Unclear how many large air tankers available for 2005 | NevadaAppeal.com

Unclear how many large air tankers available for 2005

Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. – Large air tankers will continue to help fight wildfires for the “foreseeable future,” a top U.S. Forest Service official says, but how many will be available for the 2005 fire season remains unclear.

Tom Harbour, the agency’s incoming director of fire and aviation, said some of the aircraft that were cleared to fly for part of the 2004 fire season will be available next year to fight on federal lands.

He said additional aircraft also could be available after “safety-related concerns” are addressed.

In May, the Forest Service and Department of Interior terminated contracts for 33 large air tankers because of concerns with airworthiness and public safety. Three aging tankers crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members.

Federal officials later agreed to let some of the tankers return for the 2004 season if their operators could prove the aircraft were safe to fly.

Last summer, seven P3 Orions were returned to service. Officials also allowed two P2V tankers to return, but with limits. The P2Vs were outfitted with data-gathering devices that officials said would aid in determining airworthiness for the rest of the P2V fleet. That work continues.

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Meanwhile, Harbour, who was appointed to lead the Forest Service’s fire and aviation program earlier this month, said he expects there will be at least eight or nine P3s available for the 2005 fire season, and the Forest Service “will have a place for heavy air tankers into the foreseeable future.”

Industry officials contend the aircraft, effective in initial attack on wildfires, are safe and are eager to have them more fully returned to service.

“The bottom line here is protecting people’s property and homes and lives, and the big airplanes do a good, efficient job of that,” said Norman Stubbs, maintenance supervisor for California-based TBM Inc. and Butler Aircraft, in Oregon.

The future for large air tankers and the role they would play in the federal firefighting arsenal, in 2006 and beyond, also is being looked at, Harbour said.

Even before the National Transportation Safety Board report that led to the contract cancellations, Harbour said officials were discussing modernizing the fleet, something companies also were interested in pursuing.

Chris Holm, director of aviation safety for Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, said the company is committed to modernizing the entire tanker fleet.