Organization calls aerial firefighting “immoral”

The same organization that forced the U.S. Forest Service to issue an Environmental Impact Statement on the use of fire retardant and sued the federal government to protect the northern spotted owl has issued a statement criticizing the use of airtankers on fires, claiming that it is “immoral.” The  Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, whose motto is “Forest Service employees and citizens working together to protect our National Forests,” argues that aerial firefighting is too dangerous and ineffective and that “retardant doesn’t save homes; proper construction and landscaping save homes.”

Here is an excerpt from the FSEEE statement written by Andy Stahl, their executive director, on Wednesday, four days after Tanker 11 crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots:

In 2002, a government-appointed Blue Ribbon Panel concluded that “The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” The report also noted “if ground firefighters had the same fatality rate [as firefighting aviators], they would have suffered more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year.” Since the Blue Ribbon report’s publication, aviation-related fatalities have gone up 50 percent compared to the three-year period preceding the panel’s report—not including this past weekend’s tragic loss of life.

Mr. Stahl makes a good point about the fatality rate being far too high. And it IS unacceptable. However his statistics are a little shaky, using only a 3-year period as a base comparison, when the annual variability in the number of fatalities can be extreme.

Using some draft statistics for airtanker crew fatalities originally compiled by Chuck Bushey, with a little of our help recently in updating them, we did our own analysis. We compared the 10 years before 2002, the year that two airtankers had in-flight wing failures and the Blue Ribbon Report was published, to the following 10-year period, and came up with different results from Mr. Stahl’s. The years 2003 through 2012 (to date) show a 24 percent reduction in airtanker crash fatalities over the pre-2002 10-year period. These numbers are based on draft data and could change.

But again, far too many fine pilots have died in airtanker crashes since 1958, including the last 10 years. The profession should not be this dangerous and the state and federal agencies need to be held responsible to provide the pilots with the best possible training, equipment, management, and dispatching so that they can perform their jobs as safely as possible. Saying it’s the contractors’ responsibility is not acceptable. I would argue that a modern aircraft is safer for this mission than one that was built for maritime patrol in the 1950s, like the P2Vs we are currently using to fly in and usually out of smoky canyons, low and slow, in mountainous terrain with challenging density altitude conditions.

Mr. Stahl does make some valid points about the state of our airtanker fleet and how fire-safe home construction and vegetation clearance are the best methods for preventing structures from burning. But here is the quote where he uses the term “immoral”:

Ten years ago, the government’s Blue Ribbon panel said the aerial firefighters’ death rate was “unacceptable.” Today, the government’s fruitless and ineffective aerial war against wildland fire can only be called immoral. Congress should stop pandering to our innate fear of fire and promote sensible fire management policies that save lives and homes.

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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.

20 thoughts on “Organization calls aerial firefighting “immoral””

  1. Now that we’ve agreed to stick to safety (rather than politics and other urinations), here are some facts on the old FireHog proposal:

    The drop system was designed to propel the retardant backward at 60 to perhaps 80 knots. That means the wings would feel perhaps 200 kias while the retardant hit the air below it’s speed limit. That’s a safety feature in that the jet would still have about 3Gs available while dropping, significantly reducing the likelihood of accelerated stall. It was also an effectiveness issue in greatly reducing the shear that now blows retardant into pink mist.

    The ejection seat is a game changer. The A-10 is so tough that it’s literally hit other planes, cut down trees, sliced through high tension lines and even hit the ground but survived long enough to get home or at least save the pilot. What other potential airtanker has a record anything like that? The BA-146 maybe?

    The entire tank could be jettisoned. That’s faster than jettisoning the load and reduces weight/drag much more than is possible with internal tanks. Let’s not start with the nonsense about dropping the tank on people or ejecting into fire. That’s the same as refusing to wear a seat belt so as to avoid the minuscule chance of being trapped in a wreck.

    The helmet mounted display would have received video from a gimballed IR system. That means seeing through smoke and haze anywhere in the forward hemisphere – no looking at a screen inside or hoping you know where the rocks are. That also meant fewer groundings for haze and darkness.

    A datalink was planned with drop requirement input and position/condition output. That’s safety because the ground team could help plan drops and always knew what was happening in the air.

