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:
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.
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.