Cheap air tankers cost lives

air tanker contract 2010Awarding air tanker contracts to the lowest bidders may at first sound like good fiscal management, but it means that the only aircraft private operators can afford to supply at those low prices are 40 to 60 year old military aircraft that were determined by one government agency to be no longer practical to operate. And then another agency, The U. S. Forest Service, without thinking, operates them through a contractor, using them on missions for which they were not designed, flying low and slow, into, and usually out of canyons.

A “Blue Ribbon Panel”, chaired by former NTSB Chairman James E. Hall, evaluated the air tanker program following the two crashes in 2002 in which the wings fell off very old military surplus aircraft, killing their crews. The panel issued a report in December, 2002, which said in part:

Federal agencies responsible for wildland aerial firefighting have adopted a widespread, short-term pursuit of cost-efficiency. A narrow cost-focus is evident in Forest Service and BLM contracts that do not reward value, performance, or safety.

Contractors have no financial incentive and are not required to ensure that their aircraft are safe to fly. A low contractual standard for ensuring the safety of large air tankers through strong inspection and maintenance programs might financially penalize, at least in the short run, more conscientious operators who choose to maintain a higher safety standard.

The panel believes obtaining and outfitting newer military aircraft, such as C-130s and P-3s, would only perpetuate a cycle that has proven to be unsustainable and dangerous. Unless the FAA and operator community change its methods, one could expect to see another cycle of structural failures and pilot fatalities within a decade or two.

The panel heard presentations indicating that it is currently possible to develop a fleet of purpose-built, turbine-engine, fixed-wing air tankers based on well-defined requirements. Air Tractor, Inc. and Pyronautics, Inc. presented concepts for multiengine air tankers designed specifically for the aerial firefighting environment. The companies suggested that they would be interested in developing such aircraft if the federal government sought credible proposals, and backed them with contracts compatible with sound business acumen. Some proposed that because the Forest Service and Department of Interior agencies are not well suited to conduct an aircraft acquisition program, they might consider using an “executive agent” to handle everything from contracting to aircraft flight testing and production. The panel notes that the Department of Defense has established a workable precedent. For example, the United States Air Force is the Pentagon’s designated agent for procuring defense satellites for all the military services.

Chuck Bushey, who keeps records of wildland fire fatalities, reports that from 1958 through 2009 there were 162 deaths in air tanker crashes, which is an average of 3.11 fatalities each year. The last 20 years, 1990 through 2009, has seen an improvement in the fatality rate, with 31 crashes of large air tankers and single engine air tankers, resulting in 50 deaths — an average of 1.55 each year. Driving an air tanker has to be one of the most hazardous occupations in the world. We need to do everything we can to provide those drivers with safe, state of the art equipment —  not discarded ex-military crap.

As we have said previously, here and here, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management need to procure a modern, safe fleet of air tankers that has advanced, redundant safety systems, and that do not suffer from the metal fatigue that has caused so many crashes and fatalities in the past. Using worn out aircraft that have been thrown away by the military is not the answer, even if they are 20 to 40 years younger than the antiques currently flying over our fires which have an average age of 50.

It is unlikely that the existing air tanker contractors would be able to afford to purchase 5 to 15 new, purpose-built air tankers each, so the government will need to procure them, and then have them operated, supported, and maintained by contractors.

Twenty years ago we had 44 large air tankers under contract, compared to 18 now that are under exclusive use contracts. Let’s aim for a modern fleet of 30. Or, do I hear 35?

C-27J Spartan
C-27J Spartan

How much would that cost? It depends of course on which aircraft is selected, but a new C-130J that has not been configured as an air tanker costs about $62 million. In 2007 the Department of Defense awarded a contract for the acquisition of 78 new C-27J Spartan aircraft for a cost of about $25 million each. Airworthiness compliance and adding a tank could cost up to $2 million.  The C-27J can carry a 25,353-pound payload, which might work out to a retardant capacity of 2,000 to 2,500 gallons; perhaps more if the interior was stripped. A CL-415 costs $26 million to $31 million. A billion dollars, plus operating expenses, should buy 28 to 35 new air tankers. Two to three times that amount would be needed if C-130J’s were purchased.

We wrote in August, 2009:

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.

Geeze. If someone is trying to help you get $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.

In addition to new purpose-built aircraft that have not even been built yet (as offered by Air Tractor, Inc.), some of the aircraft that could be considered for a new fleet would include:

  1. BAe-146-200 (British)
  2. Be-200 (Russian)
  3. CL-415 (Canadian)
  4. C-27J Spartan (American and Italian)
  5. DC-10
  6. 747
  7. JL-600 (Chinese)
  8. (What else?)

The U. S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior should:

  • August 1, 2010; establish an “executive agent” or “integrated team” (as the OIG recommended) to handle the contracting, flight testing, and production of new air tankers.
  • October 1, 2010; complete tests of existing candidate air tankers that have not been previously evaluated by the Interagency Air Tanker Board.
  • December 1, 2010; issue a request for proposals from aircraft manufacturers for a purpose-built, multi-engine air tanker designed specifically for the aerial firefighting environment.
  • March 1, 2011; make a decision about the procurement of a new fleet of 30 large air tankers, i.e., which aircraft will be purchased. Determine the cost of procurement and operation, and request that Congress appropriate the funds.
  • October 1, 2011; award contract for 30 new air tankers to be owned by the federal government, but operated, supported, and maintained by contractors.

