Sunday, May 19, 2013

AIR TANKERS: After a decade, still stuck with antiques

The nation’s dwindling fleet of large — and aging — air tankers has been in crisis for more than a decade, and this year is no different: the U.S. Forest Service has managed to sign full-time contracts for only eight of the big fire bombers.

The agency’s modernization efforts have been limping along for so many years that experts are increasingly suggesting that the delays may be an intentional effort to force Congress into an extraordinarily expensive solution that would benefit one powerful manufacturer.

Among those sounding the alarm is Walt Darran, a recently retired air tanker pilot who is safety committee chairman of the tanker pilots’ organization, Associated Aerial Firefighters.

“What seems to some to be unfocused management by USFS Fire & Aviation appears to others to be a tightly focused obsession to award Lockheed-Martin a $2 billion to $3 billion contract for a C130J fleet … without (on-board fire retardant tanks) even being available to support the fleet,” Darran writes for

Yes, the forest service recently announced that it plans to issue contracts to seven “next generation” air tankers, including an 11,600-gallon Victorville-based DC-10 jetliner-turned-super tanker and a privately owned ex-Navy C-130 that’s being converted to a 3,000-gallon tanker at a hangar in San Bernardino.

If so, that could mean that 15 big air tankers will be available this year. But it’s a big ‘if.’

Of the eight proposed next-gen tankers, only the DC-10 is ready to fight fires. At least some of the others may not be able to complete all of their Federal Aviation Administration paperwork and federal air tanker board requirements by the end of this fire season.

And the whole next-gen contracting process currently is stalled because of a protest filed by a company that wasn’t selected for any of those contracts.

Meanwhile, the Southern California fire season already is heating up. Early this month, the Summit Fire burned 3,100 acres in Banning. Three days later, the Gorgonio Fire blackened another 510 acres in the San Jacinto Mountains overlooking Banning.

And crews are currently fighting the 4,300-acre Grand Fire near Frazier Park.

Maybe the forest service aviation honchos in Washington, D.C., will surprise their critics and modernize the fleet by next year.

But right now, most of the eight tankers with full time contracts are antique piston-driven planes that are slower, smaller and less reliable than the 18 to 28 next generation, 300-knot, 3,000-gallon, jet-powered planes that the agency has said it wants.

“Granted, sequestration and other budgetary restrictions aren’t making things an easier,” Darran notes. “But a proactive plan … is what we require of our fire and fire aviation leadership as well as concerned politicians.”

Darran is certainly correct about one thing: The air tanker industry is at a crossroads, moving from surplus military and airline piston-engine planes costing roughly $100,000 each to relatively new jet-engined aircraft costing at least $10 million apiece.

Time will tell whether Darran is right in his bottom-line analysis:

“For whatever reason, top management at USFS seems totally focused on promoting a fleet of new ($80 million-a-copy) Lockheeld-Martin C130J aircraft, delaying or blocking exclusive-use contracts on (far cheaper) alternatives.”


No comments:

Post a Comment