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U.S. Forest Service Awards Contracts For New Next Gen Air Tankers


Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell announced Monday that seven new ‘Next Generation’ airtankers will join the current national firefighting airtanker fleet.

The announcement follows years of negotiations and setbacks.

Five companies were awarded contracts to build the planes which, unlike the current“legacy”tankers, will be turbine powered. They’ll also have the capacity to carry a minimum of 3,000 gallons of retardant and maintain a cruising speed of 300 knots (around 345 miles per hour), when fully loaded.

In a statement, Chief Tidwell said modernizing the current fleet is a priority of the U.S. Forest Service. “We are moving ahead to modernize our fleet as part of our overall strategy to secure the best, safest airtankers available for fighting wildfires across the country in the years to come,” said Tidwell.  “It is critical that we complete the Next Generation airtanker contracting effort as quickly as possible as we face the prospect of another challenging wildfire season with a dwindling legacy airtanker fleet.”

An MD-87 Next Generation Air Tanker operated by Aero Air LLC (Erickson Aerotanker)


The Forest Service will bring all seven Next Generation airtankers into service over the next year. That will bring the total number of tankers in the agency’s ‘exclusive use contract’ fleet to around 15 planes. The agency also has the option of using ‘call when needed’ aircraft from Alaska and Canada, as well as military C-130’s equipped with MAFFS.

Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall has been an outspoken proponent for expansion of the dwindling national air tanker fleet. In a statement released Monday, the Senator didn’t mince words when he warned that further delay of the tankers could put lives at risk.

“I understand that the contractors have concerns about dollars and cents on these contracts, but Coloradans' lives and properties are on the line," Udall said. “I am asking the private contractors involved to refrain from unnecessarily tying up these tanker contracts in red tape. Needless and costly delays will leave the Forest Service to fight modern mega-fires in the coming months with Korean War-era planes."

According to Fireaviation.com, the Forest Service began the contracting process for Next Generation airtankers on November 30th, 2011. However, protests were filed by two companies who failed to receive a contract, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier. Those protests resulted in a canceling of the old awards and a restart of the bidding process late last year.

The U.S. Forest Service expects to award exclusive use contracts to:

  • Mindon Air Corporation: Minden, Nev., for 1 BA3-146
  • Aero Air, LLC; Hillsboro, Ore., for 2 MD87s
  • Aero Flite, Inc.; Kingman, Ariz., for 2 Avro RJ85s
  • Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.; Portland, Ore., for 1 C130Q
  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; Adelanto, Calif., for 1 DC-10
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