USA–– WASHINGTON Seeking to bolster the nations dangerously depleted aerial firefighting fleet, a group of U.S. senators is pressing new legislation to shift 14 aircraft unwanted by the Pentagon to the U.S. Forest Service.
The proposed transfer of the C-27J Spartans comes months after the U.S. Air Force announced plans to scrap the aircraft, which were procured to transport cargo to troops in Afghanistan, as part of defense spending reductions for the coming year.
It also comes amid mounting pressure to add firefighting air tankers to the Forest Services fleet, as the agency battles massive wildfires across The West this summer. While the overall value of firefighting tankers has long been disputed, there is consensus that they are effective in slowing the progress of blazes in their early stages and particularly in rugged terrain like Inland Southern Californias fire-prone mountain and foothill communities.
Over the last decade, the number of air tankers at the Forest Services disposal has dwindled from 44 to nine as many of the aging planes have crashed or been grounded because of concerns about airworthiness. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has repeatedly testified before Congress that the fleet has become too small to carry out an increasingly large mission, but lawmakers have criticized the agency for moving too slow to acquire new tankers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a co-sponsor of the new legislation introduced by Sen. John McCain, has repeatedly urged Tidwell to move more quickly.
For years I have called for more and better aviation assets for the Forest Servicethe need is indisputable, said Feinstein, D-Calif., noting that the planes had been deemed excess by the Air Force. I can think of no better use for these aircraft than battling the wildfires that are burning up Western states.
The twin-engine turboprop C-27Js, manufactured by the Italian-based firm Alenia Aermacch, would be outfitted with equipment enabling them to carry up to 1,500 gallons of water or fire retardant. Thats about half the amount that can be dropped by the most of the Forest Services larger tankers.
But Tidwell, who last month announced plans to bring three new tankers into service for the current fire season and an additional four for next, said the bill would help the agency modernize its fleet.
Coupled with our contracts to bring on 7 next-generation air tankers over the coming year, such legislation could furnish the agency with additional aircraft that could potentially serve multiple purposes, including to help deploy firefighters smokejumpers and equipment to wildfires, Tidwell said.
The Defense Department launched the C-27J program in 2007 to carry out airlift and cargo missions in Afghanistan. As overseas military efforts have scaled back, lawmakers have called to drastically decrease defense spending. Earlier this year, the Air Force announced plans to retire all 21 of its C-27Js and cancel procurement of the 17 more.
In its 2013 budget proposal, the service said the C-27J has niche functions that could be handled more cheaply with other aircraft.
While no longer useful to the military, McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the planes already paid for at taxpayer expense are well suited to battle flames.
We have an opportunity to take the C-27J, an aircraft the Pentagon no longer wants, and give it to the Forest Service to enhance aircraft safety and lower existing maintenance costs, McCain reasoned. The C-27J should be kept in the service of the American people to help our brave fire crews, rather than sit in an airplane boneyard.
It is unclear how soon Congress might act on the legislation. Currently, there is no companion legislation in the House of Representatives and Congress is scheduled to be in recess for most of August. But the bipartisan support could help its chances in an election year when lawmakers are wary to take up other, more controversial issues. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has also sponsored the bill, dubbed the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012.
As of Friday afternoon, 25 large uncontained fires raged across tens of thousands of acres, most of them in the West. Inland Southern Californias fire season usually begins later in the year, leasting well into autumn.