Saturday, March 14, 2015

Retired pilots fight to keep Missoula smokejumper plane in service

Jump-15, a Douglas DC-3, came off the assembly line on June 12, 1945, and has been in service dispatching smokejumpers for the Forest Service Intermountain Region since 1964. It is scheduled for retirement after this season.

In the alphabet soup of airplane names, a BT-67 is not a DC-3.

The plane the “Band of Brothers” jumped out of at D-Day was a C-47. Seventy years and lots of civilian modifications later, James Bond brought a DC-3 to a dogfight in “Quantum of Solace.”

The big twin-engine plane that hauls smokejumpers from the Missoula Aerial Fire Depot is a BT-67, known on U.S. Forest Service radio as Jump 15. Seen from the edge of the runway, it’s all the same plane with different paint jobs.

But not to retired pilots Barry Hicks and Dick Hulla. They were alarmed to learn the U.S. Forest Service plans to retire Jump 15 from smokejumper service at the end of this wildfire season.

“They’re saying it’s an old airplane that’s unsafe and needs to be retired,” Hulla said. “In our opinion, the BT-67 is one of the most economical, safest and capable aircraft in the fleet right now.”

Jump 15 used to be a C-47, and then a DC-3. Now it’s a BT-67, and the difference is more than just a change of letters, numbers and symbols.

The new name translates to Basler-Turbine model 67. It refers to a rebuild the plane underwent in 1991, when its radial engines were replaced with more powerful turbine motors. In the process, Basler Turbo Conversions replaced more than 60 percent of its airframe and other parts.

Hulla and Hicks argue that while Jump 15 was built in 1945 and has been flying for 18,800 hours, its critical parts are just 5,800 hours old. That makes it younger than most of the other smokejumper aircraft currently in service.

And they add that its larger passenger capacity, stronger airframe, and longer flying range make it a better choice than the more recently built Sherpa paratrooper planes the Forest Service plans to replace Jump 15 with.

The two Missoula men bring some extensive credentials to the table. Hulla retired in 2008 as the supervisory pilot for Forest Service Region 1 after a career jumping out of and then flying the BT-67.

Hicks retired in 2003 as regional aviation officer for the Forest Service, with a smokejumping career that goes back to the Ford Tri-motor.

The Forest Service is updating its smokejumper fleet with a group of 10 C-23B+ Sherpa planes acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard. Those planes are going through a civilian conversion, which will change their name to SD3-60 Sherpas.

For the moment, the Forest Service refers to them as C-23B+/SD3-60s.

“The (Sherpas) are newer, more modern aircraft that will help the U.S. Forest Service deliver firefighters to wildfires more safely and effectively, increasing the chances of suppressing them while they are still small and preventing them from becoming large, dangerous and costly wildfires,” Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said in an email. “(Sherpas) offer superior performance and efficiency for most of the current smokejumper fleet.”

That now includes four Sherpa C-23A models, two DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otters and Jump 15.

When the Sherpa B models come on line, the four older A models will be retired as well. The Twin Otters will stay in service because of their ability to land on small backcountry airstrips.

The old and new Sherpas carry up to 10 smokejumpers, while Jump 15 carries 16. Sherpas can fly for about three hours, while Jump 15 can fly four hours.

Hulla described the difference this way: On a smokejumper mission east of Miles City, Jump 15 could carry 16 smokejumpers and their gear from Missoula and deliver them to the fire. A Sherpa could only take 10 jumpers, and would have to stop at Miles City to refuel before it could reach the fire.

And keeping a mix of planes allows smokejumpers to pick the proper plane for particular missions.

And it avoids the problem Southwest Airlines recently had when a maintenance defect forced the grounding of all its Boeing 737s – the only type of plane it flew.

Nevertheless, Jones said the Forest Service needs a plane with standardized operating procedures, training, maintenance and logistics support. She said those efficiencies outweigh the risk of a fleet-wide maintenance issue that could ground all the Sherpas at once.

Hicks said that sounded more like the Forest Service is trying to avoid trouble instead of make clear judgments.

He compared it to the agency’s effort to move away from Korean War-era P2V retardant bombers, like the ones that have been the mainstay of Missoula’s Neptune Aviation, in favor of more modern jet bombers.

Jump 15 doesn’t fly under the same hazardous conditions as the P2Vs, he said, and shouldn’t be lumped into the same modernization bucket.

“People think we’re hung up on nostalgia – that’s our favorite plane,” Hicks said. “But in the aviation business, you need a replacement program. If they could state for certain that these B-model (Sherpas) they’re bringing in can fill the bill, I’d say: Go for it boys. That’s what we did in the 1990s, when we went to Basler to replace aircraft we were worried about. I don’t think anything else they can get is going to be as nice to the taxpayer as the BT-67.”

Hulla added that the BT-67s are among the few planes qualified to fly to Antarctica, and continue to be a popular choice for military special forces around the world. Douglas Aircraft Co. built about 10,000 of them, and at least 500 are still flying.

“Wherever that plane lands, somebody’s going to be happy to have it,” Hulla said. “It’s going to be flying for 50 years.”

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