Secretary of Agriculture responds to Senators’ concerns about air tankers

DC10 dropping
Tanker-911, a DC 10 airtanker, drops retardant on the Wallow fire above Greer, AZ, as the Del Rosa Hotshots wait in a safety zone, June 11, 2011. USFS photo by Kari Greer

The Secretary of Agriculture said in a letter to congress that large air tankers, such as the P2V, are often more effective and provide faster response than very large air tankers like the 747 and DC-10.

Wildfire Today has obtained a copy of a letter that Thomas Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, sent to Senator Lisa Murkowski and other senators who expressed concerns about the management of the federal air tanker fleet. Mr. Vilsack’s letter, dated March 29, 2012, is a very late response to a letter that the senators wrote on February 10, 2012. We can speculate on the timing of Mr. Vilsack’s response, but it comes shortly after a highly publicized letter dated March 27, 2012 that Senators Murkowski,Jeff Bingaman, Ron Wyden, and Dianne Feinstein wrote to the Government Accountability Office requesting an “independent third-party review….of the Forest Service and the Interior agencies’ efforts since 2002 to identify the number and types of firefighting aircraft they believe are needed to respond to wildland fires”. Some of the topics the senators asked the GAO to consider in the March 29 letter included:

  • whether the methodologies the agencies used to evaluate the number and types of aircraft needed were appropriate in meeting current and anticipated wildland fire challenges;
  • whether the methodologies the agencies used to evaluate the best approaches for meeting these needs were comprehensive and inclusive;
  • what range of alternatives the agencies considered, as well as those they did not consider, in assessing their needs and the ways to meet them.

Mr. Vilsack, in his March 29 letter, told the senators that the solicitation for the “next generation” of large air tankers which closed on February 15, 2012:

…should provide up to three next generation large airtankers this year and up to ten additional airtankers in 2013, contingent upon private industry’s ability to develop, test, and gain approval of these aircraft.

He also said the Forest Service is collaborating this year with the Department of the Interior on two contracts to provide water scooper aircraft. For the last few years the DOI has contracted for two CL-215 water scoopers.

Mr. Vilsack’s letter places the blame on the state of Texas for not deploying very large air tankers to “the Texas fire situation” due to the “high cost” of the aircraft.

Here is another quote from Mr. Vilsack’s letter:

Large air tankers are often more effective and provide faster response than the very large airtankers. This is because the large air tanker fleet can be deployed across a broader geographic area. The current airtanker base system has been developed to minimize the distance to a fire from the base, with average airtnaker mission flights that are generally less than 50 minutes, round trip. Costs increase and efficiency is reduced when airtankers must fly longer distances, regardless of their speed.

As you noted, the draft RAND report of July 2010, which was a preliminary draft and not the final report, recommended that field evaluaiton of water scoopers and very large airtankers be done. The Forest Service has begun the Aerial Firefighting Effective Use and Efficiency Study, which will evaluate water scoopers, large airtankers, very large airtankers, and helicopters.

It is interesting that Mr. Vilsack says this additional study, the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years, will evaluate very large air tankers after they were specifically excluded from the 2010 study by the Rand Corporation which cost the USFS $840,092. The solicitation for the new study mentions large air tankers, but says nothing about very large air tankers:

Define the utility and operational parameters of large airtankers (LAT), heavy helicopters (defined as Type 1), and water scoopers in accomplishing the variety of aviation missions supporting wildfire management…

When you only have 11 air tankers, like last year, requiring that they be widely scattered across the United States making rapid initial attack only rarely possible, it is hard to support Mr. Vilsack’s characterization that very large air tankers are less effective than smaller air tankers. SOME additional air tankers, even if they can’t reload at every air tanker base, are better than none. Then there is the speed factor. The 11 P2Vs under contract now cruise at 225 mph while a 747 and DC-10 cruise at more than 550 mph. And the P2Vs carry 2,000 to 2,400 gallons, while the very large air tankers can hold five to ten times more, 11,600 to 20,000 gallons, requiring fewer trips back to an air tanker base to reload.

