Eleven studies since 1995 have concluded that the Forest Service needs to replace its tankers. In 2009, the service sought $2.5 billion to buy 18 to 28 aircraft. The funding was denied by its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture.
The department’s inspector general acknowledged that the Forest Service needed new planes but said the proposal was poorly prepared and did not include enough data. The Government Accountability Office reached similar conclusions last month.
Walt Darran, chairman of the advocacy group Associated Aerial Firefighters and a former tanker pilot, said the problems stem from a lack of leadership.
“The Forest Service only changes the way it does business after a high-profile death,” he said. “Any improvements that have been made in this industry have been bought with blood.”
In 2002, a 46-year-old Lockheed C-130 tanker dropping retardant on a fire near Lake Tahoe broke apart when its wings folded up like a bird’s. The crash killed the three crew members. A camera crew captured the accident and the footage was shown on the nightly news across the nation.
Another fire plane, this one 57 years old, broke apart during a Colorado fire one month later, and an investigative panel was convened to examine the industry.
The panel’s 60-page report released in 2002 said that the Forest Service’s safety standard was unacceptable and that its oversight was lacking. It recommended that the agency foster a closer relationship with the aviation industry to improve the safety of its fleet.
By 2004, the Forest Service had removed 33 tankers from its fleet.
The Forest Service says it is trying to modernize. It issued contracts to seven companies this year; most of those planes are not yet ready to enter service. Although the contracts call them “next-generation” planes, they aren’t so new.
One of them was pulled from an aviation museum in San Bernardino, where it had been on display for 10 years.