Revisiting a 2003 congressional hearing about air tankers

One of our loyal readers pointed out to us that the same issue of Skies magazine that had an article about the two large air tankers spending the Australian summer down under, also had something written by Tony Kern, but he said that he was unable to view it. At first we were going to link to it and wanted to be sure we got Mr. Kern’s title right for when he worked for the U.S. Forest Service. It turned out that the piece he wrote was not terribly interesting, to me anyway — it is a short article about “selflessness”. But in the research for his title, we found the transcript of a March 26, 2003 hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Mr. Kern was a Deputy Director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation program, and was sometimes referred to as the USFS Aviation Director. His bio states that he was selected for the USFS job after retiring from the Air Force in June, 2000. There is no mention of him having any experience with air tankers or fire management before he took over the air tanker and helicopter program in the USFS. A piece he wrote in 2002 (along with a rebuttal by John Watt) leads one to think that at one time he believed that a lead plane preceding an air tanker on a drop was not absolutely necessary, or could be handled by helicopters, such as the AH-1 Cobra, which later came to be called Firewatch when the USFS got a couple of them up and running. Currently Mr. Kern is the CEO of Convergent Performance, a company based in Colorado Springs, Colorado that campaigned for the state’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting to be located in Colorado Springs.

But, back to the Congressional hearing, in which Mr. Kern was one of six witnesses in the room testifying before the Senate Committee. The others were:

  • William R. Broadwell, Executive Director, Aerial Firefighters Industry Association.
  • Larry Hamilton, National Director, Department of the Interior Office of Fire and Aviation, NIFC, BLM.
  • Jim Hull, State Forester and Director, Texas State Forest Service.
  • Jim Hall, President, Hall and Associates, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board
  • Duane A. Powers, Director of Operations, Hawkins & Powers Aviation, Inc., Greybull, WY

Mr. Hull and Mr. Hall were co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Fact Finding Panel on Aviation that was formed after the wings fell off two air tankers in 2002, completely shutting down, temporarily, the large air tanker program in the United States, grounding the remaining 42 air tankers. The Blue Ribbon Panel completed their report three months before the hearing. When it convened, inspections, evaluations, and recommendations were being completed and written, to try to find ways to safely reconstitute a large air tanker program.

One thing that impressed me about the hearing was the quality of the questions by the Senators. Most of them were intelligent, insightful, and showed a surprising understanding of the fire aviation program. Of course it is possible, or probable, that the staff of the Senators and the Committee prepared the questions which were then simply read. But some of their comments seemed to be extemporaneous, and perhaps not composed in advance. And Chair of the Committee, Senator Larry Craig, in spite of his misadventure four years later in the restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, led a productive hearing and also asked excellent questions.

Many of the topics discussed during the hearing are still contentious today, having not been acted upon or resolved. Some of the answers to the Senators’ questions could be heard now if a similar hearing was underway on Capitol Hill.

The transcript from the hearing is long, but if you’re a fire aviation geek you may find it fascinating — and infuriating.

Here are some excerpts and highlights:

From William Broadwell’s initial statement:

“We need a strategic plan from the Federal agencies that specifies the aerial firefighting resources required to support the agency’s wildland firefighting mission. The operators need this plan in writing so that they know what to buy for. They are not going to put millions of dollars into a program if they do not know what needs to be.

We also need adequately funded contracts that include incentives for high standards of maintenance, training, and safety, that rewards research, development, and innovation, and sets aside some money for future modernization.”

From Duane Powers’ initial statement:

“I would be remiss if I did not point out that two of our aircraft, the C-130A and the PB4-Y2 Privateer, were involved in fatal air tanker crashes during the 2002 fire season. We lost wonderful friends, crew members, dedicated employees. Our business reputation, our stability, our morale were greatly affected.”

Question from Senator Craig in the hearing:

“Let me ask my last question of this round, and let me ask it of you, Mr. Hull. The Blue Ribbon Panel report indicates that this is the end of the third cycle of similar accidents with ex-military aircraft. It is clear from much of the information that you cited in the report that the Forest Service and the BLM and NASA have all studied these air-worthiness issues in the past. In all of the information in the old reports that the Blue Ribbon Panel studied, was there any indication that the FAA, the Forest Service, and the BLM’s disconnect on air worthiness had been identified in the past?

Mr. Hull: Certainly as we looked at past information, and the third cycle that you are referring to whereby military aircraft would be acquired, they would be used for a while, then various types of accidents would occur, and then we would start the cycle over again with a new set of planes. And we are reaching that point again now. There have been reports in the past, but like so many reports, studies, and so forth, we did find, I believe, that the lessons of some of the studies of the past simply had not been pursued to the degree that we are seeing with this one.”

The following from Mr. Hamilton confirms there were 44 large air tankers available in 2002.

“Well, there are a couple of things we are doing, Senator. As I mentioned earlier, 2 large air tankers have been returned to service and we are anticipating another 12 to 15, and that will be down from the 44 that were available last year [in 2002].”

