Owners and operators of private aviation companies that lease air tankers under contract or on a call-when-needed basis have been pressing for this kind of action since two air tanker crashes in 2002.
A C-130 Hercules built in 1956 had a wing break off while fighting a wildfire in California. Later in the year, the same thing happened to a 1945-vintage PB4Y-2 Privateer while it was working a Colorado fire. Both planes crashed, and five crew members were killed.
The crash of the C-130 tanker — which had just finished a dive to drop fire retardant near Yosemite National Park — was captured on video by a passerby and played around the world. Soon after, at the height of the wildfire season, federal regulators grounded the entire fleet of U.S. air tankers.
At least three large air tankers have crashed since, killing eight people, according to a memorial posted by Associated Aerial Firefighters.
At a recent conference in Crystal City, owners and operators of private aviation companies said the Forest Service should have begun lobbying Congress for funds to start replacing the fleet of large fixed-wing air tankers years ago, during the George W. Bush administration.
“There’s not a nice way to say this, but the Forest Service has been dragging their feet for a number of years to get what they want,” said Tom Eversole, executive director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association. Eversole said that current air tankers are capable but that but forestry officials should have acted before now.
The government also leases hundreds of helicopters and smaller fixed-wing airplanes to fight wildfires, but the large tankers are coveted because they can lay down three times the amount of flame suppressant that smaller planes can. Forest Service officials said that six of the 18 air tankers the agency leases — from three aviation companies in Nevada, California and Montana — are fighting the Arizona fire.
At the time of the 2002 crashes, the Forest Service had contracts with aviation companies that provided 44 air tankers, but more than half were permanently grounded after tests uncovered flaws. The planes that were cleared for service, such as Lockheed’s P2V Neptune, bore a heavier burden of fighting a growing number of fires.
The toll of that burden was addressed in a 2009 report by the Agriculture Department’s inspector general, “Forest Service’s Replacement Plan for Aerial Firefighting Resources.” According to the report, the remaining leased air tankers should fly for only one more year. After 2012, they will be too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy, the Forest Service concluded.