The 2004 fire season has not yet truly begun in the Rocky Mountain West, and already three fire-fighting pilots have died in crashes. While investigations into the causes of the accidents are under way, the U.S. Forest Service finds itself crushed between a rock and a hot place.
On May 11,
with aerial tanker-training in full swing, top-ranking
administrators in the Forest Service pulled the rug out from under
the agency's tanker contractors and regional fire managers. Forest
Service Chief Dale Bosworth declared all large tanker contracts
null and void, leaving a gaping hole in the bag of tools needed to
fight wildland fires.
The impetus behind his decision was
a horrifying video accompanied by a National Transportation Safety
Board report on the catastrophic failure of wings on two aerial
tankers that crashed in 2002. All crew members aboard the planes
died. The tankers involved in the accidents were both owned by
Hawkins and Powers of Wyoming, but safety board officials
recommended against using any of the available U.S. fleet. The jury
is still out on whether structural failure is imminent on other
models of aircraft still in use by other contractors. An avalanche
of documentation, including maintenance procedures and individual
aircraft history, has been submitted to DynCorp, an aircraft
contractor that has agreed to review the airworthiness of the large
tanker fleet on a plane-by-plane basis.
In the meantime,
regional Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management aviation
managers are scrambling to find equipment to replace the large
tankers, because fires are beginning to blaze in the
drought-stricken West. Dozens of contractors with little or no
experience in applying fire retardant from agricultural spray
planes known as SEATs — Single Engine Air Tankers — are
hiring pilots who know how to spray on calm summer days, but not
necessarily how to douse infernos from the air. Unfortunately, with
a single pilot on board a SEAT, there is no one along to coach a
neophyte through the tricky business of delivering a payload that
strains the aircraft's capacity to perform in conditions from Hell.
At a recent fire aviation safety briefing for fire patrol
pilots, the safety briefer warned, "There's going to be a lot of
metal flying around out there over fires this year, with a lot of
inexperienced pilots (at the controls.) Keep your eyes open."
A good friend of mine was the most recent casualty in the
war on wildfire. He was a conscientious, safe pilot; a flight
instructor with 20,000 hours in small aircraft, including many
hours of aerial agricultural-application flight; a caring man no
doubt distressed at the sight of the fire he was working, licking
at the edges of a "wildland interface" subdivision.
one yet knows what went wrong. He delivered his load of retardant,
and the plane plummeted to the ground, sending his spirit out of
this world in the smoke rising from a mass of crumpled metal. The
video was just as horrifying and gut-wrenching to watch as the 2002
crash footage shared by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Perhaps there was a mechanical problem with the airplane,
operating at an altitude and under stresses higher than those it
was designed for. My friend might have made a fatal error in
judgment, losing sight of a safe route away from the drop area.
Investigators sifting through the wreckage for clues may never
uncover the cause.
Fighting fire is always risky.
Firefighters die on the ground and in the air every year. Few will
admit to any vulnerability. They continue to battle to save houses
that sprout up by the thousands in areas of high risk for forest
Agencies responsible for protecting those houses
are faced with difficult decisions, both politically and
practically. But no matter what safety precautions are preached by
fire specialists, firefighters will continue to gamble with their
lives. By eliminating an important weapon from the battlefield kit,
I hope the Washington, D.C., decision-makers have not sacrificed
lives in the effort to save others from an unknown risk.