Tony Kern:

“… we have an established need, for example, of 41 air tankers…”

Senator Thomas:

“You mentioned, Mr. Hull or Mr. Hall, that you think there is going to be follow-through in terms of the air worthiness for public use aircraft. Who is going to do that? How do you see that happening? Who is going to certify it and so on? And do you have any suggestions?”

Mr. Hall replied: “Senator, I am not aware that anyone is actually stepping into that responsibility at the moment. We had suggested, obviously, looking at the Canadian model where there is a certification process that is based on the environment in which these aircraft have to operate, and the Canadian government has a certification process in which maintenance and operational minimums and standards are established. I believe that there continues to be a hole in the whole area of public use aircraft and the responsibility for those aircraft.”

Senator Craig: (From Bill: this line of questioning relates to the lack of an intelligent policy for certifying the safety of “public aircraft” used by federal agencies, vs. “civil aircraft” used by civilian companies. The FAA assumes little responsibility for public aircraft, and leaves it up to a forestry agency, the U.S. Forest Service, to inspect the aircraft they have under contract. This issue was also contentious during the fallout from the 2008 crash of Carson’s S-61N helicopter on the Iron 44 Fire in California in which nine firefighters and pilots were killed. It was a major point of discussion during the NSTB forum about the Iron 44 report’s findings.)

(Senator Craig’s question:) “…Finally, collaboration among the many Federal and State agencies associated with firefighting, each with a different mission and culture, has created a situation where engaging all employees and contractors in a clearly defined task is difficult.

The Federal Aviation Agency has abrogated any–and this is the dark print–responsibility to ensure the continued air worthiness of public use aircraft, including ex-military aircraft converted to firefighting air tankers. Although these aircraft are awarded an FAA-type certification–I assume that is as they transition out of one service into another–the associated certification processes do not require testing and inspection to ensure that the aircraft are air worthy to perform their intended missions.

So I guess that also says that while they are certified out, they are not certified into the new mission based on, if you will, the protocol or the condition of that mission.

Now, and then FAA says, we do not have money or we do not follow the aircraft. And they argue absence of money. Do they argue absence of authority? Because they are certifying and that certification has a certain attitude about it, if you will, by all who see it and all who get it. Please respond to that, if you could.”

Mr. Hall, in response to Senator Craig: Mr. “Chairman, your comments are exactly on target. The fact that there is a certification has led unfortunately to an impression with many that these particular aircraft were certified for the new mission that they are to perform in the Forest Service. As you said, what it implies, of course, or what the FAA actually does is just accept the old military use as certification under a restricted use category of service.

In our meeting with the Federal Aviation Administration–and let me say at this point, Mr. Chairman, a point that Chairman Hull and I should have probably mentioned. We did attempt to meet with the Department of Defense, but were unsuccessful in doing that.

But in our meetings with the Federal Aviation Administration and with their most able Administrator, I think they would basically state that they do not have either the funding or the authority in this particular area.

This again leads me to the concern that I have had that the FAA is the aviation and air-worthiness authority for the U.S. Government and they have a structure in place where one category, public use aircraft, is then given to the General Services Administration or the FAA points to GSA as the coordinator for this, to me defies common sense. But it is a mission that the FAA traditionally has not had.”

Later, in summing up, Mr. Hall said:

“I would just like to stress, Mr. Chairman, what I view as the responsibility of this subcommittee and your counterpart. I think this area needs additional oversight.

There needs to be additional regulatory authority put in place, clear lines of authority drawn so that you know and the American people know who is accountable.

I think one of the things that probably has not been addressed this morning to the degree I would like to have seen because of the time is the whole contracting issue. If the procurement process is not changed so that these contractors are given adequate funds to put in place the safety programs that are required, I think we will be revisiting this issue again.

Mr. Kern said, in summing up:

“The one area we did not touch on, which I think is vitally important that we look into, is the systemic collection of data and analysis on how effective our retardant and water drops are. It is not air tankers or helicopters that assist the ground firefighter, it is water, foam, and retardant. And right now we do not have a very good pool of data to match the right tool to the right circumstance. So the Blue Ribbon Panel pointed that out. It was buried a little bit to us, but that one struck me as the real key to the kingdom for the future. So we need to push to get that data collection analysis process started.”

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting a 2003 congressional hearing about air tankers”

  1. Kind of frustrating, same old battles with no resolution. And the firefighters (aerial and ground) are the “foot” soldiers that become the pawns in a crazy game. Be safe out there. Fires will burn, budgets will be tight, but everyone deserves to go home when it’s over.

  2. Senator Craig:

    “Now, and then FAA says, we do not have money or we do not follow the aircraft. And they argue absence of money. Do they argue absence of authority?”

    -I would. Their is no real authority unless there are personnel to develop and carry out an inspection process with requisite funding (and an absence of political influence from private enterprise which does not want regulation). The line of Congressional talk quoted above is what I’ve heard for years…do more with less. Anyone observe the recent military budget hearings in Washington DC? I’ve noticed the same intent among some senators who are questioning why we spend so much on our military but at the same time expect the U.S. to project a global presence.

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