After the Governor of Montana wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Agriculture complaining about what he called “nonsensical restrictions” that prohibit the use of the state’s five UH-1H helicopters on U.S. Forest Service protected lands, we started looking into the root of the problem. The former military helicopters are actually owned by the USFS, and are leased to the state under the provisions of the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program which require that the helicopters be maintained in full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. But the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) apparently does not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates for the helicopters.
However, the USFS does not maintain all of their government owned aircraft in strict compliance with FAA regulations.
When we asked the USFS why the agency does not allow the non-certificated Montana aircraft to be used on USFS lands, Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones, told us:
The Forest Service and the State of Montana Department have different standards and regulations to which each must adhere. Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety.
The USFS and the rules governing the loan of FEEP aircraft require the Montana helicopters to be maintained and modified according to FAA standards. Since these requirements are not met, the helicopters can’t be used on USFS fires.
Even though the USFS requires compliance with FAA procedures for their contracted air tankers and helicopters — and the state of Montana’s aircraft — the following USFS aircraft are not FAA certified, nor will they be:
- Tanker 118, the HC-130H acquired from the Coast Guard that has been dropping retardant on fires this summer using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Neither the aircraft or the MAFFS have ever been certificated by the FAA.
- The other six HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.
- Four C-23A Sherpas used for smokejumping and hauling cargo.
- Two AH-1 Cobra helicopters.
- The eight MAFFS units used in military C-130s for fighting wildfires, and the modifications made to the C-130s so that they can use the MAFFS.
After the seven HC-130H aircraft are finished with their heavy maintenance and air tanker retrofitting, they will be owned by the USFS and maintained and operated by contractors. But they will not be brought under the FAA umbrella, according to Mrs. Jones:
The U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting mission is a Public Use mission in government owned aircraft. The Forest Service maintains airworthiness on Tanker 118 in accordance with Coast Guard maintenance standards, and the Coast Guard maintains engineering authority.
The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130s used to drop retardant with the MAFFS are maintained, modified, and operated according to military procedures.
Below is an excerpt from the USFS solicitation for the Next-generation V. 2.0 air tankers, issued November 26, 2014. From Section C:
Aircraft shall conform to an approved type design, be maintained and operated in accordance with Type Certificate (TC) requirements and applicable Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs). The aircraft shall be maintained in accordance with an FAA approved inspection program and must include an FAA approved Supplemental Structural Inspection Document (SSID), Structural Inspection Document (SID), or Instruction for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) for the airframe structure, as applicable with an ICA and Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS) approved by the manufacturer (or equivalent) and the FAA for the airtanker role.
The USFS is not the only federal agency operating former military aircraft that bypasses the FAA. Others include the Coast Guard, NASA, and NOAA.
We asked a person in the commercial air tanker industry (who did not want their name disclosed) about the USFS not following FAA procedures:
The FAA governs the largest fleet of commercial aircraft in the world and are looked upon by foreign agencies as the golden standard. They can certify an A380 to pack 700 people but cannot certify a restricted category airtanker? The USFS is hiring a ton of ex-military people who all stick together with their other Air Force buddies and think the military is the be-all-end-all.
I think it would be fair to argue that the FAA knows much more about airtankers than the Air Force or the Coast Guard. The USCG maintenance program is not setup for an airtanker mission profile, nor is the USAF. I talked to the FAA guy who was on all the calls with the USFS about this program and he was in disbelief when they finally made the decision not to have any FAA involvement.