The U.S. Forest Service is struggling to figure out how to manage a new, very complex, government-owned large air tanker program. On December 27, 2013, President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.
On June 1, 2015 the FS distributed a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency is not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor (GO/CO) operated venture. On that date, 522 days after Congress began the process of transferring the aircraft, the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel.
“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”
The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned”. With the first HC-130H scheduled to arrive at McClellan Airport (MCC) in Sacramento in mid-June (not mid-May as originally planned) the FS has not used the 522 days to become prepared for the beginning of a new paradigm of large air tanker use.
At the end of those 522 days, they came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper.
This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).
Until now, all federal air tankers, from single engine to jumbo jet sized, have been contractor owned and contractor operated (CO/CO). The actual operation and maintenance of the tankers, including the on-site, day to day safety, has been the responsibility of the privately owned companies. Even though some high-ranking officials in the agency have been asking for brand new GO/CO C-130J air tankers for years, they appear to be woefully unprepared now that they received a version of what they have been begging for.
The first two HC-130Hs to arrive at MCC this summer will be 27 and 31 years old. It is likely that they will require more safety oversight than a new C-130 right off the assembly line.
On January 20, 2015 we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Service asking for copies of plans related to the management of the HC-130H GO/CO air tanker program. The agency refused to comply with the request, telling us on March 19, 2015, that basically there were no completed plans:
The records related to the C-130H Aircraft Transfer, which you requested, exist only in draft and contain opinions, recommendations, and advice. It is important to protect these discussions, which may help formulate the Forest Service’s opinions and to release the draft would likely stifle honest and frank communication within and outside the Forest Service.
We checked with the FS again today, June 8, 2015, asking if any plans had been developed. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the agency, said, “An operational plan will be in place prior to the aircraft being available for wildfire response” in July.
Why no plans? Continue reading ““We don’t know what we don’t know””