Air tankers in the news

S2 loading

S2 loadingFor the last two weeks air tankers have been in the news much more than normal. Even before the two air tanker incidents on June 3, when Tanker 11 crashed killing the two pilots and Tanker 55 landed on disabled landing gear, there was more interest by the news media on the subject than you would normally see. But with the two crashes happening hours apart, this became a story that most large and small news organizations wanted to carry. It was an easy topic for them to grab onto — two dead firefighting heroes, a remarkable landing captured on video with landing gear that failed to extend, a tanker fleet reduced by 80 percent over the last 10 years, museum-age crashing airplanes, Senators issuing press releases calling for GAO investigations, the President signs a bill about air tankers, and contracts are awarded for seven “next generation” jet-powered air tankers.

Since June 1 we have been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including (in chronological order) KSFR radio in Santa Fe, The Guardian newspaper and web site, ABC news in Denver, Colorado Public Radio, Associated Press, ABC news in New York City, and the Denver Post. No doubt this is just a passing fancy. When the monsoon rains begin in a few weeks and the fires in the southwest and Colorado become a distant memory, interest in air tankers will decline and joggers on the Capitol Mall in Washington will hear a sigh of relief emanating from the U.S. Forest Service offices in the Department of Agriculture building. Unless — heaven forbid, another Korean War vintage air tanker crashes killing more firefighters, or more mega-fires burn hundreds of houses in another part of the country and there are not enough air tankers to go around, again.

The addition of seven air tankers to the existing nine, while it is helpful, is not a long-term solution to the air tanker shortage. Neither is the temporary addition of eight borrowed from Alaska, Canada, and California. The USFS should have awarded contracts for at least 20 additional air tankers, not 7.

It will be interesting to see over the next year if the USFS develops a detailed long-term strategy for aerial firefighting which meets the approval of the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, two offices that have been critical of the USFS’s previous air tanker reports. Then, Congress will need a specific, detailed proposal that they can consider, and we will see if the *Senators and Congressmen who have called for changes in the air tanker program will support improvements by actually doing something meaningful, rather than just talking and writing letters.

*Senators that have questioned the U.S. Forest Service’s management of the air tanker program include Ron Wyden of OR, Jon Kyl, AZ; Lisa Murkowski, AK; Jeff Bingaman, NM; Ron Wyden, OR; Mark Udall, CO; Jon Tester, MT; and Dianne Feinstein, CA.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

27 thoughts on “Air tankers in the news”

  1. How about we quit building houses made of sticks in canyons filled with sticks? I think we are about the only country in the world where this is ok, and not only that, homeowners and landowners expect a bailout if their stick filled canyon catches fire. Being the devils advocate, why should my tax dollars be spent on air tankers to save the homes of elite suburbanites?

    1. Dodge: I agree, to a certain extent, with one point I think you are making, in that there is a lot that homeowners and governments can do to ensure that structures are built of fire resistant materials and they have reduced the flammable vegetation within 100 feet. But it is not a simple, binary, black and white choice, such as: people living in urban areas vs. people living outside of urban areas, or air tankers vs. no air tankers, or “elite” residents vs. non-elite residents. The reality is, people will always live outside of urban areas, we will not in the foreseeable future see every home become fire-safe, and air tankers are one tool in the firefighters tool box that is sometimes appropriate which can, under the right conditions, be effective on initial attack, slowing rates of spread, and point protection if an adequate number of firefighters are on the ground to take advantage of the drops.

      1. Back in my days as a co-pilot
        for Butler I lived in Port Orford,
        I was clearing brush around
        my in law’s place, Had my brush cutter and Chipper running, neighbor came over and complained.”Why are you doing this?! ” I repiled. “I;m clearing the brush around the place to reduce fire danger.”
        “You are making too much
        noise!”. I’said:”Fritz, it’s either I
        make too much noise now, or I
        make bigger noise when come
        over from Medford in my DC-7
        to put the fire out.”
        He tought about it and borrowed my Chipper when i was done with it…

      2. I would really like to see empirical evidence that illustrates lat effectiveness in initial attack. Perhaps the pilots could chime in here…

        1. Dodge, the Pilots have better things to do right now; aka, assisting the “boots on the ground” right now, in case you haven’t noticed! I’m pretty sure they’ll “chime in” when America stops burning!

        2. Dodge – “emperical evidence” in our business is hard to come by; this is NOT a science experiment, it’s real life. We use the tools we have and make our best judgement based upon experience and training to decide if it made a difference. To have science-based evaluation, we’d need multiple ignitions under exactly the same fuels, weather and terrain conditions and then vary the IA forces: some with air tankers, others without, all for the sake of providing you “empirical evidence.” Want your home and property to be in the above scenario WITHOUT air support? Yes, some air tanker drops are unnecessary, and others are ineffective; wanna take a chance and suffer the consequences if you don’t make the A/T Resource Order and the fire goes big time? A month of our expenditures in Iraq and Afghan would fund the A/T program into the 22nd Century – it’s all about priorities and political clout.

