USFS report: no aviation accidents in last three years

The U.S. Forest Service has released an aviation safety report titled “FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary” which theoretically analyses, or at least lists, accident trends. Their presumed safety goal, although we could not find in the report any goals or objectives, is to reduce accidents. We were astounded to read on page 4 a statement that was repeated in various ways on pages 8, 18, and 33:

The Forest Service did not have any accountable accidents again in FY 2013; this was the third year in a row without an accident.

That statement was backed up by these two charts, and others in the report:

USFS Aircraft accident statistical summary USFS air tanker accidents 10-yr stats

At least four accidents since 2008 with a total of nine fatalities do not show up in these stats:

  • 2008, September 1: crash of a Neptune air tanker at Reno with three fatalities;
  • 2012, June 3: crash of a Neptune air tanker in Utah with two fatalities;
  • 2012, June 3, crash of a Minden air tanker at Minden, Nevada (one landing gear did not lower), irreparable damage, no fatalites;
  • 2012, July 1, crash of a MAFFS air tanker in South Dakota, four fatalities.

There may have been other accidents between 2004 and 2007 that also were not listed.

We checked with the USFS about the discrepancy and spokesperson Jennifer Jones told us that the accidents “were not included in the document because it was a U.S. Forest Service aviation safety report and the airtankers were under the operational control of other agencies when the accidents occurred, so they are not considered reportable accidents for the U.S. Forest Service.”

It turns out that if an air tanker under contract to the USFS is flying on a fire for another agency and crashes, the USFS will not include that accident in the report. However, the MAFFS air tanker crashed while making a drop on the White Draw fire on the Black Hills National Forest.

C-130 MAFFS crash, July 1, 2012
C-130 MAFFS air tanker crash, July 1, 2012. US Air Force photo

A statement in the report absolves the USFS from responsibility for accidents involving military aircraft:

Military aircraft remain under the operational control of the military even while supporting USFS operations.

But the military does not totally agree. In the Air Force report on the MAFFS crash it says on page 5:

Fire suppression management is under civilian control.

And later on page 29:

Second, due to the need for swift reaction to live fires, the practical supervision of executing a MAFFS mission, by default, is under civilian control.

We could not find the word “MAFFS” anywhere in the 33-page FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary document, or any reference to the nine fatalities we listed above.

In 2012 MAFFS air tankers dropped 2.45 million gallons of retardant on fires, frequently under USFS operational control.

The 2012 landing gear failure on the Minden air tanker was not listed, the USFS said, because “the National Transportation Safety Board determined that it did not meet the definition of an accident”. But part of the definition of an “accident” in this summary report (page 3) is one “in which the aircraft receives substantial damage.”

A reasonable person would think that an aviation summary document that compiled accident statistics would at least mention that aircraft on long term exclusive use contracts to the USFS crashed and killed nine crewmembers, even if they were on temporary loan to another organization for an hour or a few days. The agency selected these aircraft and the contractors, and the fact that there were four major accidents involving their chosen aircraft and contractors deserves mention, at least to honor their service. The nine fatalities and four crashes in a five-year period is a very disturbing trend that should not be ignored. And even more so when you also consider the 2010 accident that does show up in the stats. That one may be the June 26, 2010 accident in which Neptune’s T-44 went off the end of the runway at Rocky Mountain Regional Airport (Jeffco) near Denver due to a hydraulic system failure.

If the USFS analyzed the crash trends involving their contractors, including those occurring on non-USFS fires, they might find, for example, they should reconsider the specs in the contracts, the crash history of  contractors, the suitability of aircraft designed for maritime patrol in the 1950s that are then used for flying in and out of canyons under air frame stresses the engineers did not consider, and the age of the aircraft. If what you are doing is not working, and these crashes and fatalities indicate it is not, then you need to do something different. The next-generation air tanker concept is a step in the right direction, but using jet airliners to fly into canyons is a concept that needs to be proven.

At a minimum, future reports should have a separate section to list the mishaps and accidents that involve their contracted aircraft even if they are on a non-USFS fire. And, accidents that involve MAFFS air tankers working under an agreement with the USFS, and accidents that result in major damage, should be listed as reportable accidents, regardless of specific jargon used by the NTSB.

