Still waiting to learn the cause of a large air tanker crash that killedthree pilots on a training mission in April, U.S. Forest Service officials arecautiously optimistic that large air tankers will continue to supportfirefighters through the season.
The April 20 crash of Aero Union Corp.s P-3B Orion tanker nearChico, Calif., killed Brian Bruns of Minden, Nev.; Paul Cockrellof Fresno and Tom Lynch of Redding — and renewed fears that the fewlarge air tankers returned to service just days earlier might be grounded again.Last year, the Forest Service and U.S. Department of Interior cancelled allcontracts for large air tankers citing safety concerns after two planes broke upmidair. The Orion was one of just 10 air tankers approved for service on April18.
Forest officials are awaiting more information about the cause of the crash fromthe ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. TheNTSBs preliminary investigation of the crash site indicated that all ofthe aircraft structure was accounted for at the wreckage site, a sign thatthe accident wasnt caused by structural weakness.
According to NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm, investigators usually concludetheir investigation in six to eight months. The preliminary report of the crashis postedon the NTSB Web site (scroll down to April 20), and investigators will postmore information as their work progresses, Schlamm said.
Pending more information from the NTSB, the remaining large air tankers undercontract will keep flying, said Rose Davis of the National InteragencyFire Center. Seven of them are P-3 Orions that we have operationalservice life data on, and the other three we dont have that information, butwe have them wired up with monitoring equipment, so were going to take therisk of returning them to service so we can gather data on the firefightingenvironment.
Davis said the Forest Service paid for an engineering study for the P-2Vs,and was hoping to get those results in early June. We may see enough data togive us confidence in returning the P-2Vs back, but nothing is a given. Safetyis the bottom line, and [having] some sort of confidence that theyre safe tofly.
In January, the Forest Service began soliciting bids for 20 large air tankersfor this years wildland season. To win a contract, operators must produce apaper trail documenting the aircrafts service life and establish the numberof hours each aircraft can be expected to operate safely. Inspectors must alsoclear the tankers before theyre eligible.
We opened the door to 20 and should enough data materialize that weve gotconfidence in the safety, then others that put in bids could be awarded acontract, said Davis. The other factor is how much those bids are for. Iftheyre totally out of proportion with what they should be charging us, thenwe have the choice of turning them down even if we have confidence in theirsafety, because theyre not a value to the government.
In addition to the 10 large air tankers on contract, the Forest Service fleetalso has more than 70 single-engine air tankers and 700 helicopters,Davis noted, so weve got the resources to work through the fire season andwere going to use those resources to get those fires out.
But some called the shortage of large air tankers a crisis in whatmay be another heavy wildfire season and urged the use of foreign air tankers tohelp fight American wildfires. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) sharplycriticized the Forest Service for relying on a handful of contractorsto supply air tankers, when offers from Russian and Canadian wildland officialswere on the table. The U.S. Forest Service regulations establishing therequirements for airplane-based firefighting are obviously designed to protectthe good old boys and to discourage anyone else with new approaches and newalternatives, said Rohrabacher, testifying before Congress April 26.I am suggesting that the U.S. Forest Service drop its obstructionist policiesthat have prevented, among other things, the use of foreign firefightingaircraft to extinguish major fires in the United States.
According to areport in the Los Angeles Daily News,the Russian Ilyushin-76Waterbomber can soak an area the size of 12 football fields with one10-second drop of 11,000 gallons. Thats about four times the capacity of thelargest American air tankers.
Rohrabacher said the Russian Waterbomber has played a significant role inextinguishing large fires in Australia, Greece and elsewhere and could arriveanywhere in the world within 24 hours. Yet the U.S. Forest Service hasblocked the Russians from providing their services here, even as we enduredmassive fire destruction in places like Florida, New Mexico and in California,he said.
Davis said its not that simple. The main thing is thats not up to uscompletely, she said. These aircraft from other countries have to becertificated [sic] by the Federal Aviation Administration in the United Statesto fly for whatever operation theyre going to fly, whether its agriculture– which is generally what air tankers are. That would be the first step. Beforewed even look at them, the FAA would have to tell us that theyre legal tofly in this country.
Davis noted that the Forest Service is looking at several new ideas to updateits fleet of air tankers. Its currently in discussions with EvergreenInternational Aviation of McMinnville, Ore., which has equipped a Boeing 747 asa supertanker for wildland firefighting. It has a tank capacity of24,000-gallons (see www.evergreenaviation.com).
The Forest Service is currently awaiting an operational assessment of the Evergreenaircraft, Davis said. Its weight and large size are of concern.Well have to see. Thats what the operational assessment is for: Whatcan it do? Where can we use it? Can it land on our tanker bases? Some of themmay not have runway weight strength to hold it. So all those things still haveto be assessed on the aircraft.
Davis said companies with ideas for air tankers that the Forest Service isevaluating include Minden Air of Minden, Nev., which is developing the BAE-146,a British Aerospace jet, as wildland jet tanker, and another company shedeclined to name. Another contract is looking at some of the engineering dataon the Douglas products, the DC-4, -6 and 7, so that maymaterialize in the next couple of months, she said.
Correction An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed information about theRussian Waterbomber to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The reportcited was in theLosAngeles Daily News.