Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A Lack of Air Support

Four members of the North Carolina Air National Guard died Sunday evening, when their C-130, configured for fire-fighting, crashed in South Dakota.  More from Air Force Times:

[Initially] "There was no official word on death or injuries, but the family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., confirmed they were notified early Monday that he had died in the C-130 crash Sunday evening.  The Air Force later announced that three other members of the crew also perished.

The 42-year-old married father of two was a veteran pilot who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six crew members were aboard the C-130 from the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte, N.C., said Lt. Col. Robert Carver. The plane crashed after dropping fire retardant."

The Charlotte unit is one of four (three ANG, one Air Force Reserve) that is trained and equipped for the fire-fighting mission.  A total of eight C-130s currently have that capability, which has been performed by specially-trained Guard and Reserve crews for the past forty years.  The crash is the first in the history of Air Force aerial fire-fighting flights.  The seven remaining aircraft have been temporarily grounded, while investigators try to determine what caused the South Dakota crash.

But there's another element to this story, one that's being somewhat ignored by the mainstream media.  Military tankers are pressed into service when the U.S. Forest Service runs short of civilian fire-fighting aircraft.  And this year, the problem has been compounded by the Obama Administration's decision to cancel the contract of a firm that has been providing aerial tankers for decades.  As Audrey Hudson of Human Events reported last fall:

Nearly half of the federal government’s firefighting air tankers are siting idle at a California airport, grounded by the Obama administration in a contract dispute just weeks before wildfires swept through Texas killing a mother and her child, and destroying 100,000 acres.

The massive blazes forced Texas Gov. and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry to abruptly call off a campaign appearance in South Carolina earlier this week to respond to the crisis, and may force him to cancel his first debate appearance Wednesday night.

The U.S. Forest Service terminated the contract with Aero Union five weeks ago to operate seven P-3 Orions that are critical to the agency’s firefighting mission, leaving the federal government with 11 tankers under contract to help battle more than 50 large uncontained wildfires now burning nationwide.

That’s down from 40 tankers used by the Forest Service just a decade ago, according to Rep. Dan Lungren (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Administration, who is challenging the decision to dismiss the largest provider of heavy air-tanker support to the federal government.
Unfortunately, Lungren and other Congressional opponents lost the battle; the Forest Service stood firm, and Aero Union--which had a 50-year history of providing air tankers to the government--was forced to close its doors. 

Consequently, the Forest Service began the fire season with just nine fixed-wing, fire-fighting aircraft.  That total was raised to 13 in early June, and the addition of the Guard and Reserve C-130s brought the inventory to 21--barely enough for the mission, according to experts.   

Now, with the military aircraft grounded, the air tanker fleet is under-strength again.  Making matters worse, the government uses very large tankers only when needed, making it impractical for operators to sustain their services.  Wildfire expert Bill Gabbert noted earlier this week that the Forest Service refuses to use the Boeing 747 "Supertanker," developed by Evergreen International.

Capable of delivering 20,000 gallons of water in a single drop, the Supertanker has been tested, but never used operationally.  Evergreen speculates that government contracting rules have effectively barred the Supertanker from being used; currently, only small businesses may bid on air tanker contracts, and none of those firms have the resources to operate a jumbo jet.  By its own estimate, Evergreen has invested more than $50 million in the Supertanker.  The Forest Service offered Evergreen a "call when needed" contract, but the company says such an agreement cannot generate the revenue needed to keep the Supertanker flying.  A rival firm (which operates DC-10 air tankers) has deployed one aircraft to Idaho, but there are questions as to how long it can sustain that operation, since the aircraft is only used periodically.

Meanwhile, the west continues to burn.  Obviously, problems with the air tanker fleet didn't begin with the Obama White House, but the current administration has done nothing to resolve the problem, and some would argue the situation is increasingly dire.  Much of the fire season is still ahead, and the Forest Service's meager tanker fleet will be hard-pressed to support fire crews on the ground.

Incidentally, Mr. Obama visited with firefighters earlier this week, during a visit to Colorado Springs.  As far as we can tell, the subject of air tankers never came up, at least publicly.            

1 comment:

Vigilis said...

"Obviously, problems with the air tanker fleet didn't begin with the Obama White House, but the current administration has done nothing to resolve the problem, and some would argue the situation is increasingly dire."

Worse, the firefighting fleet of C-130s grounded in Colorado pending cause investigation. Seems like the least a free-spending administration could manage due to an incendiary press of time would be to authorize use of substitute aircraft. Waiting...!