An Examination of USFS’s Need for Large Aviation, Rand Corp draft report, comments:

An Examination of USFS’s Need for Large Aviation, Rand Corp draft report, comments:

26 July 2011


USA –There have been lots of questions on the recent Rand report draft, so I called USFS for amplification.

First of all, that was only a draft version. According to USFS, the report is still very much a work in progress; they’re not sure they asked all the appropriate questions, let alone discovered attainable, sustainable, effective solutions. Not all contract airtanker pilots need to apply to truck-driver school (yet).

USFS tasked Rand with researching how to maximum ROI (Return on Investment) using an optimum mix of a generic fixed-wing “core” LAT and rotary wing assets. The suggested generic core LAT is based on parameters mentioned in a previous DOI/USFS paper (basically a turbine-powered 300 kt aircraft that can haul 3000-5000 gallons of water/retardant). In determining total cost and cost effectiveness, ROI would consider both contracted and agency-owned assets (COCO, GOGO, and/or GOCO).

The only currently IAB certified fixed-wing platform that matches the generic model is the C130J/MAFFS, although a C130H/J with a RADS tank would also fit (better?), and several others are close, i.e., DHC8-Q400 (325/2500), BAe146 (300/maybe 3000), Be-200 (325/3000 scooping, 2000 land, if MZFW issues are addressed). Be-200 is not yet FAA certified, but might be flown as a Public Aircraft (like the S2T). A ShinMaywa US-2 scooper conversion would be about 315/4000. And of course both VLAT platforms far exceed the stipulated requirements.

Obviously, a SEAT can’t do what a B747 can, and vice versa; medium airtankers (CL415, S3, C27J, P3, P2, or S2T) were hardly mentioned by Rand. A GOGO (Government-Owned Government-Operated) C130J/MAFFS, especially given their current crew assignment and rotation policy, isn’t effective on all wildfires; it is only one tool in the box, helpful as an Extended Attack surge asset in certain situations. And never forget Jerome Laval’s “Airtanker Triangle”: Aircraft/Tank–Fire Chemical–Experienced Crew. Like the Fire Triangle; degrade one leg and it just doesn’t work all that well.

A C130J is quoted at $70-100M fully equipped, depending on who you talk with and the phase of the moon, plus another $2M for MAFFS II (“maybe”, says AUC). There are other choices that could be considered.

Scoopers, SEATs, medium airtankers, and VLATs were not really part of the leaked draft, which pretty much divorces it from reality. Those essential platforms may get attention in the final report. And, maybe, line firefighters, commercial operators, and Lead/Airtanker pilots might be consulted (as they were in BRP and NASA reports, but not by Rand), especially for exploring tactical considerations. But for now Rand addresses mostly hypothetical, theoretical, subjective issues using some rather obtuse assumptions, like cost-per-gallon delivered, which may or may not be a valid point of reference. Regardless, at this point it sounds like the final report won’t be officially released for another year or so. Meanwhile, the VLATs are parked, the entire P3 fleet recently suffered a mysterious grounding, and what remains of the fleet (halved since 2004) continues to age.

IMHO; at some point it would really be nice to see some serious consideration given to aggressive, close-in Initial Attack by USFS (not just the closest airtanker based 200 miles (or more) away from the action, which probably means they would require a bunch of medium airtankers, and/or aggressive pre-positioning), along with highly trained, qualified, empowered dispatchers. But those are separate tactical issues, important only if you really want to put fires out expeditiously, or even control them selectively. Just my 2 cents.

One issue floated by Rand and some at USFS is the idea that somehow the cost of “Smokey Buys ’em, Air Force Fly’s ’em” would be borne largely by DoD (which a recent report by DoD rebuffed), Homeland Defense, or some other government agency(s) who would then share aircraft availability. Now that would really be a fun prioritization project! Whatever, the cost differential of a $10M BAe146 airtanker and a $100M C130J/MAFFS is still pretty radical. And any way you look at it, taxpayers will still foot the bill.

The point is, what really works on raging wildfires? After you figure that out, then you can start fine-tuning cost-effectiveness, ROI, etc. Does anyone (except politicians and CNN) benefit from CNN drops?

Reportedly there will be a USDA/DOI conference on aerial wildfire strategy options held around 14-18 November in Boise, hopefully with a more inclusive group of participants than has been the case in the past. That would be refreshing, maybe stimulating some really open discussion, possibly even helpful. Remember the ONLY italicized sentence in the entire BRP report? Some folks are still apparently struggling with it:

“Possibly the single largest challenge now facing leaders of these federal agencies is to foster cooperation and collaboration among working-level staffs, contractors, and states to raise the standards of aerial wildland firefighting in the United States.”

I have been advised that the most effective way to voice your opinion for consideration at that meeting is to send a written letter to:

Art Hinaman

US Forest Service

Fire and Aviation Management

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Mailstop 1107

Washington DC 20250-0003

An alternative is to write/email me; I will sanitize input (if desired) and present the comments/suggestions as AAF Safety Committee Chairman to Art and Paul Linse.

“If you only do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you always got.”

Keep the faith,

Walt Darran
351 Idyllwild Circle
Chico, CA 95928

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