How the fiscal cliff might affect firefighting aircraft

An organization that represents some of the companies that provide firefighting helicopters and air tankers to the government has issued a press release explaining how the looming “fiscal cliff”, which Wildfire Today wrote about in October, might affect the availability of aerial resources in the suppression of wildfires:

=============================================================

Washington, DC (PRWEB) November 27, 2012

The aerial firefighting industry is citing the risk of significant cutbacks in its ability to respond to wildland fires, if automatic Federal spending cuts become effective at year end.

“Should Congress and the Administration fail to reach a deficit reduction agreement, our fear is that funding for forest protection will be severely reduced, making it that much more difficult for some of our members to maintain the assets and manpower needed for wildland firefighting,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “The possibility of going over the fiscal cliff is a major concern of our members.”

Todd Petersen, Vice President Marketing, for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, warned that if Congress and the administration are unable to resolve their differences over cutting the deficit, it could lead to cutbacks in the number–and duration of– exclusive use agreements with the US Forest Service (USFS), as well as call when needed contracts. Exclusive use contracts, Peterson explained, are a bread and butter item, usually running anywhere from 90 to 180 days per year–per aircraft. Normally, they are in effect over four years, based on three, one-year renewable options after the first year.

“If the contracts are cut, it could mean that we would have to take some of the helicopters that we have used for firefighting and redeploy them to other kinds of jobs,” Petersen noted. “Those helicopters and crews would no longer be available for firefighting, if they were needed.”

Stuart Taft, Chief Pilot for Lewiston, Idaho-based Hillcrest Aircraft Company, echoed this concern. “For us, the big question is whether the USFS would be forced to cut some of its exclusive use contracts, and rely more on call when needed aircraft in the event of a major wildfire,” he said. “We will have the opportunity to discuss this with the USFS at a meeting with the agency in Boise, Idaho, at the end of this month, and hopefully, we’ll get a clearer picture of what they might do.” A major issue, said Taft, is whether there will be immediate, across the board cuts by the Forest Service, or whether they would defer cuts to certain programs to a later date. “It’s very difficult to predict what might happen,” he remarked.

Taft pointed out that since the USFS is a major Hillcrest Aircraft Company customer, any contract funding reductions directly impacting the operator will mandate scaling back on staffing levels, as well as purchases from vendors. “If we fly less, we will not buy as much fuel; and we won’t have to purchase as many repair parts. It could have a very big impact on a lot of operators and vendors.”

At Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, Chief Pilot Pete Gookin, stated that budget cutbacks could cause the government to consider greater use of military assets for wildland fire protection.

“It’s only my opinion, but in an effort to appear that it’s saving money, the government could try to replace at least some of the private contractors with the military,” Gookin said. “While that might look good to the taxpayers, military crews are (generally) not trained to fight fires, and their aircraft were not designed to be used for firefighting as their primary mission. Aerial firefighting was designed by civilian operators working with the US Forest Service, over the past 40 years. It’s a civilian operation and it should stay that way.”

Columbia Helicopters, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, and Intermountain Helicopter are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.

Thanks go out to Dick

Air tanker drops, as seen from a lead plane

747 dropping
A still image showing Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” dropping on a fire (from the video below).

The video below which shows dozens of air tanker drops is very interesting. Most of the video was shot from a lead plane, with views rarely seen by most of us. The technical quality of the video is not great — low resolution and a little shaky — but it’s very worth viewing. Occasionally you can see the smoke generated by a BLM lead plane which marks the target for the air tanker.

Some of the aircraft include: P-3, P2V, S2T, DC-10, C-130 MAFFS, and an air tanker that is very rarely seen, Evergreen’s 747.

Petition drive organized to hire the DC-10 air tankers

DC-10 departing McClellan
DC-10, Tanker 911, departing McClellan. Photo by Nate Allen

The managers of the Facebook page for the DC-10 air tankers have organized a petition drive designed to convince the US Forest Service to award a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that owns the aircraft.

We checked, and the way the petition works is that you complete a form at the site, submitting your name, address, and email address. You can edit the text if you want, part of which includes this:

…For the health of our forests and the safety of our citizens, I urge you to offer a long-term contract to 10 Tanker Air Carrier….

Then it is converted to an email that is sent to Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS at his publicly listed email address. Your name and address will appear in the signature of the message.

10 Tanker Air Carrier will retain your name and email address and may use it, according to the company, to “send an e-blast no more than once/month with news, updates etc. Supporters can unsubscribe at any time. Contact information is kept strictly confidential and will NOT under any circumstances be shared or sold to any other party.”

The most recent request for proposal (RFP) for exclusive use contracts for next-generation air tankers had a response due date of November 1, 2012 and awards based on the submissions could be announced within the next few months. So while the USFS is pouring over the submissions from the air tanker companies, 10 Tanker Air Carrier hopes to influence the decisions that are being made by the federal government either on that RFP or those that may be issued in the future.

It does not appear that the USFS will award any contracts for very large air tankers (VLAT) like the DC-10 on this most recent RFP and will most likely limit the awards to smaller “next-generation” air tankers that have a capacity of 2,400 to 5,000 gallons. However the agency has issued a “request for comments” on a draft VLAT RFP for call when needed aircraft only. The two DC-10s operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier carry 11,600 gallons.

