On Friday, the Forest Service signaled that newer air tankers are likely to be long in coming. The agency announced a long-awaited strategy to replace its fleet of 11 large fixed-wing air tankers, provided under contract by two private aviation companies.
“We know we’re going to need to modernize this part of our fleet,” said Tom Harbour, national fire director for the Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture.
Large air tankers are coveted because they can deliver optimal amounts of suppressant on forest fires “and are an important niche,” Harbour said. Yet they are only one part of a mix that includes firefighters on the ground, helicopters and other aircraft.
Wildfires scorch millions of acres every year in the United States, destroying homes and businesses, and ending lives. At least 10 states have suffered record fires since 2000, and with “the changing climate, fire seasons will likely become longer and more severe,” the Forest Service said, making a case for newer planes in its 12-page strategy.
As wildfires have grown in size and frequency, the fixed-wing air tanker fleet has shrunk. Last summer, it included 18 planes, until the contract of a company that provided seven large tankers was canceled because of safety concerns.
Eleven air tankers, with an average age of 50 years, cannot meet the demand for large aircraft at the height of the wildfire season, experts said. A single fire in California or Arizona can require every plane in the federal fleet.
The Lockheed P2V air tankers face retirement in 2021 but could be put down much sooner. During a routine maintenance check of one plane, a 12-inch crack was discovered near its left wing, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a directive Monday to ground the damaged plane and carefully inspect every plane in the government’s fleet.
At least three large air tankers have crashed since 2002, killing eight people, according to a memorial posted by Associated Aerial Firefighters.
“I don’t know yet if [the damaged plane] will be ready,” said Dan Snyder, president of Neptune Aviation Services, a Montana company under a five-year contract to provide nine air tankers at a cost of $10,000 a day for maintenance, flight and training. “My engineers are still looking at it.”
Large planes take brutal beatings from wildfires. Snyder said temperatures reach 120 degrees in the cockpit, and repeated takeoffs and landings add to the pressure. An analysis found that the crack in Neptune’s plane was caused by stress from hard landings.