It should not make any difference, for statistical, reporting, and accident prevention purposes, if the cause of an accident is mechanical, weather, or pilot error — they all should be recorded and reported. If the objective is learning lessons and preventing future accidents. they must be tracked and remembered. Splitting hairs and using imaginative criteria for leaving out certain accidents can turn the entire accident reporting program into a farce.

12 thoughts on “USFS report: no aviation accidents in last three years”

  1. Sadly, many of us have attended the funeral service for a fallen firefighter, and seen the USFS big-wigs in the front row wearing their pressed uniforms and consoling the bereaved family.
    Then they rush back to Washington to publish appalling and disrespectful reports like this to make themselves look good.
    This report just makes them look like idiots.
    Tom Tidwell should withdraw this report and issue an apology.
    Never forget.

  2. Operational control by the military or Part 121 operators is not this convoluted…..

    Only the USFS and the other LMA’ s have learned to massage, jack with, and otherwise to make their stats look better.

    There ought to be a move afoot by the NTSB and the FAA to put the Airtanker fleet under a Part 121 or Part 135 or some variation thereof so that the Airtanker operator is the certificated for the operational control of the aircraft and not just because of contracting.

    But if this makes an agency look good…..let them have their fun while living off of ” welfare” of the USCG and the USAF while getting their CWB program in order.

    Cuz in the USFS it is alllll about lookin good….cuz ….damn if we looook gooooood…..planes will fly better under “OUR” operational control!!!

  3. Another great blunder by the USFS! Does anyone wonder why they cannot do anything right? This coming from an agency that thinks they can manage an even larger program by accepting the C-130’s and shorts? How is one to learn from there mistakes if they don’t even acknowledge them?

  4. I believe the Forest Service goes to extraordinary lengths to pass off these, and other, accidents to someone else to keep their accident trend line going downward. Some of these decisions are very questionable, like the 2012 helicopter crash in Alaska that was on a Forest Service CWN contract, with Forest Service Employee aboard, landing to pick up more Forest Service employees, on a Forest Service project, rolled over on landing at a remote site. The Forest Service managed to get that one passed to the Vendor’s FAR part 135 operation. I totally agree that it in misleading at best, dishonorable for the victims, survivors, and families, and any mishap or accident should at least be mentioned in these annual reports, even if it clearly states why the accident isn’t considered a Forest Service accident.

    1. Agree 100%. I was part of the Forest Service aviation organization involved with an accident in AK in 2011 (I think it’s the same one that you’re talking about hunter), and it was frankly infuriating to have an aircraft hired under an FS contract, under FS operational control, with an FS employee (the HMGB) on board, get categorized under the vendors FAR Part 135 operations by the NTSB and upper-level FS management. It pissed off a lot of us in our forest-level organization that national leadership just brushed it off. They are very, very eager to play with semantics in order to have an excellent safety record on paper.

  5. What about the crash of the Forest Service owned twin engine plane that hit the center pivot irrigation after taking off from Missoula a few years ago?

    1. Everyone here is so right! I lost my first flight instructor in a B-17 delivery in the late 60’s by the same contractor who lost T123 and T130. T123 did contratcs in my State for many years. However the Company they worked for was all about the $$$$$$$$$$$$$$’s. As far as government agencies go it’s all about contracts so there is never any blame on them.

      1. Oh also how about the USFS Lead Plane who collided with a Atirtanker in the traffic pattern killing all in both aircraft.

        1. Sorry Bill, I wasn’t considering only the last three years. Accidents in Wildland Fire Aviation have been happening since the beginning of aircraft being utilized, after all it is a high risk endeavor no matter what type aircraft are involved. And for the USFS to pat themselves on the back for no fatalities in the last three years is BS. A government contract whether it be State or any one of the Federal Government Agency’s is still a Government Controlled Contract. The Lead/AT I mentioned was in 1995. can be goggled with “USFS Lead Plane Accidents”.

  6. That crash ought to be on a NTSB report….what date and was it already considered in a “Safety Summary?”

  7. It is all semantics.

    In the above accidents, despite the Forest Service being the “contracting entity”, NTSB assigns the accident to the Agency having operational control of the AC at the time of the accident.

    EXAMPLE: Stead crash = operational control.. CAL FIRE.

    Kind of like a shell game. A tanker crash in 2003 was assigned to the National Park Service by NTSB even though it crashed on the San Bernardino NF during ferry between bases in AZ and CA.

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