Why air tankers don’t fly when fires burn
As wildfires race toward populated areas or ravish beloved forestland, nothing looks more productive than a line of red slurry being laid down by a daring pilot.
It’s a visceral reaction that we all feel when we see the red spray — help is on the way and we can control this situation.
And when a fire is raging and airplanes are grounded, the anger is real.
Sometimes tankers are grounded during fires for safety reasons, or because experts agree the planes wouldn’t be helpful given the intensity or direction of the fire.
But too frequently it is because of the screwed-up system for contracting air tankers, one that is careful to protect private companies that own the planes from unfair competition in the industry and even from competition from the government.There’s an actual law that protects private industry from undue government encroachment on its turf.
The best example of this is a massive privately owned jet liner based out of Colorado Springs that is equipped to drop nearly 20,000 gallons of slurry on fires, but the U.S. Forest Service has granted a limited, call-whenneeded contract only allowing it to drop loads of 5,000 gallons.
That’s federal bureaucracy at its finest.
Such federal complications began in the late ’80s when Forest Service official Fred A. Fuchs began “selling” five private companies dozens of excess or retired military planes. In a trial that ultimately sent Fuchs to prison for 20 months before his conviction was overturned, it was shown how newer planes were traded for historic planes worth about $22 million less. Over the years many of the planes were used for purposes other than fighting fires.
It’s as though from that original scandal the agency never recovered. And now the industry holds the government hostage with a core public safety service.
In 2002, following a spate of tragic accidents, the Forest Service launched a blue-ribbon panel that found the aging fleet had an unacceptable safety record. Tragically, 136 crew members of large air tankers died between 1958 and 2002. To put that into perspective, the report notes a similar death rate among firefighters would be a startling 200 deaths a year.
In the decade after that panel, several contracts were canceled for safety concerns, yet another 15 crew members died in government-contract large air tanker fleet crashes.
Which brings us to the Forest Service’s efforts to contract for next-generation aircraft that are safer, faster and drop larger loads.
In 2013, the Forest Service awarded contracts for seven next-generation air tankers, and another seven planes were added in 2015. In both cases the awarded contracts were challenged by private companies that weren’t selected, slowing the arrival of the planes during fire season. The Forest Service is getting ready to issue another bid process — it’ll be a miracle if the results aren’t challenged.
It’s been frustrating to watch. But while the federal government seems unwilling or handicapped by complicated bid requirements to experiment with a super-large tanker that can drop almost four times more slurry in a single pass than other planes, Colorado’s relatively new aerial fire agency is.
“There’s quite a bit of skepticism in the world of very large air tankers,” said Vince Welbaum, chief of the Aviation Unit of the state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “It would be more of an evaluation contract to see if it can do what we hope it will do. There’s got to be some effectiveness when you drop 18,000 gallons.”
Welbaum said there are limitations to what a 747 can do. The plane must fly higher than other planes when it drops its load, for example, and no one is sure what that means for putting out or suppressing fires.
That type of research is exactly what the world of aerial firefighting needs.
Multiple government studies over the years have bemoaned the fact that there is no data to show how effective aerial attacks on fires are, or whether water or slurry works best, or whether there’s any benefit to using planes during large, outof-control fires.
Colorado is uniquely positioned for its state agency to fill that void, to push norms, to battle fires through the night, and to drop nearly 20,000 gallons of water and see what happens.