Four students studying journalism at Washington State University have written an article that summarizes the state of the federal air tanker program. It is interesting in that it quotes several knowledgeable people who have close ties to management of the fleet, including Jim Hall, former Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Ron Hanks, head of aviation safety with the U.S. Forest Service. They also interviewed Dick Mangan, past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire.
Mr. Hall, who chaired the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel following the crashes of two air tankers that killed five aviators that year, continues to lament the current state of the air tanker program, much as he did earlier this summer.
Mr. Hanks apparently told the student reporters:
Right now, we have 17 aircraft, and that includes the Canadian aircraft that we have borrowed.
That puts an extremely favorable spin on the fact that as the fire season ends there are nine large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus two BAe-146s that were put on temporarily as “additional equipment” on Neptune’s contract. The Canadian air tankers and lead planes that Mr. Hanks referred to were borrowed for a month or so last summer. In 2002 we had 44 large air tankers.
Here is a video that illustrates the student’s story;
Paul Filmer took some excellent photos of aircraft working on the Fern Lake Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park west of Estes Park, Colorado, December 4, 2012. The photo above is the first one I can remember seeing of an air tanker dropping with snow in the background.
We thank Paul for allowing us to use his photos. You can see a couple of dozen more that photos he took December 4 at his web site. More information about the Fern Lake Fire can be found at Wildfire Today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rick McClure just sent us this excellent photo of Tanker 41, a BAe-146, dropping on the Devore Fire in Cajon Pass in southern California. He used a Nikon D5000 and shot it at f/10 and 1/400. He was not miles away using a huge telephoto lens — he used a zoom lens set at 60 mm for this photo.
Mr. McClure said: “I actually couldn’t run fast enough to get totally out of the drift.”
The fire jumped Interstate 15 eventually burning 350 acres before it was knocked down by firefighters and aircraft.
One more photo that Mr. McClure sent us is on our sister site, Wildfire Today.