Tester questions whether USFS had 'better options' for air tankers


U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday that he’s considering overriding Neptune Aviation’s protest of next-generation air tanker contracts in order to have firefighting planes available for this summer.

But Montana Sen. Jon Tester questioned whether the agency “left better options on the table” in passing over the Missoula-based company’s proposal while offering contracts to others whose planes aren’t ready to fly.

“You’ve had two contested competitions, and I have serious questions whether the Forest Service is getting the best value for the dollar,” Tester told Tidwell during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Forest Service budget. “The planes are ready for testing in two months. Are they going to be ready to fly in two months?”

Two weeks ago, the Forest Service awarded seven contracts for jet-powered air tankers to five companies as the beginning of its modernization of aerial firefighting. The contracts allow the winning companies to add additional aircraft to their fleets over the next 10 years.

Neptune Aviation landed two contracts in the initial award last summer. But two unsuccessful companies, 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson Aircrane USA, challenged the decision. In the second award, 10 Tanker and Coulson each got a contract but Neptune was shut out.

However, of the seven new plane selections, only 10 Tanker’s converted DC-10 jumbo jet is ready to fly missions. The other six planes have 60 days to undergo testing to confirm their retardant tanks work properly. Tidwell said they all have received their Federal Aviation Administration certification to fly.

Neptune received five-year legacy contracts for two new BAe-146 jet tankers as well as six Korean War-era P2-V propeller-driven tankers. But those older planes are expected to be phased out of service over that period.

“You have to have be one of the original (contract) line items to add additional airframes,” Neptune Chief Operating Officer Dan Snyder said Wednesday. “If we were awarded those two line items, it had potential to turn into 10 aircraft contracts. We already have four aircraft in hand, a fifth on the way and additional aircraft identified.”

Snyder said the company has filed its official protest of the second award, but has not yet been debriefed by the Forest Service on how it reached the decision. All eight of its legacy contract planes are active now, he added.

At the hearing, Tidwell said he expected Forest Service lawyers were already working on the protest question. But he reserved the authority to move ahead regardless.

“I have to look at how much time it’s going to take, and make the decision whether to override the protest or not,” Tidwell said. “That’s a decision I’m going to have to make in the next week or so.”

Tidwell added he had the option of using Canadian firefighting planes, Army National Guard C-130s and some other call-when-needed planes to supplement his fleet if the new planes can’t fly in time.

And he repeated a request that Congress consider allowing the Air Force to transfer surplus C-27J jets to the Forest Service as another backup.

“This is one of the reasons that we’ve been asking for the C-27, so we at least have part of our fleet that’s government-owned, so we have some guarantee that we have aircraft,” Tidwell said.

“There were better options on the table that could be taken up by the Forest Service,” Tester replied. “And they didn’t do it.”