The U. S. Forest Service has cancelled their contract for six large air tankers. Due to Aero Union “failing to meet its contractual obligations” their P-3 air tankers are no longer available for wildfires. In April, 2011 the company had eight P-3 air tankers that were grounded for a few days because of “issues found during aircraft inspection on one of the P-3s”. Since then it appears that two of their eight P-3’s were removed from the contract, leaving the six that today’s announcement said are now off contract as well. The air tankers that are now out of service are T-17, T-21, T-22, T-23, T-27 and T-00.
This leaves 11 large air tankers remaining on exclusive use contracts, all P2V’s. With all of the eggs now in the same basket, if a problem is found that grounds all P2V’s, we are down to zero air tankers under federal exclusive use contracts. Contrast that with the 44 that were on contract in 2002. Nine of the eleven remaining P2V’s are operated by Neptune out of Missoula, MT. Minden Air out of Minden, NV has two P2V’s under contract.
The USFS has refused to put the very large air tankers (VLAT) under exclusive use contracts, and only offered call when needed (CWN) contracts, with no minimum hour or day guarantee, for the DC-10’s and the 747, operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Evergreen. 10 Tanker reluctantly signed the CWN contract with the USFS, but Evergreen did not. As we wrote only yesterday, both companies have told Wildfire Today that they will have difficulty continuing to operate their very large air tankers if they are only occasionally used on fires. They are large, complex, single-purpose aircraft and can’t be diverted like helicopters can, to other uses such as law enforcement or news. CalFire’s CWN contract for the DC-10’s specifies a 5-day minimum.
To summarize, the USFS now has only 11 large air tankers under exclusive use contracts, 33 fewer than we had in 2002. The two DC-10’s are under a CWN contract.
We have ranted on several occasions about the sad state of the aging air tanker fleet. It has been nine years since two very old military surplus air tankers literally fell apart in mid air in 2002, killing five crew members, prompting the permanent grounding of about 57% of the ancient large air tankers. You would think that the US Forest Service and the other federal land management agencies would have immediately taken steps to reconstitute the large air tanker fleet. Well they did take steps, but not enough to lead to any action other than commissioning study after study. The issue has been studied to death. It is long past time to make a damn decision and do something. SOMETHING!
The last study that was commissioned was due in January, 2011, but the Rand Corporation did not deliver it on time. Now it is expected in August, and we’ll see if it spurs action, or if like the others, it collects dust on a shelf.
Most firefighters, and especially higher level fire managers, are genetically programmed to evaluate facts and to be decisive. This appalling situation leads me to believe that firefighters are not a significant part of this decision making process.
Analysis Paralysis as defined in the Urban Dictionary:
Analysis Paralysis is the total inability to reach a decision. Found often in the business and corporate setting. Usually a condition caused by nit picking managers and owners. The primary source is management/owner requests for more information, reports, studies, statistics, evaluations, opinion, and research on a subject. All of this requested research and study is accompanied by endless, mindless, discussions in multiple meetings regarding the subject and the compiled information. The end result is no decision is made because the efforts placed to garner information and hold endless meetings and discussions are viewed as progress on the subject matter.
Hey did management ever decide if we were going to get extra donuts on donut day? Are you kidding me? They spent $2,000 on a cost analysis, accounting is still crunching cost figures and they have been discussing it for 9 months. It is in the company’s usual state of total analysis paralysis.
At the Aerial Firefighting Conference held in Washington, DC last May, Frank Gladics, professional staff member with the U.S. Senate energy and natural resources committee, addressed the report that some in the USFS would like to replace the aging fleet of large air tankers with 20 to 30 C-130Js at a cost of $80 to $85 million each. Gladics said funding is not available for such a massive purchase, and…
We need a more diverse fleet. . . . Go back and look at alternate aircraft, including water-scooping aircraft. Our forests, the resources and communities can’t wait another 10 years while you wait for the existing fleet to become inoperable in hopes Congress will be forced to buy you that Ferrari you want.
Here is the complete text of the news release the USFS issued today, July 29:
US Forest Service Cancels Airtanker Contract with Aero Union
California company did not meet agency’s safety standards
WASHINGTON, July 29, 2011–The U.S. Forest Service announced today that it has terminated its contract with Aero Union of Sacramento, Calif., because the company failed to meet its contractual obligations. The company was providing six airtankers under exclusive-use contracts to the Forest Service.
“Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices” said Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program. “This contract termination notwithstanding, we possess the aircraft support needed for this year’s fire season.”
The Forest Service has access to additional aviation assets to meet operational needs. Two other private companies provide 11 large airtankers under exclusive-use contracts. In addition, there are two very large airtankers available through a “call when needed” contract, as well as eight military firefighting aircraft.
The five-year contract the Forest Service signed with Aero Union in 2008 required participation in a continued airworthiness program, which included a Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program. In April 2011, Aero Union informed the Forest Service that the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with its mandated structural inspection program requirements.
More information about the aging air tanker fleet on Wildfire Today:
- Washington Post: Firefighting planes have perhaps been too long on job
- Congressional hearing topics: air tankers, and USFS reduces workforce
- Report from the Aerial Firefighting Conference held in Washington, DC, May 25-26
- Cheap air tankers cost lives
- Are we running out of air tankers?
- Aerial firefighting group issues statement about large air tankers
The Sacramento Bee has an article that includes reactions from the chief executive officer for Aero Union.
Thanks go out to Dick and Ken
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