Air Tanker Fleet Down 75% from 2006; Insufficient to Battle CO Wildfires

Wildfires in Colorado have now burned over 180,000 acres. Unfortunately, these fires come at a time when the federal government has a historically low number of air tankers to fight such blazes. By the government's own estimates, it currently has under contract just one-half to one-third of the firefighting planes it needs.

The U.S. Forest Service contracts with private companies around the country to provide air tankers to respond to wildfires like the ones now raging in Colorado. Many of these air tankers are aging planes, some of which first saw service in the 1950s. ABC reports that tanker "crashes in 2002 and 2004 led to stricter safety standards that eliminated dozens of aging air tankers from the fleet." As a result, the number of fire-fighting planes dropped from 44 in 2006 to 11 at the beginning of this fire season. That decline has not been without controversy.

In April 2011, the FAA questioned the certification of three air tankers operated by a California firm called Aero Union. At the time, Aero Union maintained and operated 8 of the remaining 19 planes available for fire-fighting work. A report in a Lubbock, Texas paper, where three of the Aero Union planes were fighting wildfires at the time, suggested that the issue was one of completing agreed upon inspections:

Britt Gourley, president and CEO of the Aero Union, said his company stopped flying its three aircraft because of an ongoing conflict with the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration concerning the company’s certification.

Gourley said his company initially was given certification by the FAA and U.S. Forest Service in 2007, with the understanding Aero Union would put its fleet of eight P3 air tankers through a gauntlet of inspections as part of the FAA’s phase-in program.

He said the planes already have gone through and passed the most crucial inspections at a cost of more than $11 million...But additional inspections remain, which he estimates would cost more than $20 million. Gourley said his company had planned to finish those inspections and part replacements by 2013.

An emergency meeting between the company and the U.S. Forest Service led to the resolution of the problem less than a week later. However, two months after that the Forest Service abruptly cancelled its entire contract with Aero Union in the middle of the fire season. The company was forced to lay off the majority of its work force.

As a result of cancelling the contract with Aero Union, the Forest Service was left with just 11 large tankers under contract at the beginning of this year's wildfire season. That number dropped to nine planes after two tankers owned by two different companies crashed earlier this month. One of the crashes killed two pilots.

The Forest Service initiated a modernization strategy in February which called for "18 to 28 large air tankers," two to three times the 9 planes remaining under contract. As a result, the Forest Service has been forced to borrow planes from state fire-fighting agencies and from the Canadian government.

Two weeks ago, the Forest Service announced that new contracts had been signed with four air tanker companies, including two that owned the two planes which crashed this month. Eventually, these contracts will add another seven planes to the available tanker fleet, but those will not be available until later this year or 2013.


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