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Multi-Engine Airtanker Briefing Paper

by Dan Casey |

The following is #1 of two papers by Dan Casey CJ-67. Both on the grounding of the airtankers.

Issue at Hand

On April 23, 2004 the NTSB issued its report regarding two air tanker crashes during the 2002 fire season and the airtanker crash in 1994. NTSB findings were very similar to the December 2002 report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on the same subject commissioned by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior shortly following the two crashes. Both reports emphasized inadequate airframe maintenance and overloading by some airtanker operators. Both reports urged more aggressive airframe inspections. Both found structural cracking, a normal occurrence in all metals, had progressed beyond critical due to grossly lapsed inspection. Both reports criticized the Forest Service for inadequate inspection/enforcement of proper maintenance. Both reports note such laxness has existed for several years prior. Both reports concluded airtankers are capable of operating safely if maintained properly. Both reports emphasized the need to increase compensation rates so the industry is healthier financially and afford to up the maintenance/inspections and retrofit/procure newer airframes/components. Neither report recommended cessation of airtanker use. Immediately following the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel report, the Director of BLM and Chief of the USFS grounded all tankers of two types that crashed during the prior summer. Just recently, May 10, 2004, shortly after release of the NTSB report, Mark Ray, Undersecretary of Agriculture announced cessation in use of all multi-engine airtankers for fire suppression and termination letters were faxed to all the large airtanker operators under USFS contact.


Of the approximately ninety aerial firefighting units traditionally under federal and state contract (helicopters, single engine tankers and multi-engine tankers) nearly half (44%) are multi-engine tankers now grounded. Last fire season every unit was engaged simultaneously on frequent occasions or on standby in high fire prone areas too far removed from other active fires to allow for timely recovery. That included the eight military C-130’s (MAFFS) planes. Contrary to USDA assertion that “other aviation assets will be used to offset the lack of airtankers”, there are no other assets, and nearly half are proposed to be grounded.

The existing mixture of aerial firefighting unit types reflects differing needs by fire bosses. In heavily forested areas or at long distances, the large multiengine tankers (Hercs and DC-7’s) can fly fast, loiter over the fire, divert to great distances quickly and deliver powerful, 3000 gallon loads. For other fires of small timber, helicopters with buckets shuttling to/from nearby water source works best (hourly cost is higher, gallonage much smaller and speed much slower). For smaller fires close to air operations bases, single engine tankers may be best (gallonage smallest, faster than helicopter, but hourly cost lowest). Each type is different in cost and performance, something NIFC (National Interagency Fire Center) aerial firefighting managers factor in to initial seasonal basing assignments and fire air bosses are good at judging what is best type of aerial unit for that fire. Loss of multi-engine airtankers means some fires will not have aerial firefighting support and others will have less effective and more expensive aerial firefighting support, and fires will grow in size.

Loss of half the airborne retardant delivery units has already lead to 14% increase in helicopter rates and heavy lift helicopters will, out of necessity, be used in situations that are more costly and less effective than if by multi-engine airtankers. While USDA talking points include “The Forest Service and DOI do not currently have personnel or funding to meet the NTSB recommendations”, a very aggressive airworthiness inspection program would cost less.
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Several companies and employees in the airtanker industry will be put out of business and out of jobs. Many of these same companies recently invested heavily in upgrading facilities and procedures to meet the move to higher standards Other companies already meet such higher standards and have been in business many years without any safety problems, but will now suffer due to slackness of a especially one operator and inadequate USFS inspection follow-up.


