NIFC: air tanker unable to fill rate decreases in 2013

Air tanker unable to fill requests (UTF)

The National Interagency Fire Center has released their annual summary of wildfire activity in 2013. In the aviation section one of the stats we always find interesting is the number of requests for large air tankers that are unable to be filled (UTF). That is, when firefighters officially submit a request for an air tanker but there are none available because all of them are committed to fires, they are on their day off, or they have a mechanical problem.

An air tanker having a day off is ridiculous, especially when the fleet size has atrophied from 44 at the beginning of 2002 down to nine when the 2013 fire season began. But that is the way the U.S. Forest Service writes their contracts for large air tankers.

During the 2002 fire season the wings literally fell off two air tankers, killing five aviators, causing the USFS to begin grounding the older museum pieces that summer, continuing the process into 2004. Since then the UTF rate has been climbing. Much of the time when firefighters need air tankers there are none available, reaching a high of 48 percent in 2012.

After 2004 when the groundings settled down and the fleet size ranged from 9 to 21, the average UTF rate was 26 percent. In 2013 it was 21 percent. Before the two wing failures, with 40 air tankers on contract the average UTF rate was 7 percent for 2000 through 2001.

In articles like this pointing out how the air tanker fleet has decreased by 75% over the last 11 years, we usually mention that air tankers don’t put out fires. Under ideal conditions of moderate burning conditions without a strong wind, they can sometimes slow down a fire making it easier for firefighters on the ground to make better progress and actually stop the fire. It is one tool in the toolbox. But an *aggressive, prompt, initial attack with overwhelming force both on the ground and from the air is more likely to keep a new fire small than what we have seen in recent years with reductions in the number of firefighters and aircraft. An aggressive attack can prevent a small fire from becoming a megafire that can cost over $100 million.

In 2013 there were nine fires with suppression costs exceeding $10 million. The Rim Fire in and near Yosemite National Park ran up bills amounting to $127 million.. And those dollar figures do not include the damage to privately owned property or the lives lost. Information provided by the USFS shows that 11,625 homes burned in wildfires over the last three years; and they don’t have records for ALL structures that burn in wildfires across the nation. If those houses had an average value of $100,000, we are looking at a monetary value of $1.1 trillion. During that three year period 60 people were killed in wildfires, including firefighters and local residents.

While the number of acres burned in wildfires in the United States in 2013 (minus Alaska) was lower than the recent trend, the number of air tanker requests that were filled (1,017) was four times higher than the average between 2002 and 2012, which was 252 per year. The year with the second highest number of filled requests since 2002 was 2011 when large air tankers were requested 407 times.

Acres burned lower 49 1990 - 2013

We are at a loss to come up with a reason for the unprecedented increase in the number of filled requests, in a year that had the fourth lowest number of acres burned in the lower 49 states in the last 10 years. The number of requests for large air tankers was 1,343, compared to an average of 434 per year.

The information in this report might be 100 percent right and truthful. But, sadly, we are now forced to look at these and other statistics coming out of Boise and the Interagency Fire Center and consider that they may or may not be accurate. We learned a lesson after the U.S. Forest Service issued their “FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary” last month which claimed there were no USFS aircraft accidents in the last three years. At least four accidents since 2008 with a total of nine fatalities, including the 2012 crash of the MAFFS air tanker on a USFS fire which killed four aviators, do not show up in their stats. Nor are they even mentioned anywhere in the report. Their use of imaginative criteria for leaving out certain accidents made it appear that they had a pretty good accident record, when the opposite is true.

That lesson learned means we now have to look at these Boise reports and question their accuracy. This is really unfortunate. It casts doubt on reports and statistics that might have the potential for us to learn other lessons that could enhance the safety of firefighters at the point of the spear — busting their asses out on hot, steep, dusty, smoky, rocky slopes in the middle of nowhere for weeks at a time.

*Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires.

CAL FIRE and DynCorp receive award from FAA

For a third year in a row the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) presented CAL FIRE and DynCorp International with the FAA’s Diamond Award of Excellence for Aviation Maintenance. The award recognizes CAL FIRE’s aviation maintenance unit after all maintenance technicians pass a rigorous and specialized aircraft safety training program.

CAL FIRE’s current support contractors are DynCorp and Logistics Specialties Incorporated (LSI). DynCorp provides airtanker and airtactical plane pilot services, and all aircraft maintenance services. All CAL FIRE helicopters are flown by CAL FIRE pilots. LSI provides procurement and parts management services.

