Aero Union planes back on fire duty

Terry Unsworth, president and CEO of Aero Union Corporation, got the heads-up shortly before the government’s press release came out last Friday: The U.S. Department of Agriculture was reversing its decision to keep several of the company’s air tankers from flying to fight fires this season.

Unsworth said that, while he was confident it was just a matter of time before the Forest Service saw the error of its ways, he was still relieved when he got the word that the P3 contracts were back on. “Everyone’s very pleased about it,” he said.

And since the tankers are often the first strike during wildfires, Unsworth said, “The community generally should feel safer knowing that the tankers are flying.”

Janet Marshall, spokesperson for Butte County California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said, “We’re glad to have [Aero Union tankers] on our side.

“I’ve been happy to hear them coming more than once,” said Marshall, adding that “the heavies,” such as tankers with the ability to drop 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of retardant at one time, complement ground crew efforts and “help level the playing field.”

Capt. Scott Upton, with CDF’s Tehama-Glenn unit, supervises hand crews on the ground and said the fire season is reaching a critical point and the planes are being restored just in time. “It’s nice to see them back,” he said.

The USDA severed its contracts with Aero Union and other contractors in late May after weighing an April 27 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report commenting on structural failures in air tankers that resulted in accidents and deaths in recent years. Trouble is, none of the worrisome planes were the type owned or maintained by Aero Union, whose practices have won the seal of approval from both the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration. It seemed the USDA jumped the gun out of liability concerns.

The USDA finally decided to look at Aero Union’s data and hired a Texas firm to physically examine the planes for good measure.

Five of the 13 grounded planes were restored on Friday, with two more cleared to get up in the air on Sunday and others expected to follow. The company immediately rehired 24 of the 100 laid-off employees, and Unsworth expects many more to return. He said Aero Union lost about six good workers to other employers during the time of uncertainty.

Unsworth credited lobbying efforts by locals and legislators for convincing the USDA, who also heard the same from the FAA, that Aero Union’s planes were well-maintained and safe.

Jim Goodwin, executive director of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, said he was impressed by how many local residents called and wrote legislators to let them know of Aero Union’s positive impact on the community’s safety and economy.

“I think the community rose to the occasion and offered as much support as they could,” Goodwin said. “This is a company that deserves to be considered differently [because of its safety record].”

Even with the planes back up, Unsworth said the company is still out about $3 million for the time they were down.