Firefighting planes have perhaps been too long on job

With wildfire season starting early and fires already raging across Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service is confronting a longtime problem that many inside and outside the agency think needs an immediate fix: The large tanker planes leased by the agency to fight such blazes have been flying, on average, about 50 years and are rapidly becoming unsafe to deploy.

As worries deepen, the Forest Service is preparing — finally, critics say — to ask Congress this summer for money to replace its fleet of 18 large air tankers. The agency will either ask to buy new planes outright or, more likely, put out bids to lease newer ones.

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.

The report chastised the service for allowing its fleet to grow so old. The agency failed to build a compelling case to Congress for the $2.5 billion needed to replace the tankers, even though the supporting data were right under its nose, the report said.

When tankers were grounded in 2004, the Forest Service could not rapidly attack 150 fires and eventually spent an extra $450 million to control them. A new C-130 costs a fraction of that, the report said.

Tom Harbour, national fire director for the Forest Service, said the secretary of agriculture will take a funding plan to Congress in August.

“We have good data on effectiveness and use,” Harbour said. “There’s always more data that we can collect to make a more compelling case.”

But why has it taken nine years since the 2002 crashes?

“Identifying the right air tankers and processing them is a very complex issue,” said Jeff Jahnke, Colorado’s state forester and president of the National Association of State Foresters, who said the criticism is unfair. The Forest Service is made up of “top performers, very science-focused, one of the leading incident managers in the world,” when it comes to wildfires, he said.

A source in the agency who asked not to be identified, fearing the loss of his job, said the Forest Service is trying to decide between two approaches: buying air tankers outright from aircraft manufacturers or requesting bids from aviation companies that rebuild airplanes, mostly from a Defense Department “bone yard” where aging military aircraft are placed after a specified number of flights.

The service could buy planes from several companies for about $2.5 billion, but it would be responsible for providing maintenance crews and pilots, experts said. The service could also request bids for large contracts with specifications to provide newer-model planes.

Manufacturers say they are prepared to provide whatever the government wants. Bombardier, a Canadian company, has repeatedly sought to sell its CL-415, built in 1991, to the United States. The turbo-engine plane can swoop to a water source, scoop 1,600 gallons and deliver it to a fire.

Bombardier has sold 155 planes worldwide, including 69 of the CL-415s to Italy, Spain, Greece and France for about $35 million each, said Derek Gilmour, vice president of sales and administration.

“You’ll see our aircraft every few years when Malibu’s on fire,” and Los Angeles County leases them, Gilmour said. “The difference between our planes and the planes they [currently] use is that ours was designed to do this.”

Buying new planes would be a mistake, said Rick Hatton, president and chief executive of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, a contractor that has flown 360 missions to fight 50 fires in the past four years.

“There’s no reason to have a $100 million airplane sitting on the ground all but a few hours of the year,” he said. He says his newer, cheaper DC-10s with an external tank can do the job.

Hatton says that in the long run, a plane costs more to maintain than to buy. “It’ll cost them, and it’ll cost the taxpayer,” he said. “They should put out a competitive bid and lease them.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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