Neptune to have 11 air tankers available this summer

T02 arriving at Missoula 2-2-2014
Tanker 02 arriving at Missoula for the first time, February 2, 2014. Photo by Bill Moss.

Neptune Aviation received their fifth BAe-146 February 2 when it arrived at Missoula on a snowy Sunday. The aircraft is still painted in the colors of United Express it had when the aircraft was operated by Air Wisconsin, but will soon take on Neptune’s white with red trim color scheme, and will have a big 02 on the tail. The work to build the tank system began even before it arrived in Missoula but there is still much to do before it can drop retardant over fires. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, told us that they expect to have it ready to go by the first of August this year.

Tanker 02 will receive the new, upgraded tank system that has already been installed on two of their other BAe-146s, Tankers 01 and 10. The modifications will help to correct some of the bugs in the first generation of the BAe-146 tank, which was criticized for inconsistent flow rates, especially when dropping downhill and for the last several hundred gallons in the tank. Neptune is calling the redesign the “Rev 300”. Mr. Snyder said it has received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA, and in August it also passed the new more stringent requirements introduced in 2013 for static and grid testing required by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). The air tankers with the Rev 300 will have interim approval from the IAB to operate without restrictions.

Tanker 01 at Missoula 2-2-2014. Photo by Bill Moss.
Tanker 01 at Missoula 2-2-2014. Photo by Bill Moss.

In addition to the three air tankers above, Neptune’s other two BAe-146s, Tankers 40 and 41 are also getting the redesigned 3,050-gallon tank system installed.

Mr. Snyder described the tank:

In addition to meeting the new 2013 IAB criteria, Neptune fielded a lot of new technology in this system that has never been used in large airtanker tanking systems to date. The systems have been significantly changed from the original tanks seen during operations last year. Additional exits have been added to give the tank excellent performance in all pitch attitudes, including down-hill drops.

The new gating system has the ability to be adjusted during a drop. Enhanced computer sensing and control have taken constant flow tanking to a new height, “Active Control”. Active Control allows the computer to actively monitor the flow performance and modify the exits to maintain the selected coverage level, based on aircraft ground speed, tank flow-rate, g-loading, and aircraft pitch attitude.

The new sensing and control system has yielded a tank that has a very high level of repeatability and consistency under all flight conditions. All these enhancements are significant improvements over the concept of Constant Flow tanking systems of years past.

Neptune will have six P2Vs and one BAe-146 on contract in what the U.S. Forest Service calls the “legacy” air tanker category this year. A second contract that the USFS awarded without competition to Neptune on December 12 for two BAe-146s is being protested by four other air tanker companies. Until it is settled, which should happen by March 28, it is unclear what Neptune will have in the air this year other than the seven air tankers on the legacy contract. In addition to those seven, Neptune will have at the beginning of the summer, three other BAe-146s ready to fight fire, with a fourth coming on line by the first of August.

This latest protest, which has become routine in the USFS air tanker contracting process, and the recent acquisition by the agency of seven, 27+ year old C-130s discarded by the Coast Guard which will be converted into air tankers, makes it difficult for Neptune and other vendors to make long range plans about the acquisition of millions of dollars worth of aviation assets that may or may not be wanted by the federal government.

Mr. Snyder said that if there is a need, they can acquire additional BAe-146s and convert them in about four months — several airframes concurrently if necessary.

Coast Guard C-130H, before transfer to US Forest Service

For Anthony, who enjoys reading about female aviators successfully advancing through the ranks, we present a tweet sent out today with a photo that happens to include Coast Guard C-130H #1719, which is being transferred to the USFS to be converted into an air tanker.


Congratulations, Jeanine Menze.

Farm bill allows “leasing” of 5 air tankers

A provision in the farm bill (H.R.2642) passed by the House on Wednesday authorized the U.S. Forest Service to “establish a large airtanker and aerial asset lease program”, allowing the agency to “enter into a multiyear lease contract for up to five aircraft that meet the criteria described in the Forest Service document entitled `Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy‘ and dated February 10, 2012, for large airtankers”. That 2012 strategy stated that the next generation of large airtankers would have a 3,000 to 5,000 gallon capacity and would be turbine powered. These are the specifications of the seven next-gen air tankers that received contracts in 2013. The USFS has been contracting for large air tankers for decades. So, we were confused about the purpose of this language in the farm bill, placed there by two Senators from Colorado, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. It seemingly allows for what the USFS does routinely, but does not appropriate any additional funds.

