Secretary of Agriculture responds to Senators’ concerns about air tankers

Secretary of Agriculture responds to Senators’ concerns about air tankers

03 April 2012

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USA — The Secretary of Agriculture said in a letter to congress that conventional large air tankers, such as the P2V, are often more effective in suppressing wildfires and provide faster response than very large air tankers like the 747 and DC-10.

We have obtained a copy of a letter that Thomas Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, sent to Senator Lisa Murkowski and other senators who expressed concerns about the management of the federal air tanker fleet. Mr. Vilsack’s letter, dated March 29, 2012, is a very late response to a letter that the senators wrote on February 10, 2012. Mr. Vilsack’s response comes shortly after a highly publicized letter dated March 27, 2012 that Senators Murkowski, Jeff Bingaman, Ron Wyden, and Dianne Feinstein wrote to the Government Accountability Office requesting an “independent third-party review….of the Forest Service and the Interior agencies’ efforts since 2002 to identify the number and types of firefighting aircraft they believe are needed to respond to wildland fires”. Some of the topics the senators asked the GAO to consider in the March 29 letter included:

  • whether the methodologies the agencies used to evaluate the number and types of aircraft needed were appropriate in meeting current and anticipated wildland fire challenges;
  • whether the methodologies the agencies used to evaluate the best approaches for meeting these needs were comprehensive and inclusive;
  • what range of alternatives the agencies considered, as well as those they did not consider, in assessing their needs and the ways to meet them.

Mr. Vilsack, in his March 29 letter, told the senators that the solicitation for the “next generation” of large air tankers which closed on February 15, 2012:

…should provide up to three next generation large airtankers this year and up to ten additional airtankers in 2013, contingent upon private industry’s ability to develop, test, and gain approval of these aircraft.

He also said the Forest Service is is collaborating this year with the Department of the Interior on two contracts to provide water scooper aircraft. For the last few years the DOI has contracted for two CL-215 water scoopers.

Mr. Vilsack’s letter places the blame on the state of Texas for not deploying very large air tankers to “the Texas fire situation” due to the “high cost” of the aircraft.

Here is another quote from Mr. Vilsack’s letter:

Large air tankers are often more effective and provide faster response than the very large airtankers. This is because the large air tanker fleet can be deployed across a broader geographic area. The current airtanker base system has been developed to minimize the distance to a fire from the base, with average airtnaker mission flights that are generally less than 50 minutes, round trip. Costs increase and efficiency is reduced when airtankers must fly longer distances, regardless of their speed.

As you noted, the draft RAND report of July 2010, which was a preliminary draft and not the final report, recommended that field evaluaiton of water scoopers and very large airtankers be done. The Forest Service has begun the Aerial Firefighting Effective Use and Efficiency Study, which will evaluate water scoopers, large airtankers, very large airtankers, and helicopters.

Mr. Vilsack says this additional study, the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years, will evaluate very large air tankers even though they were specifically excluded from the 2010 study by the Rand Corporation which cost the USFS $840,092. The solicitation for the new study mentions large air tankers, but says nothing about very large air tankers:

Define the utility and operational parameters of large airtankers (LAT), heavy helicopters (defined as Type 1), and water scoopers in accomplishing the variety of aviation missions supporting wildfire management…

Our opinion:

When you only have 11 air tankers, like last year, requiring that they be widely scattered across the United States making rapid initial attack on wildfires only rarely possible, it is hard to support Mr. Vilsack’s characterization that very large air tankers are less effective than smaller air tankers. SOME additional air tankers, even if they can’t reload at every air tanker base, are better than none. Then there is the speed factor. The 11 P2Vs under contract now cruise at 225 mph while a 747 and DC-10 cruise at more than 550 mph. And the P2Vs carry 2,000 to 2,400 gallons, while the very large air tankers can hold five to ten times more, 11,600 to 20,000 gallons, requiring fewer trips back to an air tanker base to reload.

We are not saying very large air tankers are the answer to our air tanker shortage, but beggars can’t be choosers — we only have 25% of the fleet we had 10 years ago. Some of the money saved by not contracting for those additional 33 air tankers could be put toward alternatives, even if they are expensive. Air tankers don’t put out fires, firefighters on the ground do, but very large air tankers could be one tool in the firefighters tool box, as part of a mix of aircraft including helicopters, single engine air tankers, scooper air tankers, and large air tankers.


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