Hard data on air tanker effectiveness still not available

Results have not been released from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study that began in 2012

BAe-146 drops on Devore Fire
BAe-146 drops on the Devore Fire, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McClure.

The federal government spends around $100 million each year on large air tankers. A reasonable person would hope that the results of a very careful analysis determine the performance specifications and effectiveness of aircraft that are needed to assist firefighters on the ground to the greatest extent possible while still being a careful steward of taxpayers’ money. If the effectiveness of air tankers can’t be quantified, how to spend that $100 million is left up to the gut feelings of decision makers.

In stories like this, we often include the disclaimer that air tankers do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions aircraft can slow a fire enough to allow ground based firefighters an opportunity to contain sections of the fire’s edge by constructing a fireline.

Government officials often mention the 2012 Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy as a blueprint. However, that document does not make any independent conclusion about the number or types of air tankers. If you wade through the footnotes it actually refers to a 2009 study that recommended increasing the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 19 in 2008 to 32 in 2018. In addition there would be three water scooping air tankers by 2018, bringing the total up to 35.

report released by the Government Accountability Office in 2013 about air tankers pointed out some of the same issues that were in a 2009 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Both reports emphasized that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior need to collect data about the effectiveness of air tankers and put together a coherent plan on the management of the fleet, and a plan for the acquisition and justification of additional aircraft.

Due to these reports and repeated questions over the years by Senators and Congressmen, in 2012 the Forest Service began an effort to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet. The study was named the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study.

On a Forest Service web page the agency describes when data would be released:

AFUE study
Screenshot from www.fs.fed.us

Now that it is June, 2018 we should have seen the data from at least 2015, 2016, and 2017. But, it is not available.

When we asked Vicki Christiansen, the Interim Chief of the Forest Service, when the study’s results would be released, she responded by email, “AFUE personnel have been making excellent progress and continue to engage agency leadership on performance metrics, data collection, analysis and tech transfer processes to support a transition to an operational performance reporting system. Currently the program is funded until 2022.”

After we asked for more information, she wrote, “Summaries of the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study where planned for release in 2017. However, the summaries are not currently available. Unforeseen delays with staffing changes, retrieving aviation use data, and completing final reviews has delayed their overall schedule. The AFUE work group is continuing their work to complete the summaries and they will be provided as soon as they become available.”

Some would think that developing actual data to determine how to spend $100 million, year after year, should be a very high priority and would lead to finding solutions to staffing changes, retrieving aircraft use data, and completing reviews.

To our knowledge the Forest Service never did release the findings of an air tanker study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2012 even after we filed a formal Freedom of Information Act Request. The report was finally released by Rand two years after it was completed. When awarding the $840,092 contract the Forest Service told the company to not consider Very Large Air Tankers at all in making their recommendations for how the air tanker fleet should be configured. The study found that “the most cost-effective fleet of initial attack aircraft is dominated by scoopers, but airtankers play a niche role, particularly in fires that are not close to appropriate water sources.” In one variant, Rand said, “the optimal fleet is composed of eight 3,000-gallon airtankers and 48 1,600-gallon scoopers”.

We heard from sources that the Forest Service was not pleased with Rand’s recommendations. It remains to be seen if the agency will release all of the data and conclusions from the AFUE study that is now in its seventh year.

Gary (Bean) Barrett, a frequent contributor to the discussions on Fire Aviation, spent a career in U.S. Naval  Aviation as a fighter pilot and served on the Navy Staff as a program sponsor, responsible for planning, programming, and budgeting. Here are some of his thoughts about determining the composition of a fleet of aircraft:


“It’s been my observation that if you don’t know how to derive your asset inventory objectives then you can’t explain or defend why you have chosen today’s particular inventory objectives.

“If you can’t determine the effectiveness of each type of asset, you cannot explain why today’s particular inventory mix was chosen or why certain trade-offs were made due to budget cuts.

“If you don’t know whether your primary mission requirement is Initial Attack or Extended Attack you cannot determine the mix of Exclusive Use contracts that can support IA, and Call When Needed contracts that take longer to get an asset on scene and would best support EA.

“Not much will change until:

1. The mission is clearly defined.
2. The effectiveness of each type of asset utilized for mission execution is known.

“At that point, budget impacts can be defined and dealt with objectively, contracts can be written that will provide the most mission effectiveness for the least cost, and the USFS will have definitive answers to questions about asset inventory, asset mix, and EU vs CWN contract mix.

“I still believe AFUE is the key to getting all of this off of bureaucratic dead center. Until you understand tanker effectiveness you cannot determine and justify inventory objectives.”

3 thoughts on “Hard data on air tanker effectiveness still not available”

  1. What this boils down to is; that Vicki Christiansen and others in her department are not doing their jobs.
    Like other Federal agencies ,when they are asked the tough questions all we get is the run around [evasiveness ]! It seems as if ,when they don’t get the answers they want from studies ,they slow walk the release of information [Rand Corp .,report].Gary Barrett made some relevant points .

  2. In the early 1990’s the Forest Service did a documented study of air tanker effectiveness. The air tankers used in this study were instrumented to record the radar altimeter height of the aircraft above the drop, the airspeed of the aircraft during the drop, and the tank configuration used for the drop. The aircraft also had a visual video camera recording the view as seen by the pilot during the drop. A chase plane flying along with the air tanker took infrared video of the drop on the ground to show if there were any gaps or breaks in the line and the effectiveness of the drop. There were ground observers that were part of the study group that inspected the drops on the ground at the fire to determine the effectiveness on the ground. The data from this study was to be used to determine the required gallons per square foot necessary for different types of fuels and conditions. The results of this study were used in the field by lead planes and air attacks to tell the air tankers what configuration of the drop system was required for different fuel types. Any study done today that doesn’t have all of this data and instrumentation is invalid.

    The study that said initial attack should be done with scoopers and air tankers only had a niche role in firefighting is totally inaccurate. In 40 years of aerial firefighting I have seen the effect of scoopers vs air tankers with long term retardant. An example is a fire in Minnesota on flat ground where they used two scoopers making 5 to 10 minute turnarounds for 4 hours and were unable to stop the fire. They then sent two 3,000 gallon air tankers with long-term retardant and one load from each of those two air tankers stopped the fire. The use of scoopers is only valid for close support of ground crews in the same role as water dropping helicopters.

    1. That’s interesting because I have shut down fires with a scooper before they got to the retardant line. I have seen what equates to miles of red retardant lines heading in every different direction with nothing but black on both sides. I guess they both have their limits.

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