The below two headlines scream that the US inventory of aviation assets and pilots may not be adequate to preserve the nation’s national forests, other natural assets, homes, buildings and people. This appears to be a crisis for which the FAA, NTSB and NASA should be part of the solution.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center between January 1, 2015 and September 15 of this year, the United States has been subject to 46,474 fires which scourged 8,821,040 acres. There are a number of reports that this year’s conflagrations have reached historic levels. The AinOnline article makes the following point:
“’Fire season happened all at once this summer,’ Kari Boyd-Peak of the federal Bureau of Land Management told AIN. ‘We had shortages of everything. We brought in air resources from the military and used agreements with Canadians [who brought water bombers and helicopters], Australians and New Zealanders to help us out as well.’ The imported help supplemented an already impressive showing by the U.S. federal government, which deployed 150 helicopters, 30 fixed-wing tankers and 32,000 people, most of them under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.”
Aviation Pros’ article about helicopter pilots adds further insight about pilot shortages:
“Of the agency’s eight helicopters, ‘Right now we can only fly between 4-5 DNR helicopters because we don’t have the pilots,’ Adolphson wrote in a letter sent Aug. 11 and obtained by The Seattle Times…
Adolphson argued low pay was making it hard to recruit pilots, and the state should spend some of the money it uses to contract for additional helicopters to beef up its own staff.
Whether the shortage hampered the summer’s wildfire battle isn’t easy to gauge, but the concerns come as national, state and local firefighting resources have been outstripped by the unprecedented blazes. And in the long term, wildfires in the state are projected to worsen due to climate change, forestland littered with fuel and more homes in and around wildland areas.
DNR representatives say the agency is trying to recruit pilots nationally and there are some possible job candidates, but four of the agency’s 12 pilot positions are currently unfilled.”
This inadequate pool of aviators has not been the subject of as many public complaints, but the facts are hard, if not impossible, to dispute.
The wildfires are incredibly destructive and may create a crisis which might motivate Congress to take action as well as stimulate the FAA, NTSB and NASA to use their collective talents!
What are the facts which should drive this proposal for an Aerial Firefighting Initiative?
These problems are not new news. Since 2004, the NTSB has expressed increasing concerns about the age and maintenance of these aircraft. In the years since that initial warning, the Board has issued eight pronouncements (either probable cause findings/investigations or other safety recommendations or forums or press releases) on this sphere of aviation safety. NASA designed, created and now has put into firefighting environments its Ikhana Drone. This high tech sensing UAS provides sensing of the fires and gives the firefighting strategists even greater intelligence.
The GAO issued a strongly worded report in 2013 highlighted the issues involved in trying to defeat these raging destructive forces. They found then that “the Forest Service and Interior expand efforts to collect information on the performance and effectiveness of firefighting aircraft and enhance collaboration across agencies and the fire aviation community.”
The inventory of aircraft consists of fixed wing and rotorcraft which are frequently exhibited in aviation museums. These aging vehicles are the least worst options and their flight logs make it clear that maintenance is the fleet’s number one priority to make them available. Here’s a brief list of the typical firefighting aircraft:
- AH-1 Firewatch “Cobra”
- Boeing-Vertol BV 107
- Boeing 234
- Douglas DC-6
- Douglas DC-7
- Grumman S-2T
- Martin Mars
- Lockheed P-3 Orion
- Lockheed P-2 Neptune
- Lockheed C-130 cargo/utility aircraft
- Sikorsky CH-53E “Super Stallion”
- Sikorsky S-61
- Sikorsky S-64
- Sikorsky S -70 “Firehawk”
The capacities and limitations of these workhorses are well documented in this fact sheet issued by the NIFC; the rental charges reflect their high MX costs and their old engines which guzzle Avgas. Also each write-up notes limitations. The addition of a Super B-747 tanker may help for the immediate needs, but it is no long term solution.