About twenty years ago, the USFS, citing the “public use” exemption in FAA enabling law, pushed the FCC out of front line inspection role for its airtanker operators and substituted is own contract compliance inspectors (about twelve personnel via the National Interagency Fire Center). At the time the goal was to save money on airtanker rental rates if the operators where not burdened by seemingly excessive FAA requirements more. Over time airtanker accident rates grew peaking during 2002 during which two crashes occurred. There is ready agreement among many NFIC personnel and airtanker operators that USFS inspection has been sub par. However, it is very important to note that throughout, the FAA continued to provide airtanker airframe certification, maintenance program approval and aircrew qualifications. The standards and level of inspection by FAA were under Maintenance Inspection Parts 91 and Agricultural Aircraft Operations Part 137 (the latter mostly applicable to crop dusters). These standards and level of follow-up inspection is much less than for most other FAA regimes.

The “public use” opt-out option under FAA regulations is being misrepresented by USDA as a reason why FAA over-site is not applicable for addressing current airworthiness maintenance concerns. While many public agencies, local sheriffs’ helicopters for example, have in the past opted out of FAA jurisdiction via the “public use” clause, most now are participating under FAA over-site regarding aircraft maintenance and aircrew certification. This is different than “public use” exemption for mission operations. For example, under FAA rules, for example, low level flying over residences requires a five day notice and approval by FAA. Firefighting aerial suppression does not have five days advance knowledge of the need for airtanker operations and USFS opts out under “public use” clause. USFS can and does have its airtanker fleet subject to FAA maintenance and aircrew qualifications over-site while not so for flight plans. The two are not mutually exclusive.

In response to the Blue Ribbon Panel report, USFS solicited FAA collaborative effort with Sandia Labs (experts in metals fatigue) to develop a recommended airframe inspection procedures and Sandia then made on-site reviews of every operators program. Sandia also looked at several airframes. An internal USFS technical team then inspected each airtanker to the new criteria prior to allowing use during the 2003 fire season. USFS then retained an expert (former FAA inspector) as Program Manager, Large Air Tanker Airworthiness and Modernization to develop an airworthiness program. This resulted in substantial additional inspections and formulation of technical committees (including FAA and Sandia staff) for each plane type to issue maintenance bulletins and set standards. It also included the ongoing solution of making FAA Part 145 repair station standards applicable to all airtankers (versus existing Part 91). Part 145, which has recently been strengthened by the FAA in several sections, entails substantial higher quality maintenance facilities, training and documentation requirements and, most importantly, mandated regular FAA onsite presence. NIFC airtanker procurement contract specs have been developed mandating Part 145 commencing 2005. Several operators have already begun the upgrading, investing in new maintenance hangers, documentation, training, etc. Several airtanker operators already meet these standards, in part because they fly for other
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customers, including other federal agencies, demanding higher standards or for their own peace of mind. The two 2002 crashes that precipitated this crisis resulted from lax airframe inspection and maintenance. With airtanker contracts offered on lowest bid basis, there is a disincentive to exceed the contractual maintenance standards if not rigorously enforced.

In parallel, even prior to the Blue Ribbon Panel report, the National Interagency Air Tanker Board (at NIFC), immediately downsized the retardant loads allowed on all tankers until detailed airframe inspection system was assured.

For the first time in a decade, there were no airtanker accidents regarding airworthiness of the planes.

Of note, the recent Dept of Agriculture airtanker fleet shutdown explanatory documentation made absolutely no mention of the forgoing corrective actions taken since the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel report.