    Part of the weapons system would have been retained to display the impact area. That’s safety because there was no guessing on speeds or release point or coverage area. From experience, pilots who’ve flown such systems know they free you to concentrate on flying rather than ballistics. That reduces target fixation and distraction crashes.

    All of that and more was laid out in 1994. A few more pilots would be alive, and many more homes would have been saved, had we gone there instead of the path that led us to about 11 tankers remaining.

    Resistance came primarily from three sources:
    – Pilots claimed that only ex-military would fly them. That’s crazy given that fire experience is more important than flight experience in this context. The Hog is as easy to fly as the Bronco.
    – The operators refused to consider government supplied equipment. They were so painfully independent that they refused the attached strings. Of course, most of them are out of business now.
    – The bureaucracy (USFS, CDF and AF) didn’t want more work, were embarrassed by their previous mistakes (60 Minutes), etc. The FireHog proposal was such a threat to CDF’s plan to gold plate S-2s that they arbitrarily declared the A-10 and S-3 would not be considered. Those were the same ‘leaders’ who were later fired or sent to jail for misusing government resources, like planes and money. This environment has seen some really, really unethical leaders.

    It’s unthinking resistance to change like Leo’s that dragged the industry from bad in the ’90s to disastrous today. The whole airtanker environment is in such shambles as to be nearly irrelevant just at the time when citizens need them more than ever.

  2. used to be or whatver

    Rationally? We are all rational folks in the aviation biz

    Rational = passionate ….just like firefighters about their gigs.

    Only we pilots and mechanics have invested in 2 yr and 4 colleges, paying for our pilots and mechanics certificates, toting around $6-15K toolboxes possibly to include another $3K in special tools

    So yeah we pilots and mechanics are pretty rational!

    Some may beg to differ

    1. @Leo: “I am not going to get in a urinating contest with you … my buddy maybe telling the truth unless u got some “super secret squirrel stuff” to tellus … A10′s are still US and USAF property…u or I do not get much of a say in things”

      okay, Leo, outed then.

      Seriously, there was a LOT of trashtalk about this back in the mid-1990s and there was also some fairly reasonable analysis of different aircraft options published between 1996 and 1999.

      The whole “firehogs” debacle is still available online if you know where to look . It was embarrassing back then and certainly served no useful purpose.

      Please don’t resurrect THAT one here.

  3. Is there a site out there where knowledgeable people rationally discuss the suitability of the A-10 as a forest firefighter ?

  4. Ed

    I am not going to get in a urinating contest with you

    1) Whether you or I like or not, my buddy maybe telling the truth unless u got some “super secret squirrel stuff” to tellus

    2) A10’s are still US and USAF property…u or I do not get much of a say in things…like I do not agree with Foreign Military Sales when I was servicing AH1’s and UH1’s…not my calling in life. worked with some of best aircrews and we all knew where the acft were destined for….if CDF or USFS “got lucky” then the did

    3) I see where that OV10 program went…….BLM to CDF….tough! Somebody else got the aircraft

    4) How about all those Beech Barons that the USFS got on a sweet deal until all those AD’s occurred??

    5) I could go on and on with the “safety issue” and I am REAAAL sure there are former A10 drivers out there clamoring for more action to get run around an FTA with what happenin these days.

    6) Again, the A10 idea is over 15 yrs much like the planning with these folks who are running FAM……folks that ride around in them and knowing a fraction of what aircraft are worth and what it takes to run a large Part 137,semi 121/135 and if possible , the USFS would like it all on Part 91 if they could get the chance!!

    7) Ed, if you know all these facts on the A10 and if you are the same guy as 15 yrs ago or less, on this very subject, well the USAF has spoken for the acft and in the last 15 yrs or less, not much has been mentioned since.

    8) We can only hope Congress, after this fire season, puts a beatdown on this, and transfers this WHOLE program onto someone (agency) who does want to own and operate these aircraft and program ‘cuz apparently Papa USFS and Smokey Bear are near tired letting this program getting to the shape it is in, currently!

  5. Leo,

    “How were the A10′s stripped illegally?”

    Those roughly 125 jets were in ‘inviolate storage’, meaning they had to remain flyable. I looked about six months ago and they’re all stripped. Most are empty fuselages laying on the ground. That’s what I mean by illegal.