The new inventory may come from China or Russia. There is one new conversion of a Bombardier CL415 aircraft (pictured above), nicknamed the “Super Scooper,” will produce much better performance in defeating fires—
“In an average mission of six nautical miles distance from water to fire, it can complete nine drops within an hour and deliver 14,589 gallons of water,” Bailey says. “It takes about 12 seconds to fill the CL415, which then [drops] water on the fire from a height of about 100 to 150 feet.”
That ability to deliver the volume of liquids needed to douse the fires demonstrates the value of new technology.
The Rand Corporation focused on the problematic firefighting mission and made the following cogent comment:
- “Both [analytical] models favor a fleet mix dominated by water-carrying scoopers, with a niche role for retardant-carrying airtankers.”
- “Although scoopers require proximity to an accessible body of water, they have two advantages: shorter cycle times to drop water and lower cost.”
- “Scoopers are considerably less expensive to own and operate than larger helicopters and fixed-wing airtankers ($2.8 million versus $7.1 million per year).”
- “When fires are near water, scoopers can drop more water than airtankers can drop retardant.”
- “At least two-thirds of historical fires have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible body of water, and about 80 percent have been within five miles of a helicopter-accessible body of water.”
- “Airtankers have a niche role in fighting wildfires that are not proximate to scooper- or helicopter-accessible water sources.”
- “Given the frequency with which airtankers are employed to fight already-large fires, there should be more research on the outcomes and the impact of air support in these scenarios.”
- “The Forest Service explained to RAND that its own prior analysis showed that the core of the large aircraft fleet would necessarily remain large aircraft capable of carrying between 1,000-3,000 gallons of retardant, not the so-called very large air tankers. As such, they asked RAND to restrict the focus of these analyses to the optimal mix of large aircraft.”
- “The RAND analyses suggest that the Forest Service can achieve the same levels of fire suppression with a tanker-centric fleet as with a scooper-centric fleet, but a tanker-centric fleet will cost substantially more.”
- “RAND examined expected costs of both new and used aircraft. However, the values the study uses in the reported model runs use annualized costs for new scoopers and tankers, because of the Forest Service’s emphasis to RAND that it wished to consider newer, safer aircraft built for the air tanker mission or missions similar in maneuver loads and low-level flight. Helicopter costs were assumed to be equivalent to current Forest Service lease rates.”
- “It is true that one would expect some reduction in annualized costs if leasing older aircraft. In the study, Figure 4.1, for instance, shows that the very old air tankers the Forest Service has been using have lease costs about 80 percent of what the study expects the annualized cost of new large air tankers would be.”
- “The RAND cost estimates are reasonable for purposes of the modeling exercise, but not sufficiently precise to support acquisition decisions. It might be that used aircraft (air tankers and scoopers) are available on the market for somewhat less than the study’s annualized cost estimates. With more precise cost data on market rates and availability, the models could be re-run to provide fleet mix estimates matching any preferred acquisition approach.”
The US Forest Service has a well-developed strategy and set of tactics to support its mission to respond to these challenges of Mother Nature.
What can the three federal agencies and Congress do to help in this annual struggle?
First, there should be special efforts to recruit and train the pilots needed to fly these missions. Subsidies to help pay for the training of this corps of aerial firefighters and FAA assistance in helping to create curricula for Part 142 training centers and aviation academic institutions. Perhaps the great network of Western universities might make scholarships for these specialized pilots.Second, given NASA’s experience with its Ikhana UAS, the NTSB’s expertise based on at least 8 recent cases and the FAA’s preeminent knowledge of the certification process, they could work together to help design a next generation firefighting aircraft. A joint task force might include the OEMs and the operators. Congress might create a guarantee that an adequate number of firefighting aircraft to cover the developmental costs. The goal is to develop aircraft which is more efficient, lower cost, more effective retardant capacity and safer.
Whatever may be the right set of federal actions, it is certain that some federal reaction to these horrible wildfires must be vigorously initiated now.