Cal Fire wants to swap its fleet of "Apocalypse Now"-era firefighting helicopters for something a little more "Zero Dark Thirty."
The trouble is the machines the department is ready to buy cost twice as much as the Legislature expected when it set aside money two years ago to start buying new choppers.
It took three rounds of bidding over two years to complete a process that rejected the low bidder, Italian manufacturer AgustaWestland, each time.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration now is asking for almost $98 million to buy four helicopters for the department this year, replacing the Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters Cal Fire has flown for decades.
The new ones would be variations of Black Hawk helicopters – the machines the Army uses today to drop troops in dangerous places and the National Guard employs every summer to fight wildfires around the West.
“The Black Hawk helicopter is a proven helicopter,” said Cal Fire Deputy Director Joe Tyler. “It’s a helicopter that is not only going to meet our needs today, it’s going to meet our needs for 20 years.”
The helicopters in Brown’s budget request run about $24 million a pop, more than double the low bid of $11.4 million for a different firefighting helicopter that the state received when Cal Fire first asked companies to submit proposals in 2016, according to bid summaries Cal Fire disclosed to the companies that year.
Multiply the price by 12 – the total number of helicopters Cal Fire plans to buy over the next few years – and the difference in cost from the original low bid swells to north of $100 million.
It's not clear whether lawmakers are ready to commit to the project. The Legislative Analyst's Office recommended that legislators ask for more information about alternatives. In a review of the governor's budget, the analyst warned that the cost of the fleet replacement could swell by hundreds of millions of dollars if it requires spending on new facilities and other equipment.
The chairman of a Senate budget committee overseeing Cal Fire's spending wants those details, too. The committee is delaying a discussion about the helicopter that was expected to take place this week.
"The subcommittee will address Cal Fire’s helicopter procurement plans at a later date, because right now we have not received an actual proposal," said Sen. Bob Wieckowski, the Fremont Democrat who leads a budget subcommittee overseeing spending in the Natural Resource Agency.
Cal Fire has been trying to get the state to buy a new fleet of helicopters since 2004, when a commission appointed by Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended that it replace the department's "1960s vintage Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters, some of which flew in Vietnam."
"These airframes are experiencing extreme structural fatigue, and the availability of excess military aircraft is diminishing," the commission wrote 14 years ago.
Cal Fire received its Hueys in 1990, when the federal government off-loaded them as excess property. Cal Fire told lawmakers in 2016 the cost of keeping the nearly 50-year-old machines in the air is growing more expensive.
"The useful life of the helicopters has reached an end," the department wrote in a budget request.
The Brown administration in January 2016 took a big step forward in replacing the fleet when Cal Fire and the Department of General Services (DGS), which oversees state contracts, solicited proposals from helicopter manufacturers. Brown penciled in a $100 million budget request for the project.
Three companies submitted bids, with AgustaWestland offering an AW139 at $11.4 million apiece. The Los Angeles Fire Department uses that helicopter.
Cal Fire and DGS reviewed the proposals and noticed discrepancies in how the companies interpreted contract specifications, Cal Fire's Tyler said. They chose to cancel the bids and try again.
The Legislature that year declined to allocate the full $100 million Brown requested. It set aside $12 million for one helicopter and acknowledged that costs could escalate. The Brown administration described the $12 million as a "reasonable starting appropriation amount."
Lawmakers seemed enthusiastic about replacing the fleet at hearings that year. "This is a pretty bold new direction going for the larger helicopter," Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said at a 2016 hearing.
In March 2017, Cal Fire and DGS released another request for bids. They canceled that round, too, finding that none of the proposals complied with the department's requirements. State officials called the bidding companies and discussed shortcomings.
In May 2017, Cal Fire and DGS asked for revised proposals.
It came down to AgustaWestland and Air Methods/United Rotorcraft.
AgustaWestland offered its AW189 at $16 million each.
United Rotorcraft offered its latest Black Hawk, the Sikorsky S70i, at $21 million each, according to DGS bidding score sheets.
But cost wasn't the only thing that mattered when DGS and Cal Fire chose the winning contract.
The departments scored the proposals on different technical capabilities. The Black Hawk pulled ahead on the strength of flight simulators the company offered for training and its reported ability to hover with heavy loads at high altitudes, according to DGS documents.
The Italian company challenged the award. In December, a state administrative judge reviewed the bids and altered the final contract evaluation, awarding performance points to AgustaWestland while docking points from United Rotorcraft.
An extremely narrow difference in the final score favored United Rotorcraft, because the company promised that its Black Hawk could hover at a high altitude with heavy loads of fuel and water.
The initial AgustaWestland proposal said its AW189 had Federal Aviation Administration certification to hover with significant weight at 10,000 feet. That would let it fight fires at the highest mountain pass in California, Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.
The state credited United Rotorcraft as if the helicopter could hover with significant weight at a higher elevation than the product AgustaWestland offered. Think Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet.
AgustaWestland in its appeal contended that the AW189 was actually capable of hovering at 14,200 feet and had data to back up its argument. Had it been awarded any additional points for its potential to hover at a higher altitude, it would have won the contract.
The judge rejected AgustaWestland's argument, allowing the Brown administration to proceed with the Black Hawk purchase.
"We are content with the award of the helicopter, but we would have been content with either one," Cal Fire's Tyler said.
Since then, Cal Fire and DGS added some additional features to the helicopters that raised their price to about $24 million each. That might have happened with AgustaWestland, too.
The Governor's Office and Cal Fire are ready to start buying the new machines. "We believe we have provided the Legislature with all the necessary and requested information to move forward on this project," Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said.