How to increase the availability of air tankers by 14 percent

Tanker 07 on the Myrtle Fire
Tanker 07 on the Myrtle Fire, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

During the press conferences for the fires in southern California this week there were always several questions from reporters about the DC-10 air tanker, especially on Thursday at the Cocos Fire when the aircraft was shut down because it was the pilot’s day off. Most of the U.S. Forest Service air tanker contracts require that the aircraft shut down one day a week, or 14 percent of the time. Some of the air tanker vendors would prefer to keep them working 7 days a week and earn that extra money. They need maintenance, but that can usually be done at night, rather than out on the blistering hot tarmac during the day.

Many people, especially when they see houses burning, don’t understand why an air tanker has to sit at an airport, unused, 14 percent of the time. It is possible that the U.S. Forest Service received some, uh, input about this issue on Thursday when the Cocos Fire was hauling ass through San Marcos, burning houses, and Tanker 910, the only DC-10 on exclusive use contract, was cooling its wheels on the tarmac. The next day we heard that they put two more DC-10s on exclusive use contracts.

Of course there are other air tankers, but a sexier story is a jumbo jet that carries four to five times more retardant than a conventional air tanker, so it receives more media coverage when it’s flying — and even more when it’s grounded.

If the contractors had to supply a relief crew for that 7th day, then they would probably work out a way to give the pilots more days off, and even the opportunity to GO HOME and reintroduce themselves to their family now and then. There is a large turnover in air tanker pilots, at least in part because the U.S. Forest Service requires that they shut down one day a week. This makes it very tempting for the parent company to not trade out the crews, and just keep them on the road away from home for four to six months. It’s hard on a family. And with a large turnover, it can be difficult to hire enough replacement tanker pilots that meet all of the stringent requirements needed to drive one of those beasts. P2V, CL-415, and BAe-146 pilots don’t grow on trees, and if they did, they would still have to be trained as an air tanker pilot.

The U.S. Forest Service and the other federal land management agencies require that their ground-based firefighters return home and have two days off after a 14-day fire assignment. This is for their health and safety, and so that they can take care of things at home, including their families. Why are pilots not given the same treatment? If a pilot or aircraft mechanic gets burned out and tired, and has family issues they can’t deal with 1,000 miles from home, bad things can happen.

With the shortage of air tankers, cut by about 75 percent since 2002, it would be a wise decision to make them available seven days a week instead of six. This would keep the pilots happier, their families happier, reduce the turnover, and maybe even improve the accident rate without having to resort to creative writing in annual reports.

And it would increase the availability of air tankers by 14 percent.

20 thoughts on “How to increase the availability of air tankers by 14 percent”

  1. I don’t believe that any Canadian private or government air tanker operator grounds their aircraft one day a week for crew rest. Most have sufficient crews …

    In this northern country and Alaska the aviation industry is used to flying “all out” when the days are long during the relatively short summer operating season … And the same holds true for fire fighting operations.

    As the USFS transitions to long term contracts I would have though that there would be enough “room” in the contracts to support seven day a week availability with sufficient crews….

    1. Being on maintenance side I agree. In recent years contracting agencies have realized the mechs need time off too. Our company is working to make that possible. Big problem is finding people willing and knowledgable enough to support a DC-7 in the field.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly Bill. And I do sit in a lat. The companies must make that commitment to their crews in terms of pay, schedule, etc. and you’ll see 7 day coverage and hence…less turn over which also affects safety. Some of us are envious of the helo pilots schedule. They have less turnover too.

  3. So many times people in the “helping” professions are treated as expendable. Wasteful, unnecessary and cruel.

  4. Having been on 7 day contracts from the maintenance side, I have to say it is doable.However,that 1 day off is a welcome time to do a lot of work without being under the gun.Most companies are fielding multiple tankers.Things stack up fast during a busy season.The logistics of getting replacement parts out to the crews,support personnel to assist etc all becomes more urgent.Don,t forget that the d.o.t. driving rules are getting stricter all the time,which limits crews.
    IMHO the answer isn’t squeezing the people who keep these things operating even harder.The answer is in fixing the system from the top down so there are a lot more air tankers available.Everyone talks about the number of tankers in 2002.Look at the number of tankers available in the 1970’s and compare to now. 7 day coverage is workable but requires a great deal of support and is a band-aid to a bigger problem.

  5. We probably get tired of how Cal Fire does it, staff helicopters and tankers seven days a week. I have been on D.O.I. tanker contracts where the air tanker was staffed every day. What is so hard about hiring additional flight crew members? If an air tanker needs a seventh day off for maintenance then that piece of crap shouldn’t be flying.

    1. You have no experience operating, flying, or maintaining air tankers, have you?

      That much is quite clear.

      I do, and you couldn’t be more wrong.

  6. You have to put into perspective that some airplanes require a day off for calendar inspections or hourly/cycle requirements that sometimes take longer than a overnight to accomplish.