And I’m not saying very large air tankers are the answer to our air tanker shortage, but beggars can’t be choosers — we only have 25% of the fleet we had 10 years ago. Some of the money saved by not contracting for those additional 33 air tankers could be put toward alternatives, even if they are expensive. Air tankers don’t put out fires, firefighters on the ground do, but the very large air tankers could be one tool in the firefighters tool box, as part of a mix of aircraft including helicopters, single engine air tankers, scooper air tankers, and large air tankers.

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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.

13 thoughts on “Secretary of Agriculture responds to Senators’ concerns about air tankers”

  1. Interesting read above. I see one problem no one has addressed. It has been learned in the past that the amount of retardant, on a large fire, should not exceed the amount of line the ground pounders can provide. The effects of the retardant are diminished in time. If, and I say IF, the true initial attack theory was followed, a lot of fires could be contained. The #1roll of the tanker is to containment of the fire till ground personnel can get on the fire. Then it shifts to a support roll in supporting the ground personnel and catching any spot fires that occur. 20,000 gal of retardant line,on an unmanned fire, doesn’t do much good in most circumstances. However if the fire is “steered” by using smaller loads on the head and cooling hot spots, progress may be made. There is a place for VLATS and they are not the solution to the problem. To use them just to use them and keep from loosing their availability because of cost seems to be the way the program is going. I tell everyone, that ask, tankers are just like your life insurance. You pay and pay but never want to collect on it. However, one day your family will collect on it with interest.

  2. Yes they are. this is the worst state its been in for more years than I remember. They try and fix but more fd every year. 11 p2s? wow!

  3. Mr. Vilsack’s letter to the senators show that he has been misinformed by his staff on what works and what doesn’t. Two old piston pounding CL 215’s for this coming horror movie (fire season) will be addeded to the already ten nationwide Korean era tankers. Wonderful! It is better to haul retardant all day using two or three (LAT’s) than to use a tanker (VLAT) and accomplish the task in one sortie. Yep, another brilliant deduction. Cost per gallon delivered on a fire. Good reasearch project for a student interested in the business. Water source within ten air miles the Martin Mars is the winner for water/foam/gel haulers, very close second CL 415. Retardant, fire thirty or more miles from air base, DC-10, second place, Cal Fire’s S2T’s. Since 2006 Cal Fire has been keeping a close taps on their DC-10 bill.

  4. It is pretty simple.

    There is NO reason to continually pay a contractor to publish repeated “studies” on airtankers.. or any other FS problem.

    The USFS already employs HUNDREDS of subject matter experts (SMEs) known as FMOs and AFMOs.

    The WO “ologists” could save MILLIONS of dollars simply by LISTENING to them; they’re the “in house” (and already funded) experts.

    No reason to have Dialogos, Rand, or other any other “for profit” entity second guess the experts at the behest of the “ologists” who don’t have a clue about fire management.

    Most OFTEN… (nearly 100%), the findings of the outside “contracts” support the COMMON SENSE of fire managers.

    In the terms of “airtankers”, it is pretty simple.

    A mix of helicopters, LATs, and VLATs is appropriate. Listen to the needs of individual (local) NFs and their FIRE MANAGERS as to what is appropriate and needed.

    STOP THE ANALYSIS PARALYSIS… and the absurd thought that “standardization” can occur on a “non-standard” set of circumstances, values, and risks.


  5. Thank for the update(s) Bill

    For all you folks arguing VLAT vs P3 and any other aircraft for that fact( other than TBM’s F7F Tigercats, etc)

    The argument is STILL the same ….VLAT’s and P3’s were ORIGINALLY straight and level passenger and anti submarine / deck aircraft, respectively.

    BOTH take a pounding in their respective environments and cycles wise and none were destined as future airtankers…

    USFS might take credit for turning these ships into LAT’s and VLAT’s. But the true pioneers were industry that took and devloped the industry.

    Land management had to contract SOMEBODY. Those somebodies were the very contractors ( H&P and AUC) these “brilliant minds” eliminated and hopefully they were happy with their “11 tanker decision” and now crying for turbines…..sorta like what is near and dear to the rest of us…….”turbine whine.” The only whining will be is when Congress gets a hold of that RAND report and asks the USFS for the contract money BACK for their studies.