    “… most of those coming into storage are going to be inventoried and stockpiled for our next little excursion that needs an offset Gatling gun.”

    That’s what they said the last time. It won’t happen regardless of what your buddy is being told. Stripping them allows diverting maintenance money to far more expensive jets. It also prevents them from being reactivated, thereby supporting the Army at the expense of other aircraft initiatives. The money pot is finite so yes, such competition for money really does matter.

    “I would imagine same with the A10……Papa AF is surely going to hang tough on ownership no matter what someone desires as an airtanker!!!”

    That’s a political question which isn’t very relevant to this safety discussion. As we all know, politics can flip overnight – say just after some senator’s home burns. The AF released C-130s and OV-10s in the past so there is precedent.

    So let’s get back to the safety question. Can we at least agree that the A-10 would be far safer than the alternatives?

  6. Getting back to the dismal record of Air Tanker accidents… the statistics may be misleading as prior to 2003 there were 40+ heavy Air Tankers, now there are 9. Neptune has lost 8 crew members since 2008, 3 airplanes and the crews of Tankers 09, 42 and now 11. That is unacceptable, pure and simple. Call it immoral, call it whatever, but it is UNACCEPTABLE period

    1. Probably a good way to look at these events is on a “per 1000 hours flown” basis to see what the trends are showing – still unacceptable, and likely to be even more so as the 2012 fire season evolves.

  7. Ed

    How were the A10’s stripped illegally?

    I would imagine the USAF were “stripping” them thru AMARC to supply the A10 in the Gulf War I

    I know a buddy of mine is on A10 rebuld thru a unit in the Western US and most of those coming into storage are going to be inventoried and stockpiled for our next little excursion that needs an offset Gatling gun.

    I still believe as I did 15 yrs ago…while everyone was saying “get the A10, get the A10” a few of us KNEW then, even with the “hatred of the US Army idea of CAS”………..that this aircraft wasn’t going onto the hands of very many civilians, as we know it today.

    Somewhat like everyone was banking on the retirements of the UH1 Huey and AH1 Cobra…first step is Foreign Military Sales then if nobody bites…it’s the civilians turn

    Don’t think for a minute those Firewatch Cobras are clear of DoD. I am sure those are equally as FEPP and are subject to recall if Papa AF and Army want them back

    I would imagine same with the A10……Papa AF is surely going to hang tough on ownership no matter what someone desires as an airtanker!!!

  8. See Leo, that’s what I mean by ‘politics’. You made one of my points. There’s always a bureaucratic way to say no without really answering the question. That’s what you did.

    As to your questions, it’s the A-10 itself that will remain in service until the 2030s. That means parts and training will remain available. There was never any attempt to keep the stored jets that long.

    The stored A-10s were stripped, many of them illegally. Congress ordered about 125 of them to remain flyable but the AF stripped them anyway. It all comes down to hating the Army – more politics.

    Lots of current inventory is stored. Check Google Earth for the boneyard in Tucson and you’ll see F-16s, F-15s and C-5s. So what?

    And you didn’t touch the point about the next batch going into storage. The relevant law says such hardware goes to other agencies with a greater need than spare parts. That’s how the P-3s and C-130s were converted. Is there any doubt that aerial firefighting has always been a greater need?

    This conversation started with the horrible record of killing pilots in antiques. That’s unnecessary, self-inflicted.

  9. If memory serves me right…those A-10 are spoken for, for parts and rebuild until 2035

    UNLESS someone can prove me wrong…they “ain’t” been released from USAF inventory.

    Retired does not mean released and rumor even 10 yrs ago….this aircraft was going to stay USAF inventory, again into 2035.

    Good Luck with it becoming an airtanker at the present time!!

  10. Back to the tanker safety question, there’s been an obvious answer since 1991. The Air Force retired about 230 A-10s then. Several studies (California fire marshal, FS and private) proved that jet’s potential. They’re not fighting fire today because the same politics that kept those now-grounded old machines in the air wouldn’t tolerate change.

    The Air Force is about to retire another 103 A-10s. Does anyone think the politics have changed enough to get it right this time? Or will firefighters end up with the BA-146, another unsuitable transport class plane converted to a tough job its designers never imagined?

