CHEYENNE, Wyo. — As fire season heats up, the U.S. Forest Service remains able to use only one of seven large, state-of-the-art air tanker planes it contracted last month to fight wildfires.
The other six planes have yet to be certified, a process that could take as much as two more months under the contract terms, according to U.S Forest Service spokesman Mike Ferris at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
"They could come on sooner," Ferris said Friday. "They just have to go through the steps to get them certified."
The Forest Service announced May 6 it was contracting five companies for the seven "next-generation" air tankers. The Forest Service has awarded the next-generation contracts twice in the past year — the agency did so last year but started the process over after two companies that didn't get contracts filed protests.
One of the protesters was 10 Tanker Air Carrier, which flies two DC-10 passenger jets modified to drop fire retardant. The company won a contract in the latest round to fly one of its planes.
The DC-10 is now the only plane as yet flying under the next-generation contract. The plane dropped slurry on the recent fires in southern California and lately has been fighting fires in New Mexico.
"These other airplanes aren't ready. They're in development. And it's yet to be shown when they'll be ready and, if they're ready, how well they will work," said Rick Hatton, president of 10 Tanker.
The company based in Victorville, Calif., is moving its headquarters to Casper.
The so-called "next-generation" turboprop and jet planes are bigger and faster than air tankers previously contracted by the Forest Service. The planes must be able to carry at least 3,000 gallons of slurry and fly at least 350 mph.
The certification process still to be completed by four of the five companies includes proving the planes' slurry tanks. The planes also must be approved for field trials and be issued Federal Aviation Administration certificates, according to Ferris.
He said he didn't know if the four companies were on target to get certified no later than Aug. 2 and 10, as their contracts require.
"I would assume they're eager to meet those expectations," he said.
The other four companies are Minden Air Corp., of Minden, Nev., to fly one BAe-146; Aero Air LLC, of Hillsboro, Ore., two MD87s; Aero Flite Inc., of Kingman, Ariz., two Avro RJ85s; and Coulson Aircrane (USA) Inc., of Portland, Ore., one C130Q.
The next-generation air tanker program allows the Forest Service to contract more planes as needed, Hatton said.
He pointed out that his DC-10s, with a capacity of 11,700 gallons, can carry more than three times more slurry than the other aircraft.
"We're hopeful they'll do that with one or more DC-10 as the need arises," Hatton said. "The need exists now."
Like before, the latest contracts awarded also got protested — this time by Missoula, Mont.-based Neptune Aviation. The company has a long history of flying propeller-driven aircraft for the Forest Service and sought a next-generation contract for its BAe-146 turboprop air tankers.
This week, the company withdrew its protest. CEO Ron Hooper declined to comment, citing legal advice.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has been vocal about getting newer and better air tankers flying for the Forest Service, said Friday he was glad the company withdrew the protest, which could have held up the next-generation contracts.
"Lives and homes are more important than dollars and cents," Udall said.