As many as eight of 33 large air tankers grounded in early May could be restored to service and used to fight forest fires this summer if the Federal Aviation Administration is able to inspect the planes and certify their safety, according to an FAA spokesperson.
The agency has agreed to work with the U.S. Forest Service and private contractors to develop maintenance and inspection programs and a system for certifying the tankers as safe to fly.
The Forest Service and the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management announced on May 10 their termination of the contracts on the aging fleet of air tankers used to contain wildland fires — effective immediately.
Western lawmakers and governors, however, mounted a campaign to get at least some of the grounded tankers back into operation, saying their ability to drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant slurry is needed this wildfire season.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said the big planes had to be taken out of service because their safety could not be guaranteed. “Safety is a core value of the firefighting community, and it is non-negotiable,” said Bosworth. “To continue to use these contract large air tankers when no mechanism exists to guarantee their airworthiness presents an unacceptable level of risk to the aviators, the firefighters on the ground and the communities we serve.”
Private companies in Wyoming, Nevada, Montana, Arizona and California operated the 33 air tankers under contract with the federal agencies during the fire season. The National Interagency Fire Center said the contractors will be paid for any availability and flight hours before the notice of contract termination. The companies will submit a settlement proposal asking the government for costs associated with preparing to fulfill the 2004 contract such as inspections, training, maintenance and overhead.
The safety of the aging fleet of fixed-wing air tankers, used primarily for initial attack and structure protection support, has been in question for some time. Their fate seemed to be sealed, however, after a report released April 23 by National Transportation Safety Board found the probable cause of three air tanker accidents was “fatigue fractures,” corroborating a Blue Ribbon Panel Report's findings in 2002.
The NTSB's safety recommendations also cited “no apparent effective mechanism to ensure the continuing airworthiness of these firefighting aircraft” and inadequate data on their flight history and documentation on the stresses of operating in the wildland environment.
Previously, the Forest Service and BLM relied on the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure the airworthiness of their large air tankers, but the NTSB found the FAA didn't have the mechanisms to do this job, leaving the Forest Service and the DOI responsible for ensuring the safety of their aircraft. Because these agencies didn't have the in-house expertise or funding to take over inspection and maintenance responsibilities for the large air tankers, they had little choice but to stop using them, they said.
The same fate will apply to any aircraft that can't meet the NTSB guidance. “In keeping with the need to ensure airworthiness of aircraft, the federal agencies will not be considering aircraft such as the BE200, the IL-76 or the A-10 since they don't hold current U.S. airworthiness certificates,” according to information posted this week by NIFC. “The agencies currently are working through the list of state-owned and contracted aircraft to determine if their airworthiness standards meet the NTSB guidance.”
It's well known that large air tankers used by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management were aging aircraft passed down from the military and not designed for wildland fire operations. According to the Forest Service, the average age of the large air tankers was 48, and a few were up to 60 years old.
The Forest Service has moved steadily away from relying on them, particularly since the 2002 fire season when five aviators were killed in two separate air tanker crashes — one of them dramatically illustrating the safety issue as a video capturing its wings falling off was broadcast on national television.
James B. Hull, director of the Texas Forest Service in College Station, Texas, co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Panel to report on the aerial firefighting program in 2002. The Blue Ribbon Panel report, published in December 2002, brought the safety of the large air tankers into sharp focus and instigated a series of efforts to improve the safety of the air tanker fleet.
Hull said he and other panel members were gratified to see their conclusions mirrored by the NTSB's recent report, and that they supported the decision this week to stand down the air tankers.
“It doesn't seem like there is a perfect time for a major decision like this, but the time had to come,” said Hull, who happened to be in Washington testifying before Congress on the safety concerns of large air tankers for the 2004 season.
In place of air tankers, the agencies' immediate strategy is to support deployment of more large, heavy-lift helicopters, single-engine air tankers and military C-130 H and E model aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System. Incident commanders also may call on Canadian air support, such as the Canadair CL 215s and 415s, in initial attack.
Hull said heavy-lift helicopters could provide as effective — if not better — air support than the large air tankers. The old air tankers carried only 2,400 gallons of water and had to go to a military base to pick up their load; heavy-lift helicopters can carry 3,000 gallons and can draw from just about any nearby water source. “With these heavy-lift helicopters, I've heard they could make anywhere from six to 10 drops of water in the same amount of time it takes one of those air tankers [to make one drop],” Hull said.
SEATs are small, single-engine aircraft that drop 600 gallons to 1,000 gallons of water, “but they're very versatile aircraft,” said Hull. “They can land just about anywhere, be loaded and — almost like honeybees — make very quick, short-distance runs. They'll be looking at putting a whole lot more of those in place.”
Whether firefighters fighting on the ground will be more or less safe because of this shift in air support remains to be seen, said Hull. “It depends on the severity of the fire season and so forth, but one of the things I think you'll see being done with the remaining air resources, plus the new ones that they get, is you will see a lot of concentrated effort on identifying the highest hazard areas, the prepositioning of resources — having them at the right place at the right time — very rapid initial attack, and good-quality detection of fires. In other words, we'll even do better than we have been doing on finding fires while they're small, putting them out and then going on to the next thing.”
Hull and many others hope the Forest Service and BLM will soon replace their antique military air tankers with newer models specifically designed for wildland firefighting. A number of private companies have been looking to develop such aircraft, Hull said, but haven't gone forward because they've been unable to secure a long-term commitment from the federal government.
“The best that these contracting federal agencies would permit was one- to three-year contracts, and you can't go invest in the kind of money it takes to develop a new airplane if all you can be assured of is a short-term contract,” said Hull. “So, we need to be looking at multiyear contracts, 10-year contracts, maybe even more than that, to provide these companies with the assurance that the funds will be there to support heavy investment in these purpose-built aircraft.”
Davis said the agencies also are looking to educational institutions and other organizations for technologies to create a large custom-designed fixed-wing fleet.
In any case, the familiar sound of the old air tankers lumbering overhead at wildland fires on their way to or from a drop will now become just a memory.
“Clearly the days of operating older aircraft of unknown airworthiness for firefighting operations are over,” said Bosworth. “We are grateful to the pilots, crews, and operators of these aircraft, who have dedicated themselves to firefighting efforts over the decades. We have the greatest fire management and suppression program in the world, and we will continue to protect lives, property and our nation's natural resources.”