Three firefighting planes remain grounded as fires continue

Three firefighting planes remain grounded as fires continue

16 April 2011

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USA — Three P3 aircraft used to fight wildfires in West Texas remained grounded Friday, but state and federal officials have arranged for re-enforcements to help contain grass fires in the region.

The three planes, owned and operated by Aero Union Corp., a California-based private contractor, are among a small fleet of several dozen aircraft owned by three contractors tasked with fighting fires across the country.

Britt Gourley, president and CEO of the Aero Union, said his company stopped flying its three aircraft because of an ongoing conflict with the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration concerning the company’s certification.

Gourley said his company initially was given certification by the FAA and U.S. Forest Service in 2007, with the understanding Aero Union would put its fleet of eight P3 air tankers through a gauntlet of inspections as part of the FAA’s phase-in program.

He said the planes already have gone through and passed the most crucial inspections at a cost of more than $11 million.

The inspections so far have looked the 40-plus-year-old planes over for fatigue and corrosion, among other factors, he said.

But additional inspections remain, which he estimates would cost more than $20 million.

Gourley said his company had planned to finish those inspections and part replacements by 2013.

But FAA and U.S. Forest Service this year began to question his Aero Care’s certification because the inspections were not complete in 2007, he said.

Gourley said he and other Aero Union officials decided to ground their planes until there was no question about the validity of their certification. He said he was concerned the questions of certification would pose a legal obligation for company officials if an accident occurred during firefighting efforts in West Texas.

“We couldn’t take that chance, we absolutely couldn’t take that chance,” he said.

Gourley said an emergency meeting between the U.S. Forest Service, FAA and Aero Union was set for Tuesday in Los Angeles.

He said he was hopeful his planes would be back in service fighting fires by Tuesday.

The planes were voluntarily grounded by Aero Union, said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. She said she would not comment Friday on the company’s reason for taking the aircraft out of service.

Jones said the three planes constituted the entirety of Aero Union’s fleet currently contracted with the Forest Service.

Aero Union has an agreement to provide eight firefighting planes to the Forest Service during the 2011 firefighting season, she said. But the Forest Service had requested only three so far. The fire season is in its early stages, Jones said.

The planes are used to drop flame retardant on burning areas.

Having three grounded planes wasn’t expected to hinder firefighters’ efforts in dousing fires that have so far burned hundreds of thousands of acres across West Texas, said Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service.

To make up for the loss, two air tankers and four helicopters from Neptune Aviation, a U.S. Forest Service-contracted company, was flown to the region Friday, Jones said.

Wind gusts on Friday exceeded 30 mph at the site of the 80,000-plus Killough Fire in Crosby and Garza counties, but that fire was considered contained by late Friday, according to the Texas Forest Service.

However, 30-40 mph winds and relative humidity levels under 20 percent caused “extreme fire behavior” in the Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire in Kent County and burned additional acres. By late Friday, the blaze had forced the temporary evacuation of the town of Rotan on Thursday and had burned more than 150,000 acres.

That fire’s perimeter was greater than 90 miles and traversed Scurry, Kent, Fisher and Stonewall counties.

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