USA –-ROOMFIELD, Colo. With a low roar, the 1954-vintage warplane barreled down the runway and heaved itself into the air, wobbling for a moment as its engines toiled to pull skyward. Theyre not exactly leaping off the runway, said Paul Buxton-Carr, a Canadian pilot, as he watched the potbellied plane, designed to hunt submarines, climb toward its latest mission: dousing wildfires in the American West.
As federal authorities confront the destructive start of what threatens to be one of the fiercest wildfire seasons in memory, they are relying on a fleet of ancient planes converted from other purposes to do the dangerous, often deadly, work of skimming the smoldering treetops to bomb fires with water and flame retardant.
The contractor-owned planes, refurbished from military use and leased by the United States Forest Service, have been hobbled by accidents and mechanical problems, leading to growing safety concerns and calls for a major overhaul. A decade ago, the government had 44 large tanker planes at its command. Now, with fires raging from California to Colorado to Wyoming, the regular fleet is down to nine.
The bottom line is the fires are getting bigger as the fleet gets smaller, said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the Senates forestry subcommittee. That is a prescription for trouble.
Modern airplanes are available, some able to skim up a bellyful of water from a lake without even stopping to land and thus to conduct dozens of drops a day, but these are too expensive for the private contractors who fly the forest missions. Even the supply of younger military hand-me-downs has dried up. There are no lightweight bombers being surplused anymore, said Vincent Ambrosia, a forest fire expert at NASA.
The antisubmarine planes now in use, including the one that Mr. Buxton-Carr watched taking off here, were declared surplus after the Navy began replacing them with the P-3 Orion in the 1960s.
So far this year, attrition has reduced the fleet by three. In early June, one tanker attempting a low-altitude bombing run in western Utah hit the rising terrain and crashed, killing the two pilots on board. Another was forced into a hard touchdown after its landing gear failed to deploy. A third was grounded after its owners discovered a significant crack during an inspection, federal officials said.
Pilots and Forest Service officials say the old tankers typically a model called a Lockheed P2V, which saw military service during the Korean War are safe, easy to fly and meticulously maintained. But independent panels and aviation experts have urged the government to update the antique fleet.
Weve failed to invest, said James E. Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who led a blue-ribbon panel that examined the aging tankers in 2002, after two fiery crashes drew national attention. Were stepping back to these old tankers and old aircraft, and weve done nothing to develop any new technology.
In 2009, an audit report by the inspector general for the Department of Agriculture said that the Forest Service believed its already dwindling fleet of tankers would be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy by this year. The report urged the Forest Service to increase its efforts to modernize the planes.
But the best way to use firefighting planes is not even clear. Although firefighting planes have been used for about 50 years, experts question whether it is better to use fire retardant instead of plain old water. Should the drop be made on a fire, or in a spot in advance of where the fire has reached?
Next month, the Forest Service will begin a study to see what technique works best. A sensor-equipped aircraft will fly 10 to 15 minutes behind the water bomber, to perform the forest equivalent of a bombing damage assessment.
Experts say this may be a particularly dangerous moment to let the governments firefighting resources decay. Fire and weather experts have warned that climate change and drought are likely to provide abundant fuel for more and fiercer superfires across the West in the years ahead, putting more strain on firefighting resources even as people build houses deeper into the backcountry.
The Forest Service has taken some steps to modernize the fleet. It announced this month that it would add three new tanker planes this season, bringing its fleet up to a dozen, and four more next year. And it has already increased the number of aircraft by temporarily leasing planes from firefighting outfits in Alaska, California and Canada.
But even with the additional planes, the governments resources are stretched thin, critics say, and they worry about the toll on the aerial firefighters. Sixty-three have died in aviation accidents since 1999, more than those killed by flames, heat, falling trees or automobile accidents, according to federal data.
Federal officials have blamed mechanical problems for some of the fatalities, including a notorious 2002 crash in which a C-130 tankers wings folded up midflight. But more of the crashes were attributed to pilot error and split-second mistakes made while navigating the treacherous terrain and conditions of aerial firefighting.
Its dangerous work under any circumstances, Senator Wyden said. Im concerned that having these aging tankers is putting patriotic, dedicated firefighters who want to serve our communities at risk.
There are alternatives to the old tankers, but they are expensive. For example, Bombardier markets a plane designed as a tanker that can land on a short runway or a lake. It does not land to reload; it skims the waters surface at approximately 100 miles an hour and fills its internal tanks with 1,600 gallons in 12 seconds. In contrast, warplanes converted to tankers can take 15 minutes to fill from waiting water trucks, and the airports where they do so may be much farther from the fire than the nearest lake.
But the Bombardier planes price is in the mid-$30-million range, said Derek Gilmour, a company vice president. Governments including those in Spain, Italy, Greece and some Canadian provinces have bought the planes, but private contractors serving the Forest Service have not.
Despite the age of the converted tankers and the hazardous flying conditions, pilots said they were confident in their training, planning and the safety of their planes. But, they said, sometimes the worst happens.
In 2008, a 45-year-old tanker bound for a fire in California crashed just after takeoff in Nevada after its left engine caught fire. The three men on board were killed, including the co-pilot, Gregory Gonsioroski, who had been at the controls.
The National Transportation Safety Board largely found crew error as cause for the crash, saying they had failed to follow emergency fire procedures and failed to dump their heavy load of fire retardant a standard response to an in-flight emergency.
Mr. Gonsioroskis widow, Kim Irigoin, said she had tried unsuccessfully to seek federal death benefits that are extended to other workers like police officers or firefighters who die in the line of duty. She said the federal crash report was a bitter pill, one that she believes understated the role of the fire in causing the crash.
We knew our guys were exemplary pilots, she said. They just didnt have enough time to recover.