    That will be the true whining that most of us “turbine whiners” are going to want to hear!!

  6. Regardless who was to blame, wasn’t there a “big clue” when at the height of the 2011 fire season the Forest Circus and Aero Union could not “holster their guns” and try to find a soultion; if only for a few more months to keep the P 3’s flying. The federal fixed wing air program is playing out like a “B” horror movie, made in Japan.

  7. The VLATS are useful in all terrains. Also having seen the T-10 drops they look nearly identical to P3 drops as far as coverage, effectivness, and drift, plus when compared to the P2V its night and day (P2s are awful). Yes, on paper VLATS are more expensive than LAT which are more expensive than SEATS, just like a Type I helicopter v. a Type III or heavy engine compared to a light. But when you compare any of these on the gallon per hour scale guess which ends up being cheaper?
    Say you’ve got a fire thats on the move. Lives, property, and resources are on the line it’s catch it or order up the team. What’s a day of heavy initial attack costs compared to a 2,3,4 week Type 1 incident fire? You can’t over spend initial attack.

  8. This may sound bad towards the VLATS but its not. I am all for them. When you need a 12,000 gallon load they are great. The problem is there is not a lot of bases that can handle them. For example here in California the only bases where they can land to reload are San Bernadino and Sacramento which is Cal Fire’s main air ops base. If they are coming from Sacramento to a fire in kern county the flight time is over an hour one way. If they have to fly back to Sacramento for the reload that’s another hour in flight time and half an hour on the ground reloading. That’s the only bad part about them. I’m only talking about the DC-10s I’ve never had a 747 on a fire I’ve worked.

  9. Very large air tankers??? Where’nt they kicked out of Australia for doing so much damage to the land they where dropping on? They are big and expensive and can only fly over flat land, try getting one of those big boys down into a canyon. What the heck they screwed themselves when they canned p-3’s. The best firefighting A/C ever. Go get them usfs!!!

    1. Well now, not a fan of the VLAT, hum, not sure about the Country you are talking about, but havent heard complaints from Cali, Tx or any other state they have flown in, can’t fly canyons, seems they have and done a pretty good job of it, just depends on the pilot, as for the P-3s all aircraft are a loss, they got there place as well as the VLAT 10 Tanker being one, and if memory serves me correct, the 10 can carry almost 4Xs what a P-3 does, to me that makes it a better and cheaper, more cost effective craft to use. Yea think the usfs is shootin them self in the foot on this one. But then all they have to do is look back at wildfire today and they can’t say we didnt know or no body told us, there have been several items dealing with how they are dealing with there self made problem.

  10. Well Bill

    you now have 180 tags on this very subject…more than the real fire management stuff.

    You do some nice fine work tracking this stuff down!!

    The 180 tags indicate one thing to me as an aircraft mechanic and a commercial pilot…….these folks can try to blow stuff up everyones fourth point of contact through ” studies, contracts, very poor explanation of contracts,availability, and even trying to explain speed and distance of airtankers to politicains and the general public.

    This whole debacle explains ONE thing to me and the rest of the aviators, mechaincs, and others that are associated with this industry and aviation in general…… they REALLY do not know what it takes for industry to operate and IF the USFS is really serious this would have been solve MAANNNNNNY years ago.

    The wish (dream) for C130J’s to magically to appear from Marietta, GA to solve their problems would and could be the ONLY thing to get the egg off their face now!!

    Sixteen to 20 years on “studies?” A true debacle and an insult to the very people who have been the operators for that additional tool in the toolbox.

    The true tools are the “leaders” requiring more studies and no solutions. We will see ALLL the GLEE in the USFS hall when the BAe146 come on line and, by God, they will take FULL CREDIT for improving the fleet as if it were their own idea(s) thinking they wrestled a 1000 lb alligator and think they could get 5 -8 more 146’s and think they got the problem licked!

    A true mess!

    1. Thanks Leo. A post with tag number 181 will appear by late-morning on Wednesday, and it will include some breaking news about the RAND report.


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