tanker Air gets to bring on a second DC-10 to join a sister plane already on contract with the Forest Service. Coulson Air has a C-130 fire bomber in service, and the Air National Guard is providing eight C-130s equipped with modular retardant tanks.
Hooper said three of Neptune’s four BAes were already in position for firefighting, operating out of airfields in Texas, Arizona and California. The fourth plane was in Missoula awaiting a June 1 service start date, he said.
While the 2014 fire season has already had destructive impact in places like San Diego, this week was getting off to a calm start.
“Yesterday we had 86 new fires, and got two up to 100 acres,” Farris said of the nationwide wildfire activity. “There are still seven large, uncontained fires in the U.S. But today we haven’t had any new starts. We didn’t see anything significant, which is surprising.”