  11. “if these environmental organizations are so bad, why do they keep winning a significant majority of the lawsuits they file?”

    @Rileymon, one of the key reasons is that enviro org’s don’t have to have “standing” to file a lawsuit. In many legal situations, you must establish that you have “legal standing” to sue or to become involved in a lawsuit. To put it in really simple layman’s terms, you have to show that you are somehow affected by the issue. Very simple example: I can sue my neighbor if he tries to establish a pig farm with 500 pigs on his 5 acres next to my house, but I can’t sue some guy in Iowa who does the same thing because his Iowa operation has no effect on my property in Montana or in Oregon. The Center for Biological Diversity (headquartered in Tucson) can, however, sue the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, even though they have no real stake in the issue at hand.

    AND, the biggest point: Not only can such “environmental” organizations sue the federal government, but if they win then the feds (read that taxpayers) pay for the attorney’s fees and legal costs of the enviro organization. If the enviro guys lose the case, they don’t have to pay for the time and expense that the feds put out defending themselves.

    If this was changed (both points above) we’d see just a FRACTION of the number of lawsuits filed.

    1. I believe that because these lawsuits are dealing with Federal lands and Federal laws, you do not have to be a local to have “Standing”. Hence, groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club have “standing, as does “Citizens United” and others that sue in Federal Court to force my State to accept Corporations as “people”. Pig farms adjacent to your properties in Montana and Oregon are not on Federal properties, so someone in Tucson doesn’t have “standing”. Just a non-lawyers reading on the issue!
      On your second point about cost reimbursement, it’s not just the “Enviros” that are covered by this Law: I believe that the NRA and other groups that sue the Government and win are also reimbursed – it’s a Law for all groups, even those you may not agree with!

  12. I was gonna say it but Ken beat me to it. Very few FS employees beloong to FSEE.

    There are over 30 environemntal organizations with a officesin Missoula and several law firms that do nothing but sue the FS.

    A couple of years ago in Missoula during a hearing on yet another lawsuit against the Forest Service Judge Donald Malloy said to the environmentalist’s attorneys, “I dont know why I dont give you people keys to the building.”

    1. As they teach in the classes about AAR’s, focus on the WHAT and not the WHO: if these environmental organizations are so bad, why do they keep winning a significant majority of the lawsuits they file? Could it be because the Federal agencies are not follow the Laws passed by our Congress? There are more than 30 Business, Indusrty, Logging, Banking, Livestock lobbying firms in D.C.on “K” Street: they don’t have to ask for keys to the Capital Building – the doors are always open for them , and wildfire issues are part of their agenda too.
      Judge Molloy oftens finds the USFS management failing to follow the law as he reads it, so why should those 30 organizations stop? Let’s get back on issue to Air Tanker Safety.

  13. An organization called “Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics” with very few Forest Service employees as members.. and a Board of Directors financing themselves and their “mission” through REPEATED lawsuits…. now THAT IS IMMORAL.

    Andy Stahl has less experience being an “employee” of the Forest Service than my most recent re-tread of my Whites boots.


  14. Well Bill

    We can agree, whether or or not Mr Stahl’s data is on target or not….

    One thing for sure….lives do not need to be lost nor does aluminum need to bent , balled, wrinkled over some cheatgrass , manzanita, pinyon, or lodgepole pine.

    IF the LMA’s would just own up to one fact…….these accidents….ALL OF THEM could have been prevented…all those “Lessons Learned”…well there are getting repeated year after for what???

    Wait for it……Resource Management. All the data, Lessons Learned, SAFECOM’s, Six Minutes for Safety……well guess what?

    Ain’t bringin any one back. As a former military helo mech…I can firmly say…….the LMA’s still have ALOT to learn about safety and losses

    Each year is a repeat. Anyone from the LMA’s comin on hear to tout “SAFETY”…..we got a word for those type of losses…BS losses and not combat losses.

    Some of these folks equating military duty to firefighting…..we got our accident rate. We get ours from Presidental orders and some of those loses are not acceptable either…but in the civilian world?? C’mon no one here can debate me that there have not been repeats of the last 10+ years

    The resource HARDLY is worth losing lives or sheetmetal over

    LMA”s get your heads out of your fourth point of contact or do you need a window drilled out in your intestinal area to get a view what your are really doing?


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