USA — Fighting fire from the air will remain a major tactic for the U.S. Forest Service, and the skies could start to get crowded soon.
“We want to have more than 11, but probably less than 44 large air tankers,” U.S. Forest Service national fire director Tom Harbour said in a recent interview with the Missoulian. “I think ultimately we’ll have between two and three dozen large air tankers.”
Eleven multi-engine retardant bombers remain under contract with the Forest Service, down from a fleet of 44 in 2004. Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has nine of those tankers, while Minden Air of Arizona has the other two.
“We’re looking all around to see what aircraft there are out there,” Harbour said. “We’re not doing any research in particular aircraft (within the Forest Service), but we’re interested in all designs. There are lots out there: old, new, big and little. And there are dozens of folks who have a particular platform they want to try. Neptune’s just been the first to take our criteria and put a plane in service.”
That would be Neptune’s new BAe-146 jet tanker, which won a short-term firefighting contract in September. The plane is the first new model in nearly three decades to be certified for forest fire work. It is currently fighting fires in Texas.
Assuming the BAe passes additional field testing during the interim contract period, Neptune officials said they plan to phase in as many as 11 more jets as market conditions dictate.
Neptune CEO Kristen Nicholarsen said she’s heard of three or four companies developing retardant-dropping planes in pursuit of Forest Service contracts.
“We want new operators to come in and provide competition,” Nicholarsen said. “It isn’t healthy to be a stand-alone.”
Aerial firefighting has hit rough times in recent years. After two Hawkins and Powers air tankers crashed in 2002, the Forest Service and National Transportation Safety Board required new testing to certify the remaining planes were airworthy. In 2004, the agencies grounded the entire large air tanker fleet.
At the time, large firefighting planes were often military surplus models using designs originating in World War II. Neptune’s P2V rotary-engine bomber was originally a submarine chaser from the Korean War.
Even after Neptune was able to certify its P2Vs were strong enough regain their firefighting contracts in 2008, it still faced the challenge of maintaining the planes. Its Missoula shop now makes virtually all the spare parts from scratch.
In contrast, the BAe-146 is a civilian-made passenger and cargo jet that was in regular production through 2001. It still has industrial support for its maintenance, parts and crew training.
Another question is the value of aircraft in firefighting. Critics like Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics argue the planes are unsafe and ineffective.
In a June 24 letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Stahl wrote that 61 firefighters had died from aviation accidents between 1999 and 2009. He also cited a 2002 report that read “136 large air tanker crew members have died in aircraft accidents since 1958. As a comparative illustration, if ground firefighters had the same fatality rate, they would have suffered more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year.”
Stahl’s group sued the Forest Service over retardant misapplications that have killed, threatened or endangered species. In 2010, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy gave the agency until the end of 2011 to rewrite its environmental impact statement on retardant use.
On Friday, the agency released the final EIS, slightly increasing the acreage designated as off-limits to retardant drops to protect the environment – but giving the OK for any drops needed to protect human life. The agency does not expect to cut back on its use of retardant.
In his letter to Tidwell – and again on Friday, Stahl emphasized that the Forest Service has no evidence showing retardant use reduces fire size or improves initial attack success. Forest Service officials acknowledged that claim by removing such statements from the EIS.
Harbour maintained aerial fire retardant remains a crucial part of the agency’s firefighting strategy.
“I continue to believe, in my over 40 years of firefighting, there absolutely is an appropriate role for retardant drops assisting firefighters in initial and extended attacks,” Harbour told the Missoulian.
The Forest Service wants a national cohesive strategy for fighting wildland fire, Harbour aid. That means getting better definition of how the homeowner in Huson relates to the chief of the Frenchtown Rural Fire Department; how the fire department coordinates with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; and how all of them dovetail with the Forest Service.
“We’ve got room for improvement in the nation as far as the effectiveness and efficiency in how we put those parts together,” Harbour said.
And the Forest Service is still working out the balance of large air tankers, helicopters, planes that can scoop water from lakes and single-engine air tankers. On the fringe sit the Very Large Air Tankers – a converted Boeing 747 and a McDonald-Douglass DC-10. The 747 has no contract this year, while the DC-10 is active in Texas.
Harbour said current NASA assessments regulate the VLATs to a “niche platform” status, meaning they have few places where they’re effective. The Forest Service is more focused on planes carrying 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of retardant that can maneuver in more kinds of terrain.
“One thing I do want is much higher speed,” Harbour said. “I’m asking for 300 knots for platforms in the future. The BAe makes that.”
The Forest Service has developed a network of tanker bases across the nation during the past 30 years. The idea was to have a base within an hour’s flight time of any fire area. Faster tankers could reduce the need for some of those facilities.
“Then we think – if we update the platforms, how do we deploy them?” Harbour said. “The location of bases is a fire management issue. But communities enjoy having a base in their locale for a variety of reasons.”
Who owns the planes is another question. The Forest Service now has the largest fleet of aircraft in the country after the Department of Defense, according to Neptune president Dan Snyder. But for firefighting air tankers, it’s generally contracted with privately owned planes to do the work.
“There may be a role into the future to explore us owning some aircraft and getting them contracted to fly,” Harbour said. “But I don’t want to build and administer my own air force. I just always want them available. There will always be a major, significant role for contractor-owned/contractor operated aircraft like Neptune’s. We’re sure happy with privately owned, privately operated aircraft.”
Neptune officials declined to reveal the price or operating cost of the new BAe-146 planes. But they did say the cost is going up as more companies observe Neptune’s successful adaptation of the jet. This fall’s Texas firefighting season could set the stage for the future of the large air tanker industry.
“Now we’re seeing how it performs in the field under real conditions,” Harbour said. “We’re seeing how it works with the air attack team, with ground crews, with lead planes. When you’ve got to push that nose over the top of the ridge and make a drop on a lower slope, it’s fairly silly. You’re diving into a canyon fully loaded instead of flying 10,000 feet above it. But the boots on the ground depend on these things.”