We checked with the U.S. Forest Service to try to understand if there was an intended difference between the routine contracting for air tankers that has been going on for decades and this new “leasing” language. We received the following, uh, explanation from their Washington, DC office:

The language in the Farm Bill clarifies our existing authority to lease up to five airtankers annually. Depending on our budget resources, this authority may be useful. At present, the Forest Service is relying on next generation airtanker contracts and the seven C-130 planes transferred in the Defense Appropriations Bill to modernize the fleet as we retire the legacy airtankers in the coming years.

That certainly clears that up.

We reached out to the offices of Senators Bennet and Udall, and received the following from James D. Owens, Press Secretary for Senator Udall:

The United States Forest Service is allowed to acquire large air tankers in two ways: (1) as surplus from other federal agencies or (2) contracting. The provision that Senator Udall successfully included in the Farm Bill gives the Forest Service a third, more flexible option to acquire air tankers, i.e. leasing.

“Leasing” might involve renting the air tankers without pilots, and possibly without a maintenance agreement. We have a hard time understanding why the USFS would want to become involved in that type of situation. They are going to have a hard enough time arranging for the operation and maintenance of the 15 Sherpas and 7 C-130Hs recently acquired from the military and the Coast Guard  — aircraft which they will own.

The bill is now in the Senate. The White House says President Barack Obama will sign it if it reaches his desk.

Paint design approved for USFS C-130H air tankers

C-130H paint design
C-130H paint design, by Scheme Designers

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service has approved the paint design for the seven C-130H aircraft the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard. The National Defense Authorization Act required the transfer of the C-130Hs plus 15 Shorts C-23B Sherpas from the military. The C-130Hs are being converted by the Air Force into air tankers, while the Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. The C-130Hs will be owned by the USFS but will be operated and maintained by contractors. Some of the Sherpas will be flown by agency personnel and others by contractors. All of the Sherpas will all be maintained by private companies.

The paint for the C-130Hs was designed by a company in New Jersey, Scheme Designers. Craig Darnett, their founder and CEO, told Fire Aviation that they have also designed the paint for other USFS aircraft, including the DC-3 and some smokejumper planes. Other examples of their work can be found at Scheme Designers will not actually paint the C-130Hs; most of their work is done on computers, however sometimes the aircraft owner will pay them to be on site and monitor the painting as it is done.

If someone is restoring an automobile that is at least 27 years old, as these C-130Hs are according to our research, paint is the very last step in the process. Five of the seven have to go through a 10-month wing box replacement, and then the rest of the conversion process can begin, including cutting a hole in the belly and installing a retardant tank system.

Initially bringing the 22 aircraft into the agency will be extremely complex and time-consuming, with FAA approvals, inspections, evaluating, painting, writing then awarding contracts for maintenance and pilots, deciding on a tanking system, contracts for installing tanking systems, avionics, etc. And, developing a comprehensive PLAN of how to manage the aviation assets now and in the future. The Air Force will do some of this, other than the planning, before the actual final transfer of the C-130s to the USFS (the Sherpas will not receive retardant tanks), but the Forest Service has to be involved in the decision making. Then, after the 22 aircraft are completely up and running, managing the programs on a continuing basis is not simply a part time job for one person.

Below are some other paint designs on USFS aircraft:

McCall DC-3 retirement
J-42, a US Forest Service DC-3, retires. USFS photo, taken at Ogden, Utah, October 24, 2012.
Redding smokejumpers' Shorts 330 Sherpa
Redding smokejumpers’ Shorts 330 Sherpa. USFS photo.
Smokejumper aircraft, N143Z
Smokejumper aircraft, N143Z. USFS photo.
USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, their Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z
Lead planes at Cheyenne
Lead planes at Cheyenne, WY, May 7, 2013. These were not government owned, but were under contract to either the USFS or BLM. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Fire Watch helicopter
The U. S. Forest Service’s Fire Watch Cobra helicopter. July 28, 2011.
US Forest Service infrared aircraft N149Z
USFS infrared aircraft N149Z at Phoenix in 2013


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Leo

USFS report: no aviation accidents in last three years

The U.S. Forest Service has released an aviation safety report titled “FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary” which theoretically analyses, or at least lists, accident trends. Their presumed safety goal, although we could not find in the report any goals or objectives, is to reduce accidents. We were astounded to read on page 4 a statement that was repeated in various ways on pages 8, 18, and 33:

The Forest Service did not have any accountable accidents again in FY 2013; this was the third year in a row without an accident.

