Panel Faults Aerial Firefighting Program

6December 2002

WASHINGTON(AP) — The safety record of the Forest Service’s aerial firefighting program,which suffered three fatal crashes this summer, is unacceptable and changesshould be made, a panel studying the program said in a report to be releasedFriday.

Thepanel of aircraft experts faulted the Federal Aviation Administration for takinga hands-off approach when it comes to certifying and inspecting the firefightingaircraft, many of which are leftover military tankers, some remnants from WorldWar II, bought by private contractors and modified for aerial firefighting.

Thepanel said the FAA reviews maintenance records of the firefighting aircraft, but“rarely, if ever, physically inspect an aircraft to ensure that it is safe tofly an intended mission.” That leaves Forest Service, Bureau of Land Managementor private contract personnel to decide if an aircraft is safe to fly.

FAAspokesman Greg Martin said the panel’s finding that the FAA had failed in itsresponsibilities “could not be more divorced from reality.” He said the FAA isnot authorized by Congress to regulate firefighting aircraft, and the ForestService and BLM have resisted FAA involvement because FAA standards would be toorigorous for conditions the firefighting aircraft are subjected to.

“Theforces and what’s required of those planes would never hold up to FAA oversightand our standards,” he said. As a result, the agencies have been directed toset their own flight standards and the FAA has offered its assistance andexpertise in setting those standards.

Acopy of the panel’s report, scheduled for release Friday, was obtained by theAssociated Press.

ForestService Chief Dale Bosworth and BLM Director Kathy Clarke appointed the BlueRibbon Panel of aviation experts, co-chaired by former National TransportationSafety Board chairman Jim Hall and Texas state forester Jim Hull, to study theissue in August following a pair of tanker crashes and a helicopter crash.

Threepeople were killed in June when the wings separated from a C-130A being used tofight a fire in California. In late July, a P4Y-2 broke up and crashed fightinga Colorado fire, killing its two-man crew.

Bothplanes were converted military aircraft operated by Hawkins and Powers Aviation,a Greybull, Wyo., company that contracts with the Forest Service to providefirefighting tankers. The planes were 46 and 57 years old, respectively.

TheNTSB said in September that fatigue cracks in the wings of both planes causedthe wings to shear off. Other safety issues are still being investigated.

Andon July 30, an Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama helicopter suffered an engine failureand crashed in Colorado, killing the pilot.

“Privateoperators, for the most part, have done an admirable job of keeping these agingaircraft flying,” the report said. “However, they are handicapped by receivinglittle, if any, support from former military operators and the aircraft’soriginal manufacturer.”

Thepanel said safety standards for the contract pilots and crew flying firefightingmissions are lower than for those flying other government missions, and thegovernment does not impose special standards upon private contractors to reflectthe severe conditions in which the aircraft are flown.

Theplanes and helicopters used to drop fire retardant on forest fires are flown atlow speeds and altitudes through turbulent mountaintop air currents with flamesand smoke shooting from the trees below.

Trainingis inadequate for both fixed wing aircraft and helicopter pilots and crew, thepanel said. And the panel also said the thick, overgrown nature of forests today– the result of a century of aggressive firefighting — demands attention fromnational leaders.

Firesburned more than 8 million acres in 2000 and nearly 7 million in 2002, bothnearly double the 10-year average.

Source:The Associated Press, 6 December 2002


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