With 30 aircraft approaching retirement, ex-USN Vikings may be long-term solution
The US Forest Service has accelerated a four-year plan to replace 30 aging multi-engine airtankers to as early as next summer. Under review are retired regional airline turboprops and a mixture of phased-out military aircraft, from LockheedS-3B Vikings and C-130E Hercules to the Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt.
The search for replacements also ranges to more exotic concepts, such as reactivating a 1970s Boeing YC-14, buying Russian BerievBe-200 amphibians and utilising a Lockheed L-188 Electra, says Tony Kern, assistant director of aviation management at the forest service.
Ideally, the first replacements will enter service before next year's summer fire fighting season, says Kern, who adds his agency's fiscal 2005 budget request does not yet reflect the new requirement.
Kern is initially attracted to proposals based on reliable airframes with several years of remaining airframe life. "I've got some ideas that might fit," he says.
The agency may seek to capitalise on a used turboprop market that has mushroomed as regional airlines shift to more regional jet-based fleets, he says. A more long-term replacement strategy, however, could involve modified military aircraft. The US Navy plans to retire 106 S-3Bs over five years beginning in fiscal 2005.
Kern notes that navy records show the S-3 airframes are being retired after using only half of their service life, possibly allowing forest service contractors to operate the aircraft for several decades. On the other hand, he says, modifying S-3s as aerial fire fighters would require longer flight trials and more costs.
Agency officials are searching for a replacement offer two weeks after cancelling contracts for 33 aircraft owned by eight private vendors
STEPHEN TRIMBLE / WASHINGTON DC