2012 archives
Big plane, little plane, or no plane at all?

What aviation tools will US firefighters need in the coming decade? After spending time on the Texas firelines in 2011 — the state’s worst season on record, with 4 million acres burned, 4000 houses destroyed, and 10 people dead — one firefighter and line paramedic asks, What type of aviation support do we need on the line? Or does the type of air support matter at all, if you can’t get the drop when and where you need it? 

by Bill Arsenault

While there has been a lot of discussion and a brief shutdown of certain large air tanker equipment during this past year’s fire season, large aerial firefighting resources still managed to get their proverbial wings mounted back on and back in the fight.

Then that changed in August, with the cancellation of the Aero Union contract (removing 42% of the large air tanker fleet). And when the fire season ended, we learned that some congressional staffers were keeping a pool on acres burned — in 2011, the third worst fire season since 1960, it was 8.7 million acres. Their pool included a tie-breaker guess on the number of air tankers that crashed or were grounded.

This year has certainly led to a different battle of aerial resources and it seems at times it is going to be a long haul in resolving it. It is filled with billowing amounts of hot-air that certainly won’t be cut with a knife. And it’s going to lead to a hefty amount of political involvement from individuals who may look good in a suit, but certainly have no business wearing yellow and green with a pair of $500 dress shoes. Yet lobbyists and politicians will try to tell professional wildland firefighters how to fight fire.

To add flames to the smoke, fire chiefs from California and certainly from Texas are going to be fanning that fire with a set of super-sized bellows. And rightly so. Texas has been on the National Sit Report for more days than anyone during the seemingly never-ending 2011 wildland fire season. The values lost certainly have gained more attention, cost more to fight financially, physically and mentally, and unfortunately have lost more lives than any other state’s fire in the country this year.

To this embattlement, add mud-slinging (no pun intended) from all sides and this is going to be one slippery slope. Especially when there is talk that the number of air resources available do not match the need. We have gone from 40+ fixed wing aircraft to 11; we’re transitioning to a reliance on rotary-wing water-drops even as we’re taught to not put all our eggs in one basket. And then there is the one guy who puts out the memo and takes the biggest beating and yet he/she may just be the messenger.

Not being a pilot, an air-tanker contract owner, a federal employee that supervises an air operation, or someone from Washington D.C., I can tell you — trying to make heads or tails of this situation can certainly be mind-boggling. But I can confirm that there is A LOT of frustration from end-users to overseers and certainly from the folks on the line. So hopefully we can help others see some middle ground in this sticky situation.

Plain and simple, the process of developing (or redeveloping) an aerial firefighting program for the future is going to start slow and ramp up the learning curve. In this current economic situation, it would be haphazard to just keep throwing money at air resources with no clearly defined goals of what it should look like while still putting life safety at the forefront. We in fire have heard for a long time, “Risk vs Benefit.” That can now be equated to “Cost vs Benefit.” The part where it gets sticky goes beyond this vs. that but asks “how much is a human life worth”?

The United States aerial firefighting resources have been in a constant state of flux since, I would suggest, 1987 — when the US Forest Service Air Tanker Scandal broke headlines. Who knows, but maybe even before that. Today, it is generally agreed by everyone (and I mean everyone) that the fleet is in need of a major overhaul. Numerous studies, fact finding missions, and analyses have shown that. We’ve studied and debated air tanker bases and their locations; types of appropriate aircraft usage including cost of operation and, supervision; and many other highly-sensitive matters as it relates to air operations. I certainly don’t feel one person has all the right answers, but collectively a program can be crafted that represents all interested parties and hopefully not just a “one size fits all” type of approach. This year’s fire season certainly shows we as a firefighting organization need flexibility in terms of air resources — but also we need interagency commitment and cooperation.

How to plan for the future gets even more complex when you factor in all the many tools already in the tool box. Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) which include Evergreen’s 747 and Tanker 10’s DC-10,;Large Air Tankers (LAT) such as Aero Union’s P-3 Orion or Neptune’s P2V;, and Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) such as the Air Tractor 802. Throw in heavy helicopters such as the Sikorsky Skycrane or the Firehawk (my personal favorite) and you have a few more tools in the box. Add in agency lingo of exclusive use versus call when needed (CWN); national avail versus regional avail; contractor usage for feds vs National Guard usage for states; and to tie it all together, throw in state fire programs vs local fire department programs. And with that you have a lot of moving parts with a lot of chiefs of this and that, plus a whole lot of questions regarding who’s paying the bill, and it just got real messy.