That statement was backed up by these two charts, and others in the report:

USFS Aircraft accident statistical summary USFS air tanker accidents 10-yr stats

At least four accidents since 2008 with a total of nine fatalities do not show up in these stats:

  • 2008, September 1: crash of a Neptune air tanker at Reno with three fatalities;
  • 2012, June 3: crash of a Neptune air tanker in Utah with two fatalities;
  • 2012, June 3, crash of a Minden air tanker at Minden, Nevada (one landing gear did not lower), irreparable damage, no fatalites;
  • 2012, July 1, crash of a MAFFS air tanker in South Dakota, four fatalities.

There may have been other accidents between 2004 and 2007 that also were not listed.

We checked with the USFS about the discrepancy and spokesperson Jennifer Jones told us that the accidents “were not included in the document because it was a U.S. Forest Service aviation safety report and the airtankers were under the operational control of other agencies when the accidents occurred, so they are not considered reportable accidents for the U.S. Forest Service.”

It turns out that if an air tanker under contract to the USFS is flying on a fire for another agency and crashes, the USFS will not include that accident in the report. However, the MAFFS air tanker crashed while making a drop on the White Draw fire on the Black Hills National Forest.

C-130 MAFFS crash, July 1, 2012
C-130 MAFFS air tanker crash, July 1, 2012. US Air Force photo

A statement in the report absolves the USFS from responsibility for accidents involving military aircraft:

Military aircraft remain under the operational control of the military even while supporting USFS operations.

But the military does not totally agree. In the Air Force report on the MAFFS crash it says on page 5:

Fire suppression management is under civilian control.

And later on page 29:

Second, due to the need for swift reaction to live fires, the practical supervision of executing a MAFFS mission, by default, is under civilian control.

We could not find the word “MAFFS” anywhere in the 33-page FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary document, or any reference to the nine fatalities we listed above.

In 2012 MAFFS air tankers dropped 2.45 million gallons of retardant on fires, frequently under USFS operational control.

The 2012 landing gear failure on the Minden air tanker was not listed, the USFS said, because “the National Transportation Safety Board determined that it did not meet the definition of an accident”. But part of the definition of an “accident” in this summary report (page 3) is one “in which the aircraft receives substantial damage.”

A reasonable person would think that an aviation summary document that compiled accident statistics would at least mention that aircraft on long term exclusive use contracts to the USFS crashed and killed nine crewmembers, even if they were on temporary loan to another organization for an hour or a few days. The agency selected these aircraft and the contractors, and the fact that there were four major accidents involving their chosen aircraft and contractors deserves mention, at least to honor their service. The nine fatalities and four crashes in a five-year period is a very disturbing trend that should not be ignored. And even more so when you also consider the 2010 accident that does show up in the stats. That one may be the June 26, 2010 accident in which Neptune’s T-44 went off the end of the runway at Rocky Mountain Regional Airport (Jeffco) near Denver due to a hydraulic system failure.

If the USFS analyzed the crash trends involving their contractors, including those occurring on non-USFS fires, they might find, for example, they should reconsider the specs in the contracts, the crash history of  contractors, the suitability of aircraft designed for maritime patrol in the 1950s that are then used for flying in and out of canyons under air frame stresses the engineers did not consider, and the age of the aircraft. If what you are doing is not working, and these crashes and fatalities indicate it is not, then you need to do something different. The next-generation air tanker concept is a step in the right direction, but using jet airliners to fly into canyons is a concept that needs to be proven.

At a minimum, future reports should have a separate section to list the mishaps and accidents that involve their contracted aircraft even if they are on a non-USFS fire. And, accidents that involve MAFFS air tankers working under an agreement with the USFS, and accidents that result in major damage, should be listed as reportable accidents, regardless of specific jargon used by the NTSB.

It should not make any difference, for statistical, reporting, and accident prevention purposes, if the cause of an accident is mechanical, weather, or pilot error — they all should be recorded and reported. If the objective is learning lessons and preventing future accidents. they must be tracked and remembered. Splitting hairs and using imaginative criteria for leaving out certain accidents can turn the entire accident reporting program into a farce.

Legislation to be introduced in Colorado would provide 4 firefighting helicopters and an air tanker

A Colorado state senator will be introducing legislation that would provide $9 million for four helicopters and an air tanker to suppress wildfires. A bill approved last year created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) but failed to appropriate any funds to run the agency or acquire any aviation assets.

The legislation specifies that a contract be issued for one Type 1 air tanker or a very large air tanker and four helicopters.

(The rest of the story, including the permanent acquisition of four air tankers, is on Wildfire Today.)