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Aerial Firefighting Articles

by Denis Symes |

In the November 3 issues, Aviation Week and space Technology Magazine published the first of a two part series on fire fighting aricraft.

This article discussed how the USFS was considering purchasing new-build aircraft for firefighting and smokejumping.

I e-mialed the reference to you (webmaster). Unfortunately, Part I is not on the current issue site, but I saved it and am attaching it.

In this week's issue, Part 2 delves into airtankers and helicopters.

(webmaster's note: An excerpt of the submitted story appears here. Please find the full story at the source.)

This multi-part series explores how the USFS combats wildfires now, what changes are in store and what U.S. federal agencies might learn from Europe, Canada and California, which have different philosophies and strategies.

Last week, firefighters were trying to save thousands of California homes as hot, dry Santa Ana winds up to 50 mph. drove flames into residential areas. In response, government agencies scrambled to recall airtankers, helicopters and crews that had been released from seasonal contracts.

The number of federal airtankers that should be on call for situations like California's has been debated since two aging aircraft operated by Hawkins & Powers Aviation--a C-130A Hercules and a PB4Y Privateer--suffered wing failures while delivering retardant on forest fires in 2002. Although the industry had experienced structural failures before, these crashes were caught on videotape and film.

The resulting public attention triggered a blue-ribbon panel review of the federal firefighting aviation system. That panel's report identified eight key problem areas and concluded it was time to abandon a "failed" strategy of converting older civilian and ex-military aircraft to fire-retardant airtankers (AW&ST Dec. 16, 2002, p. 66 and blueribbon/index.htm).

As the wildland fire environment has grown more complex over the years, the value and use of aircraft has expanded. Simultaneously, environmental activism that succeeded in sharply curtailing timber harvesting, reinforced by a policy of extinguishing all blazes, had the unintended consequence of allowing prodigious amounts of "biomass," or fuel, to accumulate in the nation's forests.

In parallel, thousands of homes were built in those forests, raising the stakes associated with wildland fires. Drought conditions since the mid-1990s exacerbated the impact of these factors, setting a stage for the advent of "super fires" that burn thousands of acres and hundreds of homes.

Ultimately, federal, state and local agencies had to make drastic shifts in firefighting strategies. They tried to keep aging aircraft flying longer and harder, and shouldered skyrocketing costs as budgets steadily contracted. At the heart of this rapidly changing environment was an aerial fire-combat system struggling to keep up. And when stressed by "bad" fire seasons, it came up short, despite the efforts of dedicated people on the front lines (AW&ST Dec. 16, 2002, p. 61). U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leaders took immediate steps to mitigate problems highlighted by last year's Blue Ribbon Commission on Wildland Aerial Firefighting. They grounded C-130 and PB4Y tankers and instituted an exhaustive inspection and repair program for the remaining airtanker fleet.

Congress provided seed money to start modernizing a range of firefighting aircraft, and the agencies drafted plans for a more enlightened contracting philosophy. Finally, the USFS issued a strategic plan to guide the aerial firefighting community through 2008. The plan called for fielding a 50-aircraft mixed fleet of 30-35 fixed-wing, turbine-powered heavy airtankers and 15-20 large helicopters or "helitankers." Companies have been submitting ideas for next-generation aircraft, some of which could significantly alter traditional firefighting operations (see story p. 62).

In addition, 30 leadplane/Aerial Supervision Module aircraft--20-25 fixed-wing and 5-10 helicopters--will be acquired or leased in 2004, and a new smoke-jumper platform may be sought (AW&ST Aug. 11, p. 40).

A Request for Information issued last summer by the BLM-led Office of Aircraft Services also solicited advanced concepts, and money has been allocated to evaluate some of the industry responses. "As early as 2004, we'll probably put about $4 million into some experimental [projects], which might include a 'supertanker'--something like a [Boeing] 747 or a [Douglas] DC-10 that can carry 12,000-14,000 gal. of [retardant or water]," said Tony Kern, USFS national aviation officer.

Those ideas may take years to develop, though, and airtanker contractors/operators are concerned about what to expect in the next round of USFS contracts, which take effect in 2005. Existing pacts covering 2001-04 were deemed too hard to change.

The next contracts "will clearly see the bar raised" to encourage better maintenance and operations by airtanker contractors, and "institutionalize getting the FAA back into this fight," ensuring the fleet is airworthy and safe, Kern affirmed.