The US Forest Service has not been interested in offering long-term exclusive use contracts for very large air tankers like the DC-10 or 747, and have only made call when needed contracts available.

Air Force releases information about the cause of the C-130 MAFFS crash

MAFFS C-130 crash, US Air Force photo
MAFFS C-130 crash, July 1, 2012 in South Dakota. US Air Force photo.

The US Air Force has released information about the cause of the July 1 crash of the C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tanker in South Dakota. More details are at Fire Aviation, but basically it was caused by strong microburst winds out of a thunderstorm.

 

Colorado Senator calls for modernization of air tanker fleet

Air tankers at Rapid City
50-year old P2V air tankers at Rapid City, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

A Colorado Senator has issued a press release stating that he is in favor of the modernization of the firefighting air tanker fleet. Senator Michael Bennet is quoted as saying:

After a wildfire season that has wreaked havoc in Colorado, it is clear that we need adequate resources in order to fight these fires and prevent extensive damage to our forests and surrounding communities in our state and across the country. With the average Forest Service aircraft more than 50 years old, I am committed to modernizing our aerial firefighting capacity and working with my Senate colleagues to pursue every avenue available, including possible legislation, to ensure that the necessary resources are available to fight future wildfires.

Mr. Bennet wrote a letter to Senators Jack Reed and Lisa Murkowski who serve as chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Forest Service’s appropriations. In the letter Bennet wrote, in part:

…the Secretary of Agriculture needs flexibility and options to renew a viable and effective fleet to protect the nation.”

Statements like that are very nice. Who is NOT in favor of more air tankers after learning the startling fact that the fleet has declined from 44 in 2002 to the 11 we have today. Most of us are also in favor of more apple pie and walks on the beach. But saying, like others have said over the last year, that he wants more air tankers and making a vague reference to legislation will not rebuild the fleet. Actions speak louder than words.

One of the primary reasons the number of air tankers is not scheduled to exceed 16 in the foreseeable future is that Congress and the President have cut the budget for fire suppression to the point that we can’t afford any more. When Congressmen and Senators whine about having too few air tankers, they need to look in the mirror.

Senators and Congressmen have the power to actually INTRODUCE and PASS legislation that would increase the U.S. Forest Service aviation budget that could provide funding for more air tankers. The agency only has the money now to add seven to the fleet over the next two years, and that will happen only if they can get their contracting house squared away so that they can award the contracts that have been advertised.

 

Thanks go out to Bean

More photos of firefighting aircraft on Google Earth

One of our readers has spotted what he says are three helicopters and one air tanker that show up in satellite imagery visible on Google Earth. Brian found them on satellite photos taken June 12, 2011 which show the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona actively burning.

Last month on Wildfire Today we had information about three aircraft that showed up on Google Earth satellite photos taken October 26, 2006 during the Esperanza fire in southern California. This link is a Google Earth KLM file that has place marks for all three aircraft. On that imagery, the air tankers were clearly visible. The four reported on the Wallow fire are not as clear, partly because three of them are helicopters, which of course are smaller than air tankers.

But check it out yourself. Here is the information provided by Brian. You can copy the lat/long and paste it into the search box on Google Earth.

  • AE350B helicopter: 33 32 40.27 -109 24 10.21
  • B212 helicopter: 33 32 46.02 -109 24 01.06
  • S64 helicopter: 33 32 55.26 -109 23 13.25
  • P2V air tanker: 33 32 44.35 -109 26 33.99

Even if the aircraft are not super clear, it is interesting seeing the photos of the active Wallow fire which started May 29, eventually becoming the largest fire in Arizona history, burning 538,040 acres, which includes 15,407 acres after it crossed the border into New Mexico.

Australia to contract for aerial resources

NAFCThe National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia intends to award new contracts for helicopters and fixed wing aircraft for fighting wildfires. Over the next few months they will be accepting tenders or requests for proposals for:

  • Type 1 (High Volume) rotary wing firebombing services
  • Type 1, 2, and 3 rotary wing services
  • Type 4 fixed wing firebombing services
  • A number of other specialist aircraft services, including intelligence gathering
  • A small number of conventional light fixed wing aircraft services for reconnaissance
  • Very Large airtankers
  • Type 1 and 2 multi-engine airtankers
  • Scooping or self-filling fixed-wing aircraft
  • Proposals to supply data integration services for AFAMS – the national aircraft tracking and event logging system

The request for proposals for very large air tankers is a little surprising after their experiment during the 2009-2010 fire season. After that trial the Aussies were not entirely pleased with the overall performance of a DC-10, however most of the problems were a result of insufficient skill on the part of the crew, rather than the aircraft — for example dropping far too low or completely missing a target. The first pilots who flew the DC-10 very large air tankers had little or no previous experience flying air tankers when that program began. In the last two to three years they have gained a quite a bit more experience flying low and slow over mountainous terrain and have a good reputation in the United States. The two DC-10s have proven to be a reliable and valuable aviation asset.

Erickson Elvis in Victoria
File photo of Elvis in Victoria. Erickson photo.