Above: The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission.
(Originally published at 3:48 p.m. MST November 10, 2017)
The Government Accountability Office has upheld a protest by Global SuperTanker (GST) who contended the Forest Service’s (FS) contract restriction on the maximum size of a retardant tank was unduly restrictive of competition.
The FS issued a solicitation for Call When Needed air tanker services May 16, 2017. For the first time in their air tanker contracting history, according to the GAO, the FS restricted the maximum size of retardant tanks, specifying the capacity must be between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons. This eliminated Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) from being able to compete, since the DC-10 holds 11,600 gallons and the GST 747 carries up to 19,200.
10 Tanker Air Carrier, which operates three DC-10’s, attempted to support GST’s protest, but the GAO denied their request to submit an amicus curiae or friend of the court pleading, concluding that the company did not meet the definition of either a protester or an intervenor under the GAO’s Bid Protest Regulations.
The GAO decided that the FS…
…failed to provide reasonable justifications for the challenged specification, such that we are unable to conclude that the challenged specification is reasonably necessary for the agency to meet its needs.
We recommend that the agency make a documented determination of its needs. Once the agency identifies its needs, the agency should revise its solicitation to include specifications that are reasonably necessary to meet those needs. We also recommend that the protester be reimbursed the costs of filing and pursuing the protest, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.
We asked Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the FS, for their reaction to the GAO decision, if GST would be reimbursed for their attorney fees, if GST would be considered for a contract, and if there was any bias in the FS against any VLATs. Here is the response:
In accordance with regulations, the U.S. Forest Service is complying with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision for the Call When Needed (CWN) protest. We are reviewing our documentation. After the review is completed, the agency will determine the most appropriate ways to continue to procure Large and Very Large Next Generation Airtankers.
Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of GST, said:
We are pleased that the GAO sustained our case. We really look forward to working with the Forest Service in the future and hopefully these issues around the [Requests for Proposals] will work themselves out to everybody’s satisfaction.
In 2016 and 2017 the 747 deployed to fires in Israel and Chile and the company currently has a CWN contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression. The aircraft was used for several weeks in California in the last part of the summer supporting CAL FIRE, but the FS has not allowed the company to submit a bid to acquire a contract.
In the 22-page decision, the GAO addressed numerous issues introduced by the FS that attempted to justify the agency’s new policy of restricting the maximum size of a retardant tank in a contract solicitation. In each case the GAO argued that the FS was wrong, unreasonable, illogical, or, it did not apply to the issue.
The 747 Supertanker drops on the Railbelt Complex of Fires in Alaska July 31, 2009. At that time the aircraft was operated by Evergreen Aviation. Photo by Mike McMillan, Fairbanks Area Forestry.
The FS claimed that the solicitation was intended to procure services to support initial attack operations for which VLATs are not suitable. The GAO responded that the solicitation sought to procure aerial firefighting services to support both initial and extended attack operations. And, since it was a CWN contract, the FS could choose whether or not to use the VLAT on initial or extended attack.
The GAO wrote…
…there is also no support for the agency’s contention that VLATs are not suited for performing initial attack operations.
The GAO noted that 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10s had completed a total of 700 missions in 2017 at the time of the decision and routinely performs initial attack operations.
They also found that…
Indeed, the record is completely silent regarding who, if anyone, at the agency made the decision to include the [maximum tank size] restriction, when the decision was made, and why the decision was made. Notably, none of the pre-solicitation documents contain any reference to a 5,000-gallon maximum restriction.
The FS cited air tanker studies from 1995, 1996, and 2005 as a basis for its restriction, but it did not identify any language in the studies to support the restriction.
From the GAO decision:
The cited pages do not lend support to the agency’s position. As an example, the page in the 2005 study merely indicates that the agency prefers larger aircraft over smaller aircraft, not that VLATs are somehow less desirable for initial attack operations.
The  study recommends that the wildland firefighting aircraft fleet be composed of a mix of aircraft, including “Very Large Airtankers (>8000 gallons).” In discussing tank sizes, the study recommends a minimum capacity, not a maximum capacity, and reflects a preference for larger retardant tank capacities.
The Forest Service has not identified any study or analysis, upon which it relied to develop the RFP requirements, that has considered the question presented here: whether VLATs are unsuited for initial attack operations. In sum, the studies relied upon by the agency do not provide a reasonable basis to restrict competition.
Although the agency has reached conclusions regarding the technical limitations of VLATs, and is excluding VLATs from competition based upon such conclusions, the record does not demonstrate that the offered studies support the agency’s conclusions. For this reason, we are unable to find that the agency’s asserted justification for the exclusion of VLATs is reasonable.
The FS pointed out that on two occasions a VLAT struck objects on the ground while taxiing. The GAO said both incidents occurred while FS ground personnel were directing the aircraft. Reviews determined that one was 100 percent the fault of the ground guides and the other was 75 percent the fault of the ground guides.
The FS also listed several other reasons that they contend are significant problems related to the use of VLATs, including, the number of personnel needed on the ground, the amount of fuel and retardant needed, the number of suitable bases, and the need for lead planes.
In their written decision the GAO addressed these and other issues brought up by the FS, and similar to the examples above, shot them all down, saying the FS was simply wrong or the issue was not applicable to the protest. The GAO noted that economies of scale, with the VLATs carrying four to seven times more retardant than a conventional large air tanker, can mitigate some of these issues.
We asked Bean Barrett, a former Naval aviator and frequent contributor to this website, for his take on this issue:
It seems to me that their main contracting focus should be the gallons of retardant required to be delivered per hour or per day and the total cost per gallon delivered and the ability to meet various delivery rates/ coverage levels.
Platform type shouldn’t have any bearing on the issue at all unless there is some performance limitation that impacts its ability to meet delivery requirements.
If they ever get around to defining what constitutes acceptable IA in terms of how much retardant, how far away from base, and how fast, then there may be some platform considerations.
It appears from the GAO report that their decision to sustain the protest was not even close to going the other way. The FS seemed to be grasping at straws trying a shotgun approach, throwing out everything they could think of off the top of their head, with little serious thought, in their ill-considered attempt to prevent GST from being allowed to submit a bid on the contract. They came off looking like an inept, bumbling, incompetent, leaderless organization.
This should be an embarrassment for Jeffery Power, the new Assistant Director of Aviation for the FS, and Shawna Legarza, the National Fire Director for the FS.
Fire aviation is very expensive and based on the fatality records, is very dangerous. The Forest Service should consider reorganizing their aviation assets, removing the aviation autonomy from the individual regions and using a more centralized approach led by a Chief Pilot with actual pilot credentials and experience. It is our understanding that only one of the Regional Aviation Officers, who have far too much responsibility and power, is actually a pilot.
For anyone who closely follows FS aviation contracting, it is obvious that for the last five years it has been a quagmire, with poor strategic decisions being made which have been implemented poorly, resulting in numerous protests. (It must be contagious, because the condition spread to the BLM this year.) It took 555 days for the FS to award the first “Next Generation” air tanker contract in 2012. Perhaps a Chief Pilot and an improved contracting section would better serve their customers, including aviators and our citizens.