The Helicopter Association International web site has posted a statement written by the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association concerning the long-term availability of large air tankers. Here is the statement:
Large Airtankers Available for 2011 Fire Season
Numerous reports, blogs, and press releases continue to perpetuate the rumor that the current fleet of large airtankers used to fight wildland fires are going to be unavailable after 2012. These rumors are extremely misleading and totally false, and AHSAFA would like to set the record straight.
The privately operated large airtankers continue to be a viable component of wildland firefighting. Since 2005, the US Forest Service (USFS) has required all large airtanker operators to institute a comprehensive Continuous Airworthiness Program (CAP) in addition to the normal, routine maintenance requirements. Under the program, the operator must spell out an extensive inspection, and parts replacement plan, which must be verifiable with appropriate data and documentation. Additionally, all inspections under the CAP must be completed on schedule. This is why, contrary to current rumor, no law or regulation has mandated a phase out of the large tankers starting in 2012–or any other date– and why the industry believes the fleet is expected to remain airworthy for at least another 10-12 years of service.
Aero Union Corporation of Sacramento, California, and Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Montana are the major operators of the large airtankers under contract to the USFS. To assure the continued airworthiness of the Lockheed P-2V and P-3 airtankers, an extensive fatigue and damage tolerance assessment was carried out on the aircraft between April 2004 and August 2007 by an FAA-qualified, independent consulting firm, under a USFS contract.
For Aero Union’s eight P-3 aircraft, the average airframe hours are 17,040, with one as low as 13,900. In comparison, the current U.S. Navy P-3 aircraft averages over 20,000 hours.
The nine Neptune P-2 airtankers have a fleet average of just 9,500 flight hours on their airframes, with some aircraft, as little as 3,000 hours. New FAA requirements for continued airworthiness have even extended the service life of the aircraft.
The chart below shows the numbers of aircraft by type and the life expectancy of the majority of the existing large airtanker fleet. The chart is based on airtanker data from Aero Union and Neptune Aviation. Note the first major reduction of available aircraft doesn’t occur until 2019.
In spite of the rigorous maintenance oversight to insure the continued airworthiness of the airtankers, the industry agrees these aircraft will eventually reach the end of their service life and no longer be economical to operate. The current efforts by the USFS and the private sector are producing positive and specific solutions to the large airtanker challenge without any intervention and expansion of the role of any Federal agencies. The USFS and this association are actively addressing immediate and future large airtanker needs and together there has been significant progress in federal contracting strategies that provide the private sector with financial strategies that will position the private sector to be responsive to the need for modernized aerial firefighting assets. One of the important changes in contracting strategies requires Congress to provide the USFS with authority to contract for longer periods of time than the existing five year options. Ten year contracts would allow the private sector numerous financial options when procuring new large airtanker aircraft.
The public should rest assured the current large airtanker operators are mission-ready for deployment to any wildland fire at a moment’s notice and are currently under contract to the US Forest Service to fly on wildfires anywhere in the United States.
UPDATE by Wildfire Today @ 7:50 p.m. MT, February 17
List of federally contracted large air tankers in 2010 revised March 30, 2010
Notice of Heavy Airtanker Forum Meeting, Boise, ID, November 16, 2010