The current USDA ‘duct and run’ response to the recent NTSB report is promoted by Tony Kerns, Assistant Director of Aviation, Fire & Aviation Management. He is retired Air Force Lt. Colonel (former B-52 copilot and then history teacher at Air Force Academy). He has become a motivational speaker as well as begun a new career in fire aviation, albeit without firefighting experience. Many folks in the industry believe he has never visited an airtanker operator’s home base and viewed the facilities. Kerns’ reputed agenda is to supplant the private sector airtanker fleet with buildup of a military like operation. This entails primarily Air National Guard C-130’s. A portable tank is slid into the cargo bay with two discharge pipes out the open back ramp (Modular Airborne Firefighting System or MAFFS). Fire suppression performance is limited because:
 discharge via pipes at the back ramp exposes fire retardant to prop turbulence, thinning mixture. This spray, while working fine in grasslands fires around military bases (for which MAFFS were originated) it is not effective where timber or heavy brush cover exists. (Hawkins & Powers is contracted to clean off military C-130’s of retardant from the exterior and interior due to prop turbulence). Private airtankers, instead, have been modified with built in ‘bomb bay’ like doors out the ‘belly’. This allows twice the discharge rate and forward of prop wash with a downward force needed to soak the forest floor.
 because military C-130’s have to be available for military priority missions during the fire season, their modular tanks must be quickly removable and thus are structurally heavier, allowing for less retardant loads.
 with the back ramp down for the temporary retardant discharge pipes, airspeed is cut nearly in half, negating the otherwise delivery and mission speed advantage.
 While a private multi-engine airtanker operators need a crew of only 3-4, fifteen to thirty military personnel accompany each C-130. The military charges to USDA are substantially higher than private sector operators.
 Because private airtanker pilots have been in the firefighting business many years. They understand fire behavior (often former firefighters) and firefighting techniques, thus improving communication with ground forces and proper placement of retardant. The also are experts at retardant performance parameters and can program their discard
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systems for varying effect, depending on the conditions. Military personnel, on the other hand, rotate more frequently and rarely have nearly the extent of wildlands fire suppression knowledge.

From a policy overview, there exists a longstanding legal prohibition under the Economic Act (31 USC Chapter 15, section 1535) against using military for work private contractors can provide, absent a specific finding of emergency. The NSTB report provided Tony Kerns with the vehicle for shutting down the private operators, thereby creating the emergency for further military use. While a good speaker and political operative, the policy thrust is shortsighted, in that it undermines fire suppression capabilities of the USFS/BLM managers in the field, is much more expensive and arrogantly imposing draconian economic harm to an industry of long standing service.

It was Tony Kerns who a) pushed for grounding of all contract C-130’s two years ago after one crashed (eventhough the investigation noted gross inspection failure and other C-130’s were gone over by the FAA and Sandia Labs with ‘a fine tooth comb’ and passed muster), b) in spite of his professed concern for safety, supported use of two Canadian based DC-6’s as Class III tankers when Canadian Government ceased to qualify them so and the NIFC Air Tanker Board had stopped the practice 15 years ago, c) held back funding for Sandia Labs inspection program last year, d) not provided sufficient funding for the real time, structural health monitoring equipment recently installed on three airtanker types, d) terminated the airworthiness program manager contract, e) failed to acknowledge the substantial airworthiness progress already underway and f) suppressed visibility of the much higher costs associated with fleet shutdown and expanded military use.


Reinstitute multi-engine airtanker use under the system developed over the past year in response to the Blue Ribbon Panel report (duplicated in the NTSB report), including requiring all airtanker operators to comply under FAA Part 145 for repair station standards and FAA inspections commencing 2005 (providing one year transition time for operators). Maintain the Program Manager, Large Air Tanker Airworthiness and Modernization position and the related programs already underway. The National Interagency Air Tanker Board should continue to set retardant load limits by aircraft type as well as standards and certification of retardant delivery systems.


While the grounding of entire classes of airtankers is easy to appear to be responsive, it is simply simple minded. For example, one Herc (C-130) crashes due to wing cracking that promulgated for a long period of time absent the manufacturer’s airframe inspection program, should not ground all Hercs while others are subjected t0 inspections approved by the FAA and Sandia Labs. Normally, when an accident occurs involving a manufactured item, there is a recall or temporary shutdown until the cause of the problem is discerned and all the units are fixed or inspected to be sure they are not affected. Then use is reinstituted. That is exactly what was happening since the Blue Ribbon Panel report and what should be allowed to continue. There is a reason for such approach, we learn, we fix and we go forward smarter and efficiently. For USFS to, figuratively speaking, pick up their marbles and quit, is, in this instance, costly on many fronts and simply not called for.