june 2013

As we enter the 2013 fire season, those concerned with the state of the U.S. federal air tanker program might wish to read an article in Aviation Week & Space Technology (Feb. 4, 2013) on the state of the air tanker industry. Titled “Air Tanker Angst,” the authors warn, “The U.S. will be facing yet another fire season with a dwindling number of aging air tankers.”

What seems to some to be unfocused (some might even say chaotic) management at USFS Fire & Aviation appears to others to be a tightly focused obsession to award Lockheed-Martin a $2-3 billion contract for a C130J fleet at all costs, without a civilian MAFFS/RADS Retardant Delivery System even being available to support that fleet.

While that may prove to be a worthwhile and affordable goal at some point down the road, the commercial aerial wildfire suppression industry stands ready today to upgrade and supplement the current and proposed VLAT, LAT, scooper, SEAT and NextGen fleets to protect lives and property in the interim. If – given reasonable, logical, user-friendly RFPs, and timely contract awards by USFS, instead of fiddling while Rome (Georgia?) burns.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has rejected the “Smokey Buys ’em, Air Force Flies ’em” kite (DoD MAFFS-C130J Feb 2011). And the RAND Corporation, in its $800,000 study commissioned by USFS (RAND final 2012), suggested an entirely different fleet mix from what USFS wanted; their recommendations have apparently been dismissed out of hand.

Because Smokey won’t make timely decisions, aerial firefighters are in limbo. One instance of bureaucratic paralysis: after FAA approval and IAB carding, the Evergreen B747 VLAT was not called out once by USFS during a two-year CWN agreement. It was used by Israel, Mexico and Cal Fire, but not by USFS, even when (reportedly) requested by incident commanders and lead planes. And now, while fire & aviation ponders one more half-million-dollar study, we enter the 2013 fire season with no national LAT/VLAT/scooper contracts in place.

For this season and beyond, we need to face the issues, resolve to change and enact a few key decisions.

Call When Needed: The whole issue of CWN agreements for multi-million dollar operations needs to be revisited. How can any reasonable person expect a contractor to maintain safety, effectiveness and efficiency with a first-response team without at least covering basic upfront costs, plus a reasonable retainer? Seal Team 6 on CWN? There is no free lunch.

Sequestration & Budgets: Granted, sequestration and other budgetary restrictions aren’t making things any easier, but a proactive plan in face of budget constraints is what we require of our fire and fire aviation leadership as well as concerned politicians. And they have yet to address a core finding of the Blue Ribbon Panel back in 2002: “Possibly the single largest challenge now facing leaders of these federal agencies is to foster cooperation and collaboration among working-level staffs, contractors and states to raise the standards of aerial wildland firefighting in the United States.”

The Air Tanker Crossroads: The air tanker industry is at a crossroads, moving from military and airline surplus piston-engine aircraft costing around $100,000 each to relatively new turbine aircraft costing anywhere from $10 million-100 million each. Contractors need solid, reasonable, negotiated guidelines and long-range (10 years or greater) contracts from USFS so they can extrapolate their business plans and financing to service the wildfire needs of the country in a new era.

Indecision or Mis-Decision? For whatever reason, top management at USFS seems totally focused on promoting a fleet of new Lockheed-Martin C130J aircraft, delaying or blocking exclusive-use contracts on alternatives that don’t precisely meet the “300 knots, 3,000 gallons, turbine powered, period” mantra  (the Beriev Be-200 carries 63 gallons too little, the DC-10 too much). This leaves contractors and their employees, the needs of aerial firefighters and the public they serve twisting in the wind.

Perhaps they are following the dictum of that sage air tanker pilot, Walter P. Johnson: “The key to flexibility is indecision.”


Walt Darran is a Wildfire Magazine Contributing Editor and Safety Committee Chairman on the Board of Directors of Associated Aerial Firefighters (www.airtanker.org).