After a warm and dry winter, another deadly wildfire season is approaching in forests across the country. And, as in years past, the U.S. Forest Service is preparing to fight blazes from the sky with old workhorses, museum-quality air tankers so dated that the manufacturer no longer makes spare parts for repairs.
The aging fleet of large, fixed-wing air tankers fell under intense scrutiny in 2002, when two aircraft built in the 1940s and ’50s broke apart in midair while fighting fires in California and Colorado, killing five crewmen.
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.
Critics of the Forest Service wonder why the strategy released Friday was years in the making. Observers said that although it is a step forward, the plan falls short of Harbour’s promise in June that the agency would prepare a proposal for newer large, fixed-wing aircraft and take an appropriations request to Congress in August.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee spokesman Robert Dillon said the agency has not made a request to appear before the committee. Forest Service representatives came to the office for the first time Friday to deliver a copy of the strategy to staff, he said.
“Trying to figure out the right attributes . . . the right specifications, and . . . working across the variety of land and . . . just coordinating with people takes a bunch of time,” Harbour said. “We’re happy it’s out. It’s a part of the discussion we have to have with Congress.”
Money also played a role in the agency’s struggle to draft a proposal to modernize. Its pricey shopping list of planes was not acceptable to the Office of Management and Budget.
The agency sought state-of-the-art C-130Js, at $80 million each, a price it cannot afford, according to congressional staffers and aviation experts. The head-turning cargo plane flies at nearly 400 mph and can deliver an optimal load of 4,000 gallons of fire suppressant.
Harbour called the C-130J “an aircraft . . . designed for the kinds of stresses and strains of this work.” As a 20-year investment, he said, it “might be the best thing we could do.”
At a wildfire aviation conference last year in Crystal City, Frank Gladics, a staff member who monitors the Forest Service at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, dismissed the agency’s hopes of purchasing a new C-130J.
“Why are you trying to buy a Ferrari when you can’t afford a Ford?” Gladics said during a presentation.
Also under consideration is the British Aerospace BAe-146, a 1980s-era plane that goes for a fraction of the cost of the C-130J. The Boeing 737 is as fast and carries as much as the C-130J, but its conversion from a passenger plane to an air tanker would probably require a lengthy and rigorous approval by the FAA.