    2. I’ll be devils advocate….. If,Dodge, God forbid you love bacon (and I do not, say) and you leave is on the stove too long and start your kitchen on fire…. Should you expect that the good folk of your city or town be required to pay a tax for the fire dept. to respond to your emergency???? Not my problem, right? I don’t eat bacon.

      1. That falls within a bacon exemption clause….

        Because I chose to live in a city and I agreed to pay taxes for city fire suppression, yes I do expect them to put my fire out.

        I think the same logic should fall on folks that choose to live in the wui. If they want to build a house made of sticks in a canyon filled with sticks and expect an air tanker to show up, let them foot the bill.

        1. It is my guess that pretty much the same percentage of people that live in stick houses in the sticks, pay taxes, as well. I am not suggesting that there is no responsibility to those who live in the WUI. I am simply saying that they are entitled to a service. Yep! Just like the chain smoker who falls asleep with a lit cigarette in an apartment in big city America.. Does the analogy make sense now? Even those that you might consider to be “stupid” people deserve the service that they pay for.

          1. In this case of entitlement, I think we should be proactive through (fuels treatments) rather than reactive (supression and more Heavy Iron Airsupport). Spend the money on boots on the ground and not whirrly birds and photo opp planes.

  2. Where did you get the old picture of the round motor S2 with 70’s/80’s paint job? Looks like SoCal.

  3. Bill,
    You have provided some very intresting comments and accurate information on this very complex issue. There are several parties involoved, contractors attempting to provide a service and make money, numerous govermental agencies, rules and regulations, political powers, Washington D.C. a world apart from everthing else, the military, property owners in harms way, the public taxpayer and out there on the fire line in the heat, smoke, dust and damn hard work the firefighter.

    I agree with you that this is problem that should have been faced head-on 15-20 years ago and not sent to the graveyard of additional study.

  4. I wish everyone would quit calling the P-2’s “Heavy Air Tankers”. There are Mediums, Type-2, air tankers. The only “Heavy Air Tankers in service today are Tanker 4, T-911 (and 910) and the MAFFS. They are the only aircraft that can carry 3000 gallons or more.

    1. You bring up an interesting point, Goeroge. Using adjectives to describe a firefighting resource can lead to confusion. We should probably use “Types” instead. Here is what the Red Book in Chapter 16 says about Air Tanker Types:

      Categories
      Airtanker types are distinguished by their retardant load:
      • Type 1 – 3,000 gallons
      • Type 2 – 1,800 to 2,999 gallons
      • Type 3 – 800 to 1,799 gallons
      • Type 4 – 799 gallons (single engine airtankers)

      I can’t find an official source that assigns adjectives to air tanker types. Can you provide a link?

      And, you probably mean Tanker 40, the BAe-146 with a 3,000-gallon capacity, rather than “Tanker 4”.

      We should also add the 747 and the Martin Mars to the list of Type 1 Air Tankers.

      1. Martin Mars is not an Airtanker. It does not carry retardant. It is a Water Scooping Aircraft like the 215s. They fall under a different category.

  5. Well, actually in Oregon Butler still operates
    DC7’s on state contracts so they are not completely]
    gone..

  6. Bill, You are exactly right about the way in which urgency trumps all in a fire season. IMHO what is needed is about $500M (not 25M) to put a long term fleet of modern aircraft in place. Personally, I’m a C-130J fan with a government owned, contractor maintained and operated (10 year contract) fleet of 30-40 Type I’s, supplemented with what’s left of the Type 2 and SEAT fleets. As you know, these are initial attack resources, and the Type 1/2 helos are still are best resources to help the ground pounders get their lines secured. Keep up the good work.

    1. Ask the ASM & Lead Plane pilots as well as the ground folks what they think of the MAFFS drop patterns. Probably the last resource most would order. Nothing against the fine aircrews, just the drop pattern is very narrow. With the cost of that resource the product should be better than mediocre.

  7. I would like to know if there is another fireretardant beside the red liquid they use now?

  8. One never reads about the fires that are handled by Initial Attack Aircraft, Many times SEATs.

    1. The USDA and DOI need to do a better job of tracking success so that we can better understand what went right and wrong.

  9. “No one reads about those fires” keep up the good work. Isn’t three hours a little long for the “initial” on the High Park. Give the SEAT guys a fighting chance! Lack of air tankers is only one of the big problems, a broken dispatch system certainly needs to be addressed. i.e South Canyon.

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