On February 10, 2012, the United States Forest Service (USFS) released its Large Air Tanker Modernization Strategy report.
On the same day, five U.S. Senators sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack stating their concern regarding the upgrading, composition, contracting and utilization of the Air Tanker fleet.
On March 6, USFS Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress that his agency's diminished and aging fleet of firefighting air tankers is insufficient to combat the nation's increasingly severe blazes.
In a prepared statement, Chief Tidwell presented his vision of USFS goals and priorities under current budgetary restrictions. During testimony, Chief Tidwell noted that although efforts are under way to bring more civilian air tankers on line, he anticipates increased use of the eight Air National Guard MAFFSII units this summer.
MAFFS units provide a useful surge asset for extended attack operations when civilian air tankers are fully deployed — but only have a requirement to respond within 48 hours. They are not available for all-important day-to-day initial attack.
Getting Down to Business
After years of reports and analyses, our problems with wildfire and aviation have been recognized and acknowledged.
With insufficient numbers of aging air tankers; systemic problems related to dispatching and utilizing those resources effectively; increasing environmental impediments; growth of the urban-wildland interface; continuing drought and forest infestation across our country; and severe budgetary restrictions, U.S. fire agencies and the air tanker industry find themselves in a challenging situation, with an increasing tally of problems, yet also new opportunities.
In consultation with boots on the fire line and aircrews over the fire about what really works, all parties need to evaluate our legacy operating procedures, parameters and priorities in areas including, but not limited to:
Aircraft handling and performance characteristics in the fire suppression environment;
Drop systems that effectively dispense environmentally friendly retardant, gel, foam or water in all reasonable application scenarios, including over-the-top extended downhill runs;
Crew/operator experience and demonstrated performance;
State-of-the-art training programs;
Implementation of user-friendly enabling technologies like Infra-Red (IR) spotting and mapping, Synthetic Vision Systems and Night Vision systems, for enhanced Safety, Effectiveness, Efficiency (SEE);
Enhanced tactics and strategies;
Upgraded training, qualifications, procedures and authority for dispatchers;
Thoroughly documented field evaluations of each air tanker/crew/fire chemical/tank system that include objective criteria such as IR imagery of drop effectiveness (since you can't manage what you can't measure).
With the acquisition of a modernized fleet, we will gain significantly increased capabilities yet also face significantly increased costs, which, in turn, will require us to optimize the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of an integrated aerial fire suppression system by truly working together, instead of pursuing individual agendas in isolated groups.