The U.S. Forest Service won’t cut any funds from its retardant-bombing fleet this fire season, but it will enter the fray with a lot of planes that aren’t certified to fight wildfires.
On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency will look to the U.S. military to supplement its firefighting aircraft this year because six of the seven next-generation airplanes announced last week may not be ready for action.
However, Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s national director of fire aviation management, later said the military surplus planes also aren’t ready to fight fire.
“We are still working with the Department of Defense to see if we can get up to seven C-27J Spartans,” Harbour said. “If we acquire those platforms, we would modify them so we could use them as a medium air tanker. They’re not the size that is going to be able to carry type 1, large air tanker-capacity tanks, but we think they’re a very capable platform.”
The Spartan is an Italian-made turboprop-powered cargo plane. The U.S. Air Force has offered to transfer up to 14 of the planes free to the Forest Service. Harbour said the plane is capable of carrying smokejumpers, but has only had preliminary testing as a retardant bomber.
That raised concerns with the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association. Last Thursday, it released a statement challenging congressional support for the surplus planes.
“What Congress fails to understand is that there is no existing, off-shelf, permanently mounted or roll on/roll off tanking system available for those aircraft,” executive director Tom Eversole wrote. “The engineering, design, installation and certification would have to be totally customized, and would take at least 2 1/2 to 3 years to accomplish. It could be at least 2016, or possibly 2017, before these aircraft are ready for aerial firefighting – if they were acquired today.”
Meanwhile, Missoula-based Neptune Aviation officials said they will protest being shut out of the Forest Service’s next-generation aviation contract, which was announced last Monday. The decision was so upsetting, Neptune Aviation President Ron Hooper said he asked the crews of five P2V fire-bombers to stand down for the afternoon while the company sorted out the news.
“We didn’t need our flight crews worried about the company or their jobs,” Hooper said. “This gave them a time to clear their heads and focus on their missions. It was purely a decision from a safety standpoint.”
Hooper also said he was still trying to understand why the Forest Service rescinded its offer last year to use the Missoula company’s new BAe-146 retardant bombers.
“As far as the planes awarded on the next-gen contract, the DC-10 (a 10 Tanker Air Carrier converted jumbo jet) is the only one that’s had its tank approved and is certified to fly,” Hooper said. Four of the five other companies offer jet planes that haven’t flown in actual fires before. Neptune’s first BAe-146 jet went to work last year and three more similar planes are expected to be ready this spring.
On Monday, Harbour said the Forest Service would look for a private contractor to design retardant tanks for, fly and maintain the C-27Js, if it acquired them. At Neptune, Hooper said he would be interested in bidding for that contract.
The C-27J would only carry between 1,200 and 1,800 gallons of retardant, compared to the Forest Service’s requested capacity of 3,000 gallons or more for new firefighting planes. Harbour said the military plane might fill a niche similar to California’s S2 mid-sized firebomber.
“These would be a welcome addition to the fleet, but they are not going to replace the large air tankers in the system,” Harbour said. “We want to maximize tank capacity, but we’re also interested in having the ability to use it for smokejumpers, or maybe cargo carrying. We want folks to come up with ideas, and make sure they’re cost reasonable. We understand that can’t be done this fire season.”
The Forest Service is entering the 2013 fire season with a 5 percent reduction in its firefighting funds, due to the federal budget sequestration.
“That’s translated that into 500 fewer firefighters,” Harbour said. “We’re utilizing our funds to move ahead with the next-gen air tankers. We know it’s boots on the ground that put out fires, but if we don’t give those boots on the ground the kind of aerial support they need, their job on the ground can be more difficult. We’re trying to balance a complex system and come out with a result that maintains our 98 percent initial attack success. There’s more stress in the system. Our objective is to move folks quicker, stay ahead of the game, and use our skill. I wouldn’t mind having a little luck also.”