Firefighting pilots deserve better


Last Sunday, an aging P2V air tanker, T-11, flew low over the White Rock fire on the border of Utah and Nevada, dropped 2,000 gallons of retardant and crashed into the mountainside. Pilot Todd Tompkins, who loved fighting fires, died alongside his co-pilot, Ronnie Edwin Chambless. Iron County Sheriff’s detective Jody Edwards told the Missoulian the plane’s wing began clipping treetops as it unloaded retardant.

The fleet of P2Vs, contracted by the Forest Service from Neptune Aviation and Minden Air Corp are the last vestiges of an old fleet that the Forest Service has been dragging its feet to replace for years. This fact makes the pending results of the crash investigation particularly important.

The Forest Service had 44 tankers under contract in 2006, but that number has dwindled; after Sunday's crash, the tanker total now stands at nine. In 2002, after two tankers built in the 1940s and 50s broke apart in midair, the Forest Service permanently grounded C-130As and PB4Ys. Since then, scrutiny has only intensified as watchdogs wait for the Forest Service to show some leadership in drawing up a solution. Senators from Oregon, New Mexico, Alaska and California asked the Government Accountability Office in March to evaluate whether the Forest Service had done a good job of analyzing its fleet.

Beginning in 1995, the Forest Service commissioned a pile of independent studies to help it make a decision on how to replace the tankers. The Service appears partial to Lockheed Martin-made C-130s, and former Undersecretary of Agriculture, Mark Rey, now a Lockheed Martin employee, has lobbied for those contracts. But C-130s are $80 to $90 million planes, and the agency budget is shrinking.

Without a solution, the fleet keeps getting older, enduring constant repair. USFS fire and aviation director Tom Harbour has said that the airplanes are safe and they wouldn’t be flying them if they weren’t. But while Neptune Aviation, who maintains seven of the eight remaining P2Vs, has an outstanding crew of mechanics, they’re operating on planes averaging 50 years of age, some of which date back to the Korean War. As firefighting planes, they endure extreme flying conditions and have a history of serious complications.

Even on the same day as the T-11 crash, the flight crew for T-55, another P2V, narrowly averted disaster when their landing gear faltered. They were able to make a rough landing. Neptune retired one of its P2Vs in May after they found a 24-inch crack in the wing spar. A P2V’s brakes failed on the runway at Jeffco airport in Colorado in 2010. And a total of six people died in two separate crashes in P2Vs in 2008 and 2009

Retired tanker pilot and safety chairman for the Associated Aerial Firefighters Walt Darran says “The Forest Service is having a real hard time making a decision on any of this stuff. It’s only been in the last few months that they’ve admitted that they have a problem. They were supposed to come out with awarding contracts 4 or 5 months ago. But they just keep walking around in circles.”

Darran believes the Service should be looking to restock their fleet with lighter, more affordable planes to do what planes do best, which is respond early to fires. Darran worked with CalFire, where they have 23 S-2 planes that can respond to any fire from their 13 tanker bases within 15 minutes. The wider West has nowhere near that response time.

All the tanker studies assessing the way forward were conducted by people with no real firefighting experience, says Darran. He’d like to see purpose-built next generation tankers that provide better protection for pilots, especially as wildfires become more extreme. Darran also believes better agency leadership and collaboration with the aviation industry, pilots and mechanics will create a more efficient fleet that improves communications and safety standards.

For a profession that’s seen 61 people killed in just ten years, for godsakes, somebody needs to do something.

Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News.

Flickr photo provided by Fireground.

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