Spotlight on safety at airtanker pilots’ conference in Reno
RENO — The head of a pilots’ group and a Forest Service aviation official agreed Monday with many of the conclusions offered by a panel that criticized the lack of safety standards for U.S. firefighting aircraft.
Members of the Association of Airtanker Pilots meeting at their annual convention said they’re committed to changes that will make their job safer. But they warned it will require a major investment from Congress to follow the recommendations of a blue ribbon panel formed after six crew members were killed in two airtanker crashes this summer.
“We all have always taken safety very seriously. It’s just that now with the tragic loss of two crews this year, we’ve really had our nose rubbed in it,” said Bob Wofford, the group’s chairman and a longtime airtanker pilot for one of the Forest Service’s firefighting contractors, Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont.
“The blue ribbon panel just made it apparent we finally have to wake up to our problems,” he said. “If we can’t maintain these planes safely, none of us has any business being in them.”
Kathy Allred, fixed-wing aviation specialist for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, told the 150 pilots and others at the conference at a Reno hotel-casino that they should read the panel’s report carefully.
“Some of it is a little inaccurate but for the most part, they got it right,” she said. “It will be a challenge to say the least. We’re going to need some help from people with money in Washington D.C.”
“It’s going to be a tough few months but we’ll get through it and we’ll have airtankers flying again,” she said. She said the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to help the Forest Service develop a maintenance inspection program.
The pilots gathered two weeks after the blue ribbon panel issued its report and the Forest Service announced it was permanently grounding all C-130A airtankers and temporarily grounding other tankers until inspections have ensured their airworthiness.
Wofford said he doubts many of the grounded planes will be cleared to fly before May or June — long after the fire season has begun in the Southeast and Southwest United States.
“Our industry is in a tremendous amount of turmoil right now. We don’t really know what’s going to happen,” he said in an interview.
The blue ribbon panel said safety standards for the contract pilots and crew flying firefighting missions are lower than for those flying other government missions, and the government does not impose special standards upon private contractors to reflect the severe conditions in which the aircraft are flown. It also said training is inadequate.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in September that fatigue cracks in the wings of both planes caused the wings to shear off before this summer’s crashes.
An NTSB investigator told the pilots group in a speech Monday that cockpit recorders — like those in commercial aircraft — should be required for firefighting aircraft.
“We really need recorders. We need to know what the airplanes are going through at different times,” said George Petterson, who led the probe of the C130-A crash in the Sierra that killed all three on board in June. “Hopefully the steps resulting from the blue ribbon panel and the accident investigation will save lives.”
Some pilots suggested doing away with a flight-based pay system that encourages them to fly even when the plane is in less than perfect condition or when fire or weather conditions are too dangerous.
Wofford said it’s controversial with pilots but that he thinks the federal government should follow the lead of California and go to daily pay schedules that compensate pilots regardless of the number of flights.
“Those of us in the business want to do a good job and want to do it safety. But sometimes judgment is clouded if we lose the flight pay,” said Wofford, who started flying airtankers in 1973.
“You look at the maintenance and maybe its not perfect or maybe the conditions are not just right, but you need that $150 an hour so you still do it.”
Wofford said the blue ribbon panel “pointed a pretty heavy finger at the Forest Service.
“But it also implied that maintenance is not up to standards and that’s partially due to funding. The Forest Service was forced to acknowledge these planes do need more attention. They will have to dig down deep in the budget. I think they will. They have no choice,” he said.
“There is no reason these planes cannot be safe with the proper inspections and maintenance.”