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.