The panel's report was prompted by the deaths of six fire crew
members in two airtanker crashes and a helicopter crash earlier this
The permanently grounded planes carry too high a risk to use,
said Forest Service Fire Director Jerry Williams, and a long-term
solution could mean building planes specifically for fighting
wildfires, at a cost of $20 million each.
The grounded tankers were all C-130A or PB4Y-2 models used under
contract with private companies. They delivered about 10 percent of
the water and foam dropped on wildfires.
Nineteen government-owned P-58 lead planes and four Sherpa
smokejumper aircraft were grounded pending evaluation of safety
issues identified in the experts' report.
The remaining 33 airtankers must pass a rigorous inspection and
follow a new maintenance program before they are returned to duty,
Williams said. Those airtankers are government owned or leased or
have structural differences from the grounded planes.
"We are going to reduce public and employee exposure to what we
perceive as high-risk aircraft," Williams said. "The contractors did
not identify structural problems."
During next year's fire season, more helicopters could be used
and military planes may be called in if the fleet runs short,
The expert panel, appointed by the federal government, found the
aerial firefighting program had a pass-the-buck approach to safety
standards, inadequate training, lacked communication between
agencies and focused on compliance rather than safety.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and BLM Director Kathy Clarke
enlisted the aviation experts, led by former National Transportation
Safety Board (news
sites) chairman Jim Hall and Texas state forester Jim Hull, to
study the issue in August.
The report faulted the Federal Aviation Administration (news
sites) for leaving to contractors the certification and
inspection of the aircraft, many of which are modified World War II
"The FAA apparently sees no statutory requirement to oversee
airworthiness," said William Scott, panel member and bureau chief
for Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine. "This creates a
But Allen Kenitzer, FAA spokesman in Seattle, said the
administration is not authorized by Congress to set standards for
aircraft used by the government. Only when the planes are being used
privately, and not under Forest Service contract, are they subject
to FAA standards, Kenitzer said.
That leaves Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (news
sites) or private contract personnel to decide if an aircraft is
safe to fly.
"Private operators, for the most part, have done an admirable job
of keeping these aging aircraft flying," the report said. "However,
they are handicapped by receiving little, if any, support from
former military operators and the aircraft's original manufacturer."
While endorsing change, both Williams and Bureau of Land
Management Fire Director Larry Hamilton cited budgetary limitations
and another fire season just months away.
|The C130 Tail Section
The aviation program came under scrutiny after the wings sheared
off two airtankers because of fatigue cracks. Three people were
killed in June when the wings separated from a C-130A being used to
fight a fire in California. In late July, a PB4Y-2 broke up and
crashed fighting a Colorado fire, killing its two-man crew. The
planes were respectively 46 and 57 years old.
Both planes were operated by Hawkins and Powers Aviation, a
Greybull, Wyo., company that contracts with the Forest Service to
provide firefighting tankers.
On July 30, an Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama helicopter suffered an
engine failure and crashed in Colorado, killing the pilot.
The panel also found that the firefighting agencies allowed
contract pilots and crews to fly under safety standards that were
lower than for those flying in other government missions.
Special requirements were not set to accommodate the severe
conditions of fighting fires from the air, the report said.
On the Net:
U.S. Forest Service: http://rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/ap/ap_on_re_us/inlinks/*http://www.fs.fed.us