Air tanker grounding based on lies
Couched in the language of safety are the seeds of deception. Speak of them loud and often, with repetition for nourishment, and they grow into facts. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have launched a last-ditch media campaign to justify their ill-conceived canceling of 35 large-air-tanker contracts, including those of local operator Aero Union. Their statements are not supported by facts.
None of the types of air tankers currently in the fleet have had any structural failures. No one on the ground has ever been killed or injured in an air-tanker accident. Allusions to these sorts of disasters are theatrical.
Planes of the C130A aircraft type, the genesis of this controversy, released from the military under the auspices of the Forest Service, had a known history of structural failures before they entered service as air tankers. The first C130A failure occurred three years after entering firefighting service. At that time it was one of the newest airframes in the fleet. The evidence languished in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest for 10 years, until a second failure occurred, in 2002, on camera, and the problem could no longer be ignored. Investigators scaled the inhospitable slopes and found pieces of evidence tying the two crashes together, and the C130A was taken out of service.
The people who fight fire do so with the same intensity others reserve for war. In the past, losses were accepted as a fact of life, and there were too many. This is not something that cropped up in the last 10 years, as suggested by Forest Service leadership. Working in one of the harshest flight environments imaginable, the industry has had a safety record that has continued to improve over time, in spite of chronic under-funding and a lack of leadership to resolve the structural problems within the Forest Service and BLM.
Sadly, there have already been two fatalities this year in the single-engine air tanker community. You won’t find that in a Forest Service infomercial.
The facts are available, but they are not in sound bites and public-relations dispatches. The agencies are more afraid of the past than the problems they are creating for the future.
The future of the large air tanker industry is being debated in the U.S. Congress in the days and weeks ahead. If you wish to be heard, now is the time to speak. You can begin by contacting members of the House Agriculture Committee (http://agriculture.house.gov/inside/members.html), which this week is studying a bill to release large air tankers for use this fire season. Urge them to send it to the full House for an immediate vote.