A dozen years after coming up with the concept, Minden Air may get to put a next generation tanker into the air to fight fires.
Owner Leonard Parker said he’s not sure when the company’s jet-powered BAe-146 will go into service.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced the Forest Service intended to issue an exclusive contract to Minden Air on Monday.
Parker said he’d heard from the contracting officer and that he’s prepared to put the BAe-146 into service in 90 days, but that he expects a challenge from other vendors who weren’t selected. The decision was issued later than expected.
“We’re happy with the contract award,” he said. “We started the concept a long time ago, and we’ve had an airplane onsite for five or six years.”
The BAe-146 can carry 3,100 gallons, and fly twice the speed of a traditional tanker, while still being able to maneuver at low speeds needed for a retardant drop.
According to Minden Air’s website the aircraft has a 1,320-nautical-mile range with a full load.
“The process for creating an air tanker has changed, and we think rightfully so,” he said. “Back in the old days, you could build an air tanker in three months, start to finish. Now the approval process is much longer and much more involved.”
Parker said modern aircraft come with an ability to withstand damage that the old tankers didn’t have.
“New aircraft are designed to accept a level of damage that the older aircraft aren’t,” he said. “It’s a new era, and we’re looking forward to it. Other conversions of this airplane are out there, and we feel they’re ill-conceived. Our conversion is proving out to work. I think this airplane will live in this business for the next 20 years.”
Under the contract with the Forest Service, Minden Air provides the aircraft, flight and support crew and support and maintenance.
But that doesn’t mean the aircraft will spend much time in Carson Valley during fire season.
“Rarely are our aircraft anywhere close to home,” Parker said. “It’s not unusual to be 500 miles from where it was the day before.”
This is the second contract award for Minden Air this spring. Earlier the Forest Service announced it was contracting with the company for five years to provide a Neptune P2V tanker for firefighting.
Parker said he feels Nevada should purchase a firefighting tanker of its own.
“I think personally, the state of Nevada needs to have an airplane for its protection purposes,” he said. “As a matter of operational control, the feds have a wide area of responsibility. An aircraft controlled by the state and designed to meet the state’s needs would augment the federal aircraft to meet local and state needs.”
He pointed out that Oregon has two aircraft and Colorado is looking at a similar program.
Tidwell said the Forest Service intends to award contracts for seven aircraft from five companies, including Minden Air. Minden Air’s is the only BAe-146.
“We are moving ahead to modernize our fleet as part of our overall strategy to secure the best, safest air tankers available for fighting wildfires across the country in the years to come,” said Tidwell. “It is critical that we complete the Next Generation air tanker contracting effort as quickly as possible as we face the prospect of another challenging wildfire season with a dwindling legacy air tanker fleet.”
The contracts are for five years with five one-year options for a total of 10 years.
The Forest Service hopes to have all seven turbine powered tankers in place over the next year. The contracts allow the companies to bring on additional tankers, with the goal of reaching a fleet size of 18-28 next-generation tankers.
Protests filed last year prevented the next generation tankers from going into service. In addition to the seven jet tankers, the Forest Service expects to have 19 large and dozens of single engine air tankers available for the 2013 fire season.