  7. These issues stem from a lack of leadership and understanding of the operational issues involved in supporting large airtanker operations by Forest Service management. Just as duty day and flight time limitations are adhered to, seven day coverage and crew rotation will become a reality when the Forest Service spells it out contractually. Contracts are typically awarded based on price and past performance. Contractors compete and need it spelled out or abuses will occur.
    The logistics of supporting a large airtanker, subject to diverts, inflight, that can terminate the day a thousand plus miles from its departure point on any given day are daunting. Cal Fire planes typically end the day at a home base. Beyond that in the state of California, at a base, staffed with a mechanic, operating the same type aircraft.
    Contract helicopters are not subject to the same dispatch scenarios as large airtankers. Ships are crewed with multiple pilots and truck loads of mechanics and operated seven days a week, occasionally fresh crews extend flight operations on long days. If the helicopter needs maintenance or inspections they are pulled out of service. While there is some mitigation, contractually, for the large airtankers, if they are pulled from service on a duty day they are penalized with lost availability.
    Once upon a time the federal fleet had home bases where spares and parts could be sequestered. Contracts were ninety to one hundred twenty days, crews had lives. And while there was always the possibility of travel pilot mechanics often filled the void and planes carried a selection of the usual suspects.
    Once upon a time, when planes were cheap, and pilots plenty, type ratings and IA qualifications could be found in a box of Cracker Jacks.
    Planes are no longer cheap. Type ratings cost tens of thousands of dollars. IA qualifications take years on-the-job.
    Looking for leadership.

  8. They will be looking for leadership for a long time, Dean

    Since you have been in the biz… have seen it first hand…..

    From the field and reading and seeing some in the last few years….I agree.

  9. Dean hits the nail on the head. The logistics of supporting an airplane with no home base is a nightmare. Now we are moving into aircraft that can traverse the US in a few hours. Where do you send your mechanics? One operator was squaked about last year for a 25% unavailability rate. In my opinion that had more to do with the mechanics not being able to catch up to the airplane until it was broken to the point it could go no more. Poor way to operate. Having a day off at least allows for mechanics to catch up to the airplane in one location (we know where the plane will be for the next 24 hours). And for the non aviators, it is mechanical it will break. Much better to be pro-active than re-active. As for crews. Operators are realizing (sp) that crews NEED to get home and are trying get rotations set up. With 7 day a week coverage and no home base where do you send the relief crew (many tanker bases are in the middle of nowhere with no airline service eg: KBAM). Do i think we can do 7 day a week coverage? It would be a lot more doable if we had enough tankers and had a home base! Dean is also correct training costs are huge today and due to the program being decimated for the last 10 years there are no “extra” IA captains floating around


  10. If you are a F.A.A. Part 121 (airlines) maintenance person would the airline model of maintenance work for the jet air tanker? A lit maintenance facility where a team of mechanic would “turn around” the tanker overnight and return to service prior to 10 A.M the following day. Having mechanics chase air tankers for HOURS on the road and then have to work during the day (try Mesa next month) is that really in the interest of safety? Just a question.

    1. Johnny – That would be a dream BUT:

      If you are a 121 operator:

      1. You have a set schedule with set locations and routes. Giving you the ability to schedule routine maintenance a month out.

      2. You have enough airplanes to account for aircraft that are out for maintenance (what we had when we were on 6 and 1 and had a home base and 40 plus planes).

      3. You fly your airplanes to mexico for outsourced maintenance, save labor costs.

      We defiantly work under a different business model, but somehow the same maintenance needs to be done.

      I guess the airplane could be sent back to the companies facility for inspections, but who foots the bill to ferry the plane from Fairbanks or Lake City FL to MT, NV, OR, AZ or NM and back. Not to mention the coordination and hours involved. Pretty sure the contract does not make any provisions for this either.

      We still have not addressed getting relief crews to the plane, or where we are going to find the extra IA pilots.

      I do agree with you, trying to chase a 500mph airplane with a 55mph truck and trailer is p*ssing in the wind. From what I can see (been at this a while) either we need to have a home base or a day off to meet the needs, along with some coordination from our customer.


      1. Thanks for taking the time for this thorough answer. Good laugh 500 m.p.h vs. 55 m.p.h. Looking forward to more of your comments. Sounds like your in the “car”.

  11. Johnny Cal Fire is able to staff its tankers 7 days a week because their tankers have a home base and when heavy maintenance is required Cal Fire has a spare aircraft that is placed in service. I don’t know if contractors would be able to afford a spare aircraft to take the place of an aircraft that requires heavy maintenance. I think a home base for each tanker would a help the problem but not solve it completely.
    Just my 2 cents.

  12. I’d encourage all who have commented here to think about the essence of “fighting” fire. What is it? Is it a SEAT, a VLAT, or a helicopter?

    Negative, none of the above. It’s people on the ground. Anyone with any amount of real fire experience generally echoes similar sentiments about air tankers ((save in the grass fuel type)) – they are a waste of time and money. Retardant doesn’t really work well in timber, where most “forest” fires occur.

    If it was up to me we’d spend more money on “on the ground” firefighters and training as opposed to contracts for planes that can’t get low enough to effectively back up people on the ground. I’ve had the DC10, BAEs, and MAFFs all drop on various fires. The only places they were remotely effective were in the plains and up in interior AK.

    As an on the ground firefighter with operations and Rx experience in nearly every region of the FS and BLM, I feel it’s time that people start listening to those that actually do this job in the environment we live in today. No offense to anyone here, but I see a clear disconnect in these comments. Our painfully truthful joke has been and continues to be that tankers are for the public. For the news. For those who don’t know anything about fire, they work well. For those who actually work to suppress fire, they rarely work.

  13. Most of here “Think Bigger” never really doubted the firefighter did the real work…

    Let us look at the bigger picture……..

    With your thinking …….

    Then helitack and smokejumpers ought to park the helicopters and fixed wings, too

    You’ll never get rid of the tanker program……..too many folks at WO -FAM would lose lose their prestige and “prowess” in “managing” aircraft as if they thought they were flying them…

    No offense taken……but I do not really think any of the VLAT and LAT operators have a disconnect on anything here…….unless there has been a disconnect since 60 plus years ago when ALLLL those Regional Foresters were dreaming this stuff up……..must have been a lot of media events back in the 30’s through the ’70’s when all the disconnect started happening…..

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