Airtanker industry operators like what they hear from Tony Kern and other top USFS and BLM leaders, but they're skeptical about government contracting officers following through--and whether Congress will provide the necessary funding, given other national priorities. "The top people have great ideas, but each region has its own rules, procedures and turf," a contractor executive said. "When we try to discuss [USFS leaders' plans] with contracts people, they [essentially] say, 'Yeah, whatever. We can't pay for that.'"

KERN REMAINS confident Congress is on track to provide the bucks necessary to modernize the nation's aerial firefighting fleet--while acknowledging there are no guarantees these days. "People saying 'there's no money' are wrong," Kern stressed. "There is money, and it's increasing. We've seen a 10% increase in our funding for aviation this year [Fiscal 2004], and we expect to get something close to that next year."

The 2003 USFS aviation "preparedness" budget was about $21 million, and $23.1 million has been allocated for 2004. Significantly, this money is supposed to go to the best, most capable aircraft and contractors.

"Aircraft that, in the past, might have been more competitive because they were cheaper, will fall off to the side," Kern said. "What we may end up with are fewer resources, but they'll be safer, more effective resources. We're never going back to putting every available aircraft in the air for the $23 million we have this year."

In 2002, the Pentagon made it clear no surplus military aircraft would be provided to the firefighting community, saying, "We don't have any to give you." Still, some operators hope excess P-3 Orions, C-130s and even A-10 Warthogs can be pried from the Defense Dept.'s boneyard in Arizona, and are lobbying Congress for help.

It now appears Defense might be rethinking its hard-line position. Kern said a recent development--the potential availability of more than 100 Lockheed/U.S. Navy S-3 Vikings--could change the airtanker landscape.

"There is some enthusiasm for using S-3 Vikings. We're looking for ways to evaluate that aircraft in the firefighting environment."

The USFS intent would be to field S-3s--modified with retardant tanks and other equipment--as a government-owned, contractor-operated firefighting fleet. Antisubmarine Vikings scheduled for Navy retirement over the next few years have about half their design airframe life remaining, are 4g-capable and were built for low-altitude maneuvering and carrier landings. Consequently, they are stout enough to weather the aerial firefighting environment, USFS aviation officials believe.

The S-3s also have an active service-life-extension program already in place, with instrumented aircraft in fleet service and a huge body of historical structural-integrity data available.

"I know that's not what the blue-ribbon panel recommended, but we know the structural situation of these airplanes," Kern said. "They're different than our past military surplus aircraft."

Regardless of which platforms ultimately make up a new firefighting fleet, the USFS will have to also root out some deep-seated attitudes.

"We're tied to our history of using the most cost-effective [aircraft]. Some folks would call that the 'cheapest,' because we've operated with a lot of old, rebuilt airplanes," said Steve F. Pedigo, a former USFS deputy director of state and private forestry, which included fire and aviation responsibilities. "We're now at the point where using old aircraft has caught up with us.

"The aviation program is [evolving] to more of a systems approach instead of what I call an 'historical value' approach," he noted. "[USFS] definitely needs a new requirements-based aviation system, not just an evolutionary one."

Pedigo now serves as a private consultant to firefighting organizations. Barry Hicks, a former regional aviation officer for the USFS Northern Region (who retired in October), was more direct than his colleague: "We have to remove a Forest Service stigma about having good aircraft. We've almost felt we had to take old military aircraft rather than dare be seen flying new, shiny airplanes that go fast and actually accomplish our jobs more efficiently."

Indeed, using cast-off military platforms has been almost a badge of honor, a visible indication that the USFS was guarding taxpayer dollars. This was referred to by the blue-ribbon panel as a "scarcity mentality," which led to false economies and compromised safety.

The USFS and BLM also are contemplating even more basic factors than what next-generation aircraft to acquire. Some fire and aviation veterans are questioning whether land management agencies should even continue to be responsible for aerial fire support.

With the possibility of terrorist-ignited fires, maybe the mission should be under the Homeland Security Dept. or the Pentagon's Northern Command, they suggested.

"I THINK WE HAVE to decide whether we really want to be in the aviation business, or whether we want to give that to somebody else," Hicks said. "To move into the future is going to cost a lot of money--to have the kind of aviation operation we need to deal with fire.

"Conditions have changed," he continued. "I can tell you the kinds of fires we're having now are [more severe] than fires we had 40 years ago--more fuel, larger, more intense--and they [threaten] the wildland-urban interface as it pushes farther into the forests.