However, with all of this discussion of the air-show over the fire, there is the challenge of separating show-value or special-purpose use from a more widespread utility. With the highly visible use of VLATs across Texas and even Israel this last December, these planes –Evergreen’s Super 747 and Tanker 10’s DC-10 — raise the question by the general public, some awestruck but perhaps uninformed fire departments, and politicians: Why don’t we have more of these”?

But if you put these Very Large units to the test, one might question their viability in much of the mountainous West, in such places like the Salmon-Challis National Forest located in the Salmon, Idaho area.

There, the mountain tops are almost 11,000 feet and valley floors dip down into the 3,900 foot range with deep canyon cuts and drainages. That is a huge difference in the big scheme of things. Flying along at 12,000 feet to clear mountain tops makes me wonder how much retardant is actually laid in a pattern needed when difference between valley floor and ridge top is, say, something like 4,500 feet. I do understand that most of the time retardant is attempted to be run along ridge lines, but I can tell you from personal experience that is not always the case. Sometimes slurry seems to be used as a fire chaser instead of a holder.

With all this talk about air-frame integrity and structural worthiness I would tend to agree with the powers that be and the subject-matter experts that flying something this big in those types of conditions is probably not a good idea. And I also agree, having the US Government own something like a rare-usage aircraft doesn’t make the soundest financial sense. Especially when tax-payers (I being one of them) get angry about something that costs a hell of a lot of money would be used so rarely. Granted, Texas and California are not rare fire states; however, they also have very different fire programs then most Western states. The Texas Forest Service tries to uses it volunteer fire departments as much as possible —- which raises the question of how to integrate a large air-show with such dispersed ground pounders — and California has the largest state-funded fire program in the country.

I, like many others, appreciate seeing SEATs’ flexibility used when feasible but I also like having a LAT in a back pocket, especially after almost having been burned over in Texas on the Iron Mountain Fire this year. If it hadn’t been for that ship, I believe the outcome of our Initial Attack strike team, the home owner, and some of his friends would involve a very different type of discussion —- or lack of one. The SEAT was used first, but it didn’t do a whole lot when we needed it to —- but then the LAT covered us in a red velvet blanket that certainly kept the fire from eating us alive. Not a situation I care to repeat, if you know what I mean.

The two largest users of air tankers, the US Forest Service and the Department of Interior, have a vested interest in a quality, safe, efficient, and financially flexible program. Especially when states, our northern and southern neighbors, and the international community come calling for help from the US Federal Government and the professional wildland firefighters it employs.

However, given this situation, the US Federal Government Fire Agencies have a responsibility to do it right this time in the face of so many wrongs over the last several years. It may make some unhappy, it may cost in the loss of homes, it could cause a delay in ground action until conditions are safe enough to engage the fire, and it may take some getting used to in learning that sometimes, “less is more.” What it should not be allowed to do is cost more human lives and if knee-jerk reactions or comments are made, it may very well do that.

In the end, I would take a look at those of the “Greatest Generation” that learned their lessons by flying these air-ships for weeks and months on end during World War II. Sometimes we need to look at our predecessors to learn for our future. They taught us the utility of these air-ships, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep using their aircraft.

For more information

Forest Service Air Tankers: Flying Death Traps. Scott Sonner, December 7, 2002. Las Vegas Review Journal.

Firefighting Planes Are Grounded. Associated Press, December 8, 2002. LA Times.

Lawmakers Rethink Decision to Ground Firefighting Planes. Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, May 14, 2004. LA Times.

US Forest Service Air Tanker Base Efficiency Analysis, Region 5. 2009.

The next generation: Jet-air Tankers could be replacing aging warplanes. Rob Chaney, July 31, 2010. The Missoulian.

Forest Service Cancels Air Tanker Contract. Shelia Kumar, July 29, 2011. Associated Press.

Chiefs Demand Support. Nick Welsh, September 15, 2011. Santa Barbara Independent.

DC-10 Tanker requesting public support for exclusive use versus call-when-needed. www.10tanker.com