US government moves to extinguish the careers of ageing waterbombers has sparked a wider debate on public-sector aircraft

The manner in which the US government manages a fleet of privately owned aerial firefighting aircraft has itself come under fire. For the first time in more than four decades, overseers of North America's western forests are entering a potentially severe period of wildland flare-ups without the aid of a multi-engined air-tanker fleet - mostly post-Korean War piston-powered aircraft converted for dispersing up to 11,400 litres (3,000USgal) of fire retardant or water.

Although the ageing group of Douglas DC-4s, DC-6s and DC-7s and Lockheed P2V Neptunes and P-3As and have not been grounded, the fleet is unlikely to fly again for the firefighting branches of the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS).

The uproar that followed has provoked talk among prominent US lawmakers about reforming the regulatory framework that governs all public-sector aircraft - the fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used by federal agencies for law enforcement, search and rescue and executive travel.

Meanwhile, federal firefighting officials plan an ambitious modernisation strategy to convert to a turbine-powered fleet. But, to secure funding, the agencies must overcome a chequered history of fleet management and placate wrathful lawmakers.

Unexpected demise

Although large air-tanker safety has been under close scrutiny since 2002, the demise of the fleet came unexpectedly. On 23 April, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), investigating three in-flight break-ups of large air tankers since 1994, ruled that no mechanism exists to ensure the airworthiness of the waterbombers. For example, little is known about the operational and maintenance histories of the aircraft transferred to firefighting service after long military careers. The NTSB notes that almost no scientific data is available to explain the effect of firefighting operations on structural fatigue.

Most importantly, the NTSB recommended that the USFS and BLM take on the responsibility of establishing and enforcing safety standards for the large air tankers. That suggestion was aimed at resolving a long-standing impasse between the two firefighting agencies and the US Federal Aviation Administration.

For years, BLM and USFS officials have maintained that the privately owned fleet falls under the regulatory authority of the FAA. Neither the BLM or USFS, as a result, ever developed a safety regime for air- tanker operators. Meanwhile, FAA officials have long insisted that the oversight authority belongs to the firefighting agencies because the air tankers are almost exclusively in public-sector use.

The NTSB's letter finally cleared the impasse by siding with the FAA, but this would have unexpected consequences.

Nineteen days after the board's letter was released, BLM and USFS officials terminated the large air-tanker contracts rather than comply with the board's recommendation. The action severed ties with eight companies operating 33 air tankers only a few weeks before the start of the annual fire season, a roughly four-month period of scattered flare-ups that can erupt into firestorms covering thousands of hectares.

Federal firefighting officials have argued that the role played by large air tankers was less significant than their name suggests. Their 11,400 litre-capacity loads were simply more "cost-effective" than sending multiple waves of single-engined tankers or helicopters, which carry 1,100-3,000 litres. Moreover, it was announced in early June that the agencies had signed up 119 more single-engined tankers and helicopters, augmenting a 600-strong fleet. The agencies also have temporary use of eight active US military Lockheed Martin C-130s equipped with a 20-year-old retardant dispenser called the modular airborne firefighting system.

"Large air tankers are but one of the many tools that we use to suppress wildland fires. During any year, thousands of wildland fires are suppressed without the benefit of air support," Mark Rey, assistant secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, told a US Senate committee on 2 June.

But senator Ron Wyden criticised the "vacuum of responsibility" for safety oversight of large air tankers identified in the NTSB report, adding that he may call for a statutory change granting the FAA full responsibility for the aircraft. Rey says he "would have no objection" to such a measure, but his position was opposed by representatives of the FAA and NTSB.

The FAA continues to resist any change that would make the agency responsible for inspecting or validating the airworthiness of the air-tanker fleet, says Nicholas Sabatini, associate administrator for regulation and certification. Fundamentally, he says, agency officials are troubled by the prospect of applying regulations designed for safe commercial operations to the inherently more dangerous flight envelope of air-tanker operations. Developing a new body of regulations for operating all public-sector aircraft may be required.

Oversight objections

FAA and NTSB officials also object to taking on oversight of air tankers over concerns that the concept could quickly expand. If the FAA's authority is extended to cover air tankers, it may be difficult to justify excluding other types of public-sector aircraft from the agency's responsibility.

Federal agencies collectively own hundreds of aircraft, which are often involved in high-risk operations, such as the US Coast Guard's search-and-rescue and interdiction missions. If the law is changed, responsibility for certificating aircraft safety is transferred from the agencies that own them to the FAA, says Sabatini. The agency contends this task could dramatically increase its workload, requiring more staff and funding.

Instead, the FAA has offered its expertise in helping the BLM and USFS craft a set of safety and inspection criteria for large air tankers. The partnership, launched in late May, generated an opportunity for large air-tanker operators to be reinstated for firefighting contracts after 2 July, says Rey, who doubts the air-tanker operators' ability to meet the criteria.

Mark Timmons, president of Neptune Aviation Services, agrees, but argues that the agency's criteria are unfairly rigged against the operators. A BLM- and USFS-imposed standard requires the operators to test for widespread fatigue damage, says Timmons. But the companies have no way to collect the data required for an adequate result without the contracts that the agencies terminated on 11 May, says Timmons.

The forest service began using air tankers for firefighting in 1954, owning and operating its own fleet. As the air-tanker programme expanded to more than 100 aircraft, the agency began outsourcing work. Air tankers are usually purchased or exchanged as surplus military aircraft.

Government attempts to modernise the air-tanker fleet have been tainted by controversy. The deal that brought C-130As into the fleet in the late 1980s was tarnished by scandal. The USFS used a procurement loophole called the Historic Aircraft Exchange Programme to allow private contractors to swap their Fairchild C-119s for retired military C-130s and P-3s. An investigation in 1993, however, concluded that the C-119s had no real historical value and should not have qualified for the programme.

Meanwhile, the contractors paid $15,000 each for 28 C-130As and P-3As valued at $1-$2.5 million per aircraft. Some of the contractors even misused the programme by employing C-130As as commercial freight haulers rather than air tankers.

One contractor used its C-130A for spare parts, collecting more than $1 million. The scandal led to lawsuits. In 1999, the forest service reclaimed the ownership titles for the 28 aircraft that were improperly exchanged, but the action is under appeal.

Despite this, the agency appears poised to launch an even greater modernisation plan focused on converting to an all-turbine fleet. Upgrade candidates include ex-US Navy Lockheed S-3B Vikings, while some operators are proposing solutions ranging from retired Lockheed L-188s and a Boeing YC-14 to younger variants of the C-130.

Unmanned aerial surveillance is a sought-after capability, but the forest service's budget, for now, is insufficient. The agency is in talks with the US Air Force about an arrangement involving the Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk. The aim is to insert wildland surveillance into the air force's training curriculum for Global Hawk operators based at Edwards AFB in California. The agreement, if approved, would require Global Hawk trainees to hone their surveillance skills by monitoring western wildland fires, feeding the surveillance data to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.


Source: Flight International