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Wed, May 12, 2004

33 Firefighting Tankers Grounded

Some Of The Oldest Deemed Unsafe

The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior Monday terminated contracts with the owners of 33 aging firefighting aircraft, saying their airworthiness can no longer be assured.

The surprise decision comes in the wake of three crashes involving such older aircraft between 1994 and 2002. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said the aircraft -- some of them more than 60 years old -- an "unacceptable risk" to those