This time-line is a little optimistic, and assumes that the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Congress would operate at maximum efficiency. Pie in the sky? No, lives are at stake here, and maximum efficiency, not the current apathy, is necessary. If implemented, this would most likely result in new large air tankers being available in 2014 to 2016, which is two to four years after the 2012 date, beyond which the USFS said “air tankers currently approved for use by the federal agencies will be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy”.

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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.

11 thoughts on “Cheap air tankers cost lives”

  1. The USFS does not need to go buy brand new tankers. They have 65 P-3Cs which is the newest version of the orions. The navy gave the forest service full control of them. all the forest service has to do is give some of them to aero union or neptune. yes i know it is still a surplus military aircraft but there lifetime hours are all under half of what their max lifetime flight hours are. with 65 more P-3s out there as tankers that would extend our tanker fleet for another 20 to 30 years while a cost effective replacement can be found and one that is not government owned.

  2. That is precisely the point I was trying to make. That is the most telling data available.

    As part of the “Low Level Loads” (L3) working group I worked closely with with Mr. Steven Hall, two FAA personnel and other AFF Industry operators on the implementation of a loads monitoring program. The NASA report might be the most telling at the time the BRP convened, but was not even close within a year of the iisuance of the final BRP report.

    I must also point out, that while it was the only thing the BRP could tabgibly lay it’s hands on in the course of its investigation, L3’s experience showed the NASA DC-6 Loads data to be seriously flawed.

    The loads data that was gathered on the DC-6’s was done with unsophisticated “counting accelerometers”, not strain gages measuring engineering units of strain to measure the structural response to imposed loads to determine when the structural loads transitioned from elastic to plastic. This caused many inaccurate assumptions to be drawn from that data. This is not to say the DC-6 data is worthless, just that it must be interpreted against other more accurate data in order to draw the proper conclusion.

  3. The discussion about replacing the current fleet, remaining, surviving fleet with “purpuse built” aircraft does not take into account there is no such thing.

    Now before I am assailed keep in mind that to have a “purpose built” airtanker, under modern standards which should include FAR Part 25.571C, you must first develop a “Load Environment Spectra Survey” also known as a “LESS”. Such a survey allows development of the loads data to know and understand the operating environment and the structural response envelope in which the structure will be expected to operate. Armed with that knowledge, one can design not only a structure capable of withstanding the loads it will be expected to tolerate, but also develop a structural inspection program designed for the structure in it’s specific operating environment. Not even the CL-215, 215T, CL-415, that Russion jet contraption or anything else devised was designed around known loads data. They used assumptions based on what only those designers, engineers, etc. know.

    The opportunity to develop the information was not exploited and so does not exist today leaving a dearth of engineering data to work from. The situation as it has developed or deteriorated to today doesn’t mean we can’t use non-purpose built aircraft for the role. Having said that, we need to understand the environment and tailor operating limitations and inspection criteria specific to a particular aircraft model around a known operating environment from the persective of the structure.

    1. Some data is available about the stresses on air tankers, but I don’t know if that would be suffcient to develop the “LESS” that you describe. Here is an excerpt from the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel report, on page 14:


      The most telling data came from a 1974 NASA Langley Research Center report, “Operating Experiences of Retardant Bombers During Firefighting Operations”. The report summarized findings from two well-instrumented Douglas DC-6B air tankers that flew 415 flights and made 1,175 retardant drops in the northwestern mountains of the United States during two fire seasons.


      The report can be found here:

  4. Hey Bill,

    Can you find out why on EARTH the tail number was erased off that photo on the cover of the 2010 Exclusive Use contract? Whose numbnuts idea was that? WHY? That’s bizarre.

    (Or did you just photoshop it out to weird out your readers?)

    1. I noticed that too, that the large air tanker number was missing from the tail. I assumed that the USFS photoshopped it, not wanting to be biased toward any one contractor, and they wanted it to appear to be a generic air tanker. And no, I did not edit the image.

  5. Good analysis of the situation, Bill, and very well written. I really need to think that our federal cooperators need to go out on a Request For Proposal basis and secure our fixed wing vendors on a “Best Value” system, and have an interagency board select the vendors based on attributes of equipment,safety record, training, etc. The big elephant sitting in that room would be the political cover needed at the Congressional level once the vendors not awarded the contracts start making calls to their Representatives and Senators. But it must be done in the name of firefighter safety.

  6. Excellent article Bill. Great synopsis in my opinion as to why the Forest Service should not be involved with any emergency services operations.

  7. I agree that a new fleet of 30-35 purpose built tankers, complete with redundant systems, would be a great thing. However, that’s not the way things work.

    I can see the P-2s being either canceled like minuteman was or quickly phased out in the next few years, but they’ll do it half-assed with planes like a BAe-146.

    The P-3s are old, but will remain in service and we all know why. Orions have not been crashing on a regular basis, and until they do no one high up will look at it. Like the pilot I was talking to just yesterday said, they’ll wait until they see payment in blood.

    Right now everyone seems content with watching the P-2s closely, using more type 3 helis and buckets, and simply trying to cut down on the amount of actual drops made.

  8. Hi,

    In 2003 a number of Air Tanker Operators developed the Strategic Aerial Firefighting Excellence (SAFE) Report which looked at the feasibility of different options from an operational, safety and financial perspective. This report can be found at:

    It addresses many of the OIG recommendations and explains why some of the current economic models do not lend themselves to newer aircraft.

    One wonders why it has taken the USFS and OIG seven years to catch up!


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