Upgrade the firefighting fleet of planes

The last thing we want to see happen is a repeat of the horrible crash near Walker, Calif., during the summer of 2002 when an air tanker fighting a wildfire crashed, killing three crew members.

The image captured by a television photographer of the wings simply collapsing is as chilling and sad as any we've seen from wildfire disasters. During the last decade, eight air tankers have crashed. Sixteen people have died.

The grounding of 33 aging tankers by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management is intended to forestall a reoccurrence of the tragedy. The agencies say they will replenish the fleet, announcing Wednesday plans to contract for more than 100 additional aircraft this summer at a cost of $66 million.

While we hope those planes and helicopters won't be needed, the likelihood is they will. And chances are firefighting crews could use the 33 air tankers that will be staying on the ground.

Why can't the tankers be individually inspected and put in the air? After all, it's a risk the pilots and crew take - and the potential for saving other lives and property is immense.

The problem is that the National Transportation Safety Board says the crashes were caused by "fatigue cracking," something that inspections haven't adequately addressed. More stringent testing is required.

It all sounds to us like a combination of bureaucracy and risk-aversion. The federal government can't afford to ignore the problems the planes have had, nor the NTSB reports that say there's no telling what will happen when those old planes are put under the extreme stress encountered in mountain firefights, nor the potential liability that would accompany any future crash.

Are states willing to take those responsibilities? If so, they can hire the companies and get the grounded tankers back in the air. Our guess, though, is that these planes have seen their last duty.

The National Interagency Fire Center says it still has a fleet of 700 aircraft capable of dropping retardant. Most of them are smaller planes, more nimble but lacking the capacity of tankers.

Some argue the venerable tankers still have life in them, and they would be right. But none will last forever, and who's to say which one will be the next to fail?

The only long-term answer is for the Forest Service and BLM to spend enough money to upgrade the firefighting fleet to aircraft that can do the job and have the best chance of flying home again safely.


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