2002 report detailed air tanker danger
Panel told Forest Service running tanker program cheaply was causing deaths

10:16 AM PDT on Friday, May 14, 2004

Long before the nation's entire fleet of 33 large air tankers was grounded this week, experts warned that the aerial-firefighting system was being run on the cheap and would continue killing pilots in excessive and predictable numbers.

Calling the annual death count deplorable, a blue-ribbon panel told the U.S. Forest Service nearly 1 years ago that from 1958 to 2002, 136 aircrew members were killed - an average of three a year.

"If ground firefighters had the same fatality rate, they would have suffered more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year," the panel wrote. "When 14 firefighters were killed in the 1994 Storm King Mountain tragedy, the incident triggered massive changes in ground firefighting strategies and practices to improve safety.

A 1964 P-3 Orion air tanker, foreground, and a 1947 DC-6 tanker sit grounded on the tarmac outside of the Prescott, Ariz., Fire Center.

"There has been no comparable government response to aerial firefighting fatalities."

In its December 2002 report, the panel blamed the problem on the Forest Service's practice of periodically visiting the Pentagon's aircraft "bone yard" in Arizona to select retired war birds for Forest Service contractors to convert into air tankers.

As tankers, the aging planes performed aggressive low-altitude maneuvers that generate punishing G-loads that were at the edge of - or outside - the planes' design limits.

"Recent in-flight structural failures signaled the recurrence of a problem that has periodically plagued firefighting air tankers for half a century," the panel wrote. "Private (contractors), for the most part, have done an admirable job of keeping these aging aircraft flying. However, they are handicapped by receiving little, if any, support from former military operators and the aircraft's original manufacturer."

And the Federal Aviation Administration - a key regulatory agency - has failed to exercise oversight of air-tanker safety, the panel wrote.

"The FAA has essentially said (to the contractors) ... 'You're on your own,'" according to the 48-page report. "There are few checks and balances to ensure that the aircraft are airworthy and safe to fly throughout the fire season."

FAA officials insist they are blameless.

"By federal law, we have absolutely zero authority to regulate (government)-use aircraft," said FAA spokesman Donn Walker. "It's up to the Forest Service or other public agencies to police themselves."

Precautions

Prompted by the blue-ribbon report, the Forest Service last year tried to improve safety by taking such steps as installing collision-avoidance instruments in all air tankers, reducing each tanker's fire-retardant load by 15 percent to lessen the plane's weight and assigning tankers only to the early stages of a fire or to missions where life and property were at risk.

But on Monday, the Forest Service's top administrator announced that the agency would not renew its air-tanker contracts.

"It was apparent that no effective mechanism currently exists to ensure the continuing airworthiness of these firefighting aircraft,' " Chief Dale Bosworth said in his announcement, quoting from the National Transportation Safety Board's April 23 report on three fatal air- tanker accidents that had killed eight crew members.

"Would you take on the liability of killing two (to three) pilots a year?" asked Forest Service Regional Aviation Officer Dennis Hulbert. "Our accident rate did not improve. And (the planes) are 40 to 60 years old. We need to modernize the fleet."

In its report, the safety board said the three accidents, all in-flight breakups, were caused by metal fatigue in the wings of the old planes.

The report said that the Forest Service - not the FAA - bears primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the air-tanker fleet.

"The (federal air-tanker) agencies do not have the in-house expertise or funding to take over these inspection and maintenance responsibilities," says a briefing paper issued by the National Interagency Fire Center, a logistical and support center for the nation's wildland firefighting agencies.

"Since the NTSB holds that the agencies are responsible, and (because) safety and airworthiness cannot be assured, these large air tankers will no longer be used," the document concludes.

Even before the safety board pinpointed the cause of the crashes, the Forest Service's blue-ribbon panel said in 2002 that the fatal air-tanker crashes were predictable because the government has "repeatedly opted for old aircraft retired by the military."

One unnamed Forest Service official told the panel, according to the report, "We use them because they're cheap."

Uncertain future

In its exhaustive report on the three metal-fatigue accidents, the blue-ribbon panel didn't endorse any specific long-term solution - or explicitly recommend that officials ground the existing air-tanker fleet.

But the panel urged forestry officials to permanently break what it called the dangerous warplane-to-air tanker cycle.

"Unless the FAA and operator community change (their) methods," the 2002 report says, "one could expect to see another cycle of structural failures and pilot fatalities within a decade or two."

This fire season, officials have said they plan to rely heavily on the 23 medium air tankers still being operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and by the U.S. Forest Service's contract helicopters, which haven't been grounded.

"Because most of the ... helicopter fleet is FAA-certified and generally operated within the limits of their design while firefighting, the panel has little reason to question the fleet's sustainability," the panel said.

The only exception involves ex-military helicopters because, the report says, they "must be considered FAA orphans, similar to the ex-military air tanker situation."

One potential long-term fix: a fleet of new airplanes designed and built for firefighting.

At least one expert suggested exactly that to the board.

"It is conceivable that a new fleet of air tankers could be developed simultaneously with an upgraded nationwide infrastructure of air tanker bases and command and control centers," the report says. "This would improve the probability that a new generation of large air tankers would be properly employed for efficient aerial firefighting."

At least one firm has suggested using converted Boeing 747s, based at military airfields.

If they were based in the Midwest, the 500-mph planes could reach a fire anywhere in the continental United States within 2 hours, according to a promotional video by Evergreen International Aviation, an Oregon-based firm involved in refurbishing large planes and providing firefighting helicopters for the U.S. Forest Service.

Hauling a 24,000-gallon load of fire retardant, a jumbo tanker would carry about eight times the capacity of even the largest current firefighting airplanes.

Last year, the Forest Service's top aviation official said he hoped that a very large air tanker would be ready to test this fire season.

But that's unlikely.

Evergreen hasn't sought certification yet, said Tony Kern, a U.S. Forest Service assistant director in Washington, D.C.

"I know they're working on it ... (but) I'll be very surprised if we see all this development occur in the real near term - the next couple of months," Kern said of Evergreen. "We know one thing: It carries an awful lot of (retardant). It's very intriguing, and we're keeping an eye on it."

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