Buck-passing on airtankers stops where?
December 11, 2002
The grounding of airtankers used to fight wildfires and new attention paid to their safety won’t bring back the six crew members who died last summer, but it might save lives in the future.
The U.S. Forest Service finally stepped in last week to ensure 11 airtankers — similar to one which crashed fighting a fire near Walker, Calif., south of Carson City — will never take to the air again. Other planes will face rigorous safety inspections.
Ultimately, the responsibility for the airworthiness of the craft belongs to the private companies which own them. Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo., which owned the ill-fated plane at Walker, insists its safety record is good.
It’s hard to tell, though, because no government agency was keeping a close eye on the company or others that contract with federal authorities to handle firefighting duties.
The most apalling information, in an article by Reno-based Associated Press reporter Scott Sonner appearing in Sunday’s edition of the Nevada Appeal, was the buck-passing from one agency to another.
“The C-130A cargo plane that took three crew members to their deaths would have been pulled from fire duty years ago if the Forest Service had listened to warnings from the agency’s own experts, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general, the federal government’s property manager, a private whistleblower who sued in protest and federal prosecutors in the Justice Department’s fraud unit,” Sonner wrote.
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In summary, the federal government practically gave away aging aircraft to private companies, then hired those companies to do dangerous work — with little oversight. In our view, that clearly makes the federal government culpable.
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., a pilot, should call for a congressional investigation, as he suggested he might.
There is far more to resolve here than whether these planes should be flying. The entire procurement process must be overhauled and accountability for the safety of the aircraft assigned to one agency, most likely the Federal Aviation Administration.
This was not a bureaucratic snafu that fell through the cracks. These planes, with human beings aboard, fell from the sky.