A crew of retired and current aviation professionals has been assembled to conduct the sixth in an unending series of air tanker and helicopter studies. We wrote about this latest study on June 7 after it was awarded by the U.S. Forest Service to AVID LLC, a company in Virginia. While I could not find any mention of air tankers or wildfire on AVID’s web site except in mentioning one possible function of an unmanned aerial vehicle, the effect of that apparent lack of experience may be minimized by their shrewd hiring of a staff of experts for this $380,000 contract.
Dennis Hulbert, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service after serving as the Aviation Officer for the California Region, told Wildfire Today that he is a part of an assembled a group of professionals that will conduct the study with AVID. The team includes a retired National Assistant Director (Aviation), a Fire Planner/Forest Fire Management Officer/Incident Commander, several retired NASA employees, and some “Industry Professionals PHD- types”. In addition, AVID has some unique aircraft synthesis and analytical tools that can be used to assist these folks.
The AVID/Hulbert group will be guided by an in-house collection of federal employees who are subject matter specialists.
Mr. Hulbert believes that his group needs to define performance measures for firefighting aircraft that would be acceptable to the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, both of which have been critical of the USFS’s earlier air tanker proposals for procuring expensive Lockheed C-130J aircraft costing $80-90 million each. Tom Harbour, National Director for Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, and Mark Rey, former Undersecretary of Agriculture (a position that oversees the USFS) who is now a lobbyist for Lockheed, have both recommended the purchase of C-130Js, but Mr. Harbour may be moving away from that position.
In addition to defining air tanker performance measures, the group should also define them for the U.S. Forest Service, such as an implementation schedule, with dates and names of responsible officials, for moving forward. Accountability can be an effective tool.
The Forest Service should have made decisions about the long-term composition of the fire aviation fleet 10 or 20 years ago. But since they continued to kick the can down the road year after year, and crash after fatal crash, this approach, wielding the expertise of actual wildfire aviation professionals, might be what it will take to move the process forward. Aviation professionals were used in the first four of the earlier studies (and there may have been some on the secret RAND study), but little followup occurred.