GAO air tanker report says more data and planning needed

A P2V on the Whoopup Fire, 2011
A P2V on the Whoopup Fire, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert

A report released by the Government Accountability Office yesterday about air tankers pointed out some of the same issues that were in a 2009 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Both reports emphasized that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior need to collect data about the effectiveness of air tankers and put together a coherent plan on the management of the fleet, and a plan for the acquisition and justification of additional aircraft.

This is the 11th report about air tankers since 1995.

The GAO report was in response to a March, 2012 request by four U.S. Senators asking for a review of “the nation’s depleted fleet of firefighting aircraft and the remedies needed in the face of increasingly severe fire seasons.” The Senators were Ron Wyden, Lisa Murkowski, Dianne Feinstein, and Mark Udall.

The GAO conducted an “audit”, between August 2012 and August 2013. Their product assembled a great deal of information about the current state of the aerial firefighting fleet which has dwindled from 44 in 2002 down to 8 to 11 this year. But it does not have a lot of new, specific, and practical “remedies”, other than collect data and develop a coherent plan. It concluded:

None of the agencies’ studies and strategy documents contained information on aircraft performance and effectiveness in supporting firefighting operations, which limits the agencies’ understanding of the strengths and limitations of each type of firefighting aircraft and their abilities to identify the number and type of aircraft they need.

The GAO had three recommendations:

  • Expand efforts to collect information on aircraft performance and effectiveness to include all types of firefighting aircraft in the federal fleet;
  • Enhance collaboration between the agencies and with stakeholders in the fire aviation community to help ensure that agency efforts to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need reflect the input of all stakeholders in the fire aviation community; and
  • Subsequent to the completion of the first two recommendations, update the agencies’ strategy documents for providing a national firefighting aircraft fleet to include analysis based on information on aircraft performance and effectiveness and to reflect input from stakeholders throughout the fire aviation community.

The report included some information that is not widely known about Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers. The Interagency AirTanker Board refused to extend the interim approval of the drop system in December, 2012 due to problems with the retardant delivery system and deficient performance. However, in February 2013, the National Interagency Aviation Committee overrode the IATB decision citing a shortage of air tankers. The committee granted an extension of the interim approval of the retardant delivery system through December 15, 2013. Neptune has recognized the problem and said a redesigned system is being installed in its’ third and fourth BAe-146s and next winter the problematic design in the first two will be upgraded.

The USFS’s recent Request for Information to possibly lease 7 to 15 aircraft outfitted with high-tech sensors to serve as platforms for aerial supervision could be partially in response to the GAO’s criticism about the lack of aircraft effectiveness data. These aircraft would be equipped with Infrared/Electro-Optical sensing systems with color camera and FLIR systems which would have recording capability. If the personnel on board had time, when they are not managing aircraft, they could record air tanker drops and monitor the location long enough to determine if the water or retardant had the desired effect on the spread of the fire. The aircraft would have an aft crew station for two people designed for training which would have a duplicate set of controls and radios, which could possibly also be used for evaluating drop effectiveness when not used for training.


Thanks go out to Rick and the others who let us know about this.

9 thoughts on “GAO air tanker report says more data and planning needed”

  1. Yep, Bill

    A fine read…read it three times just to make sure.

    Guess what I think? Collaboration and NIAC (National Interagency Aviation Council), Forest Service and DOI are not words or actions that can be put together in the same room and come out with an outcome such as….

    wait for it….

    CalFire….it is about time after this GAO report. that something really needs to be done with this group of “aviation professionals”

    Such as….disbanding the entire bunch and realllllly seriously handing it off to some real performers to run it

    USCG, FAA, the airlines, CalFire, DHS, FEMA

    I can hear the bellaring now……the GAO report once again prove the only bellaring ought to be….”you have got 90 days or you are all replaced”

    Donald Trump where are you??

  2. Dear GAO,

    You can get a great look at the effectiveness and utility of an airtanker by hitching a ride in a retardant tank, but wouldn’t you rather take the Incident Commander’s and Pilot’s word for it?

  3. So now we have to evaluate effectiveness of Retardant and Aircraft
    AGAIN? What is needed is some outside the beltway thinking here.
    The new contract for an evaluation and training plane is a good idea,
    but simply put, we need more airtankers.
    SEATS,VLATs, all types.

  4. Develop a real plan written by professional aviators and firefighters that explains:

    1. What aircraft types and how many are needed
    2. Why they are needed
    3. The consequences of procuring or not procuring them.

    Existing studies are sufficient to support the effort.

    Until a comprehensive strategy and plan gets sent up to Congress, any significant progress or funding for air support for firefighting is unlikely. The actions being taken now are because some in Congress know we need to do something … so they will end up throwing some money at the problem, but there is no authoritative Department standing up with a plan that would encourage and focus Congressional support for a real fire aviation program.

  5. You have a whole bunch of provinces across the northern border in Canada that have been collecting detailed data on the cost effectiveness of their aerial fire management programs for years … And Australia, I understand, may also be doing the same …

  6. Ken

    You are right

    But like the GAO report indicates collaboration…….

    Do you think the USFS is going to ask those folks for anything that resembles practicality?

    I would surmise it in two words……turf protection.

  7. One thing for sure TG…

    There WILL be another study from the USFS in the next 1 -5 years and then the GAO will be doing this tap dance again. Then there will be another AVID and Convergent study ‘cuz those folks can get on the study money train again and charge another 50-500K in studies to tell us what we already do know about basing and stuff from the 1995-96 studies……

    Mark my words…if the GAO has mentioned this numerous times about the LMA air program…you can be damn sure the USFS is going to stretch this one out …AGAIN!!

  8. Wait for more data = Just buying time so people can avoid making decisions? And retire….

    What’s the objective? Fire fighting or Fire managing?

    Efficiency of Tankers?
    How about Dispatch system efficiency?
    Sufficient numbers of Tankers? Properly used?
    Drop efficiency (report with Flir cameras, etc); sure… Do it. Check acreage burnt But also calculate the potential of acres saved by aircraft(rotor/fixed wing) for each fire… Take that into account!!!

  9. We know the hourly rate. We know the litres per hour. We know, based on ground truthing and pilot input, the effectiveness of various coverage levels. We know there is a time and place for SEAT’s, VLATS, and other tankers. The right tool for the job.

    Amazing that nothing has been done. Who is running this gong show? More data needed? Wow. I may be a simple man from north of the border, but this is simply unacceptable.

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