Are we running out of air tankers?

The U. S. Forest Service has said that by 2012 the existing 19 large air tankers currently approved for use by the federal agencies will be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy. The average age of the large air tankers is 50 years old.

Discussions about this have been going on since at least 2005 when Congress directed the USFS to come up with a strategic plan for procuring and managing aircraft for fighting wildfires. But that plan has never seen the light of day.

The new Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Jay Jensen said the agency is working on the plan and it might be released by the end of the year. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) suggests that the plan should be released by September 30 so that it can be considered when preparing the next fiscal year’s budget.

According to a September 2, 1987 story in the New York Times, during the huge lightning bust in northern California when firefighters were battling hundreds of fires that year, they were assisted by 48 air tankers. In 2002 there were 44. Now we are down to 19, and according to the USFS that number could drop to zero in three years, unless some out-of-the-box decision making occurs.

Inspector General’s report

A report by the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General assumes the replacement air tankers will have to be purchased, “due to the lack of manufacturers with this type of aircraft willing to lease them at a reasonable rate”. The USFS does actually rent, or lease, their lead planes and some other aircraft, but renting or purchasing air tankers would be a paradigm shift away from the current business plan of exclusive use contracts for the privately owned 50-year old air tanker fleet.

$2.5 billion for new air tankers

The Forest Service has requested $2.5 billion to purchase a fleet of air tankers. The Inspector General’s report said the USFS needs to strengthen its justification for acquiring them. In addition, the report said they should develop a project team to oversee acquisition. The Forest Service replied they would only establish a project team after Congress approves the budget request for the aircraft, while the Inspector General said it should be established immediately.

Some thoughts-

Geeze. If someone is trying to give you $2.5 billion for a new fleet of air tankers, shouldn’t you accept their suggestions? And, what about finishing and releasing that replacement plan that was due in 2005?

The project team for replacing air tankers should have been established in 2002.

What is going on here? Arrogance? Laziness? A lack of accountability? Thinking that if we ignore the problem of aging air tankers it will go away? Yes, the air tankers may go away, but what will replace them?

And is anyone considering a purpose-built large air tanker that could carry at least 3,000 gallons of retardant that could maneuver in and out of canyons? That could take years to design and build. It’s too bad no one saw this problem coming, say, in 2002 when two very old air tankers, a C-130 and a PB4Y, broke apart in mid-air and killed five people.

If smart, proactive, decisive action had occurred then, by 2012 we would have had a shiny new fleet of safe, effective, purpose-built air tankers. But the Forest Service is STILL dragging their feet, seven years later. Maybe “by the end of this year” they will finish a replacement plan that was due in 2005? Can’t we do better than that?

I used to tell my firefighters, when urging them to be fire-ready at all times, “What if there was a fire–right now? Are you ready?” Will the United States be ready for a fire in 2012?

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

5 thoughts on “Are we running out of air tankers?”

  1. The last A10A was built in 1984. The remaining in service ones are being rebuilt into the A10C. The retired ones are being used for parts to keep the rest flying. They also have wing issues. 242 new wing sets are being built for them. 25 years old AND 6 conflicts under their belt, not sure they would be in any better shape then the current fleet.I think we will see a mixed fleet of SEATs, some CL415s and Helitankers for IA. A mix Modified Q-300 class, C-27J class and C-130J aircraft to replace the current heavys. Also I don’t see many more VLATs for various reasons. Unfortunately there is no way an all new purpose designed airframe will happen to replace the heavys. Just too costly for the numbers involved.

  2. There seems to be a small but vocal number of folks ready to blame any and all problems in the world of wildland fire on the fact that the Natural Resource agencies are managed by Foresters and others with Natural Resource backgrounds; the air tanker issue is just another example. The real issue here will not change if the next head of the USFS or another resource agency is a life-long member of IAFF or FWFSA: it’s all about MONEY. There’s not enough in the Federal or State budgets to pay for all the things that everyone needs/wants/wishes for/covets/desires. Wildland fire must also stand in line with the Military, Social Security, CitiGroup, General Motors, Food Stamps ans health care reform. Even big cities and Counties with "real fire guys/girls" as their Heads don’t get what they want: ask the ex-Fire Chief in San Diego who quit a few years back after being turned down on his equipment and staffing request. Life is all about making choices and setting priorities: the billions of $$ for the deveklopment and purchase of a new air tanker fleet hasn’t risen up on the National priority chart yet compared to Iraq, health care and the multiple bailouts. Replaciong Foresters with red underwear Fire Dawgs won’t change that fact!

  3. There sould be some off the shelf aircraft. Late models C-130s, just add on to an current military contract, the canidian scoopers, S-64s. Sometimes it’s hard to think and act outside of the box.Chuck Brainered looked outside of the box 10 years or so ago when he brought the first S-60 Fire Hawk, it took a lot of work but now they are up and flying. I watched it unloaded off a ship in this country and arrive at it’s first fire assignment once he cleared away all the red tape. I look foward to the day aircraft are not way older then the pilots flying them.

  4. This article reminded me of my fun days as an IR ground pounder and the wide variety of bombers I experienced. Shades of WWII. The F7F looked like it was all manueverable muscle. It still stands in my memories as just that.So I got to thinking. Does the Military have a modern day war bird that might convert to a powerful and manueverable retardant bomber with a sizable load capacity? And it came to me. The A-10 Warthog. Its specs are impressive. They are still being built and are essentially guaranteed to be part of the Military until, I think 2028. Heck. Of course I don’t know. But just imagine a red and white A-10 dropping in on you almost at treetop or brush level. Duck! And hold on to your helmet!!

  5. Unfortunatly, It is a lack of accountability that is to blame. No one seems to care because the agency heads are foresters and not fire fighters. Until we have a seperation and create wildland fire agencys aside from forest service agencys it will never change. This needs to happen on state and federal levels.


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