The next generation Air Tanker

After many years of speculation and rumors, the United States Forest Service has finally decided that it is time to stop cutting bait and actually start fishing. On November 30th, the agency posted a solicitation for bids for what they call the “Next Generation Air Tanker”.
The criteria listed in the solicitation are for a turbine powered aircraft with a target capacity of 3,000-5,000 gallons and a minimum capacity of 2,400 gallons. The aircraft must be capable of a cruise speed of 300 knots at 18,000 feet. Three of the new aircraft are to be added in 2012 with four more added the following year; with an option for up to 28 more by 2018. The bids are due on January 20th.
Out of the current fleet of eleven heavy air tankers in the nation’s fleet of firefighting aircraft, only one meets the criteria for the bid. That is the BAe-146 leased and operated by Neptune Aviation out of Missoula, Montana. That aircraft was put on a temporary contract last summer and operated briefly in Texas and Southern California as Tanker 40. Minden Air of Minden, Nevada is currently testing their own version of the BAe-146.
Aerial Fire printed an article on the BAe-146 several years ago and it appears to be a very capable aircraft in the tanker role. The other ten tankers in the fleet are all late 1940s era piston powered P2-Vs.
There are quite a few aircraft in service today that would be viable tankers for the new contract. It will be interesting to see what the results are in five years. It is a huge monetary investment for a company to do the airframe conversion and testing required for a new tanker aircraft. The USFS seems to have slowed research and development by suggesting that the agency might purchase replacement aircraft and contract with private companies to operate them.
At one time the agency said it would like to acquire a fleet of new Lockheed C-130Js for firefighting, but the five billion dollar price tag put an end to that idea. The new solicitation has at least set a positive course for the replacement of the nation’s aging and dwindling heavy air tanker fleet. This marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new.
The days of the piston powered air tankers will soon be only a memory. Cutline Tanker 40 making one of it’s first operational drops on a fire in Newton County Texas on October 3, 2011.
Neptune Aviations BAe-146 was on a provisional contract this past fire season and saw some action in Texas and Southern California. This aircraft would meet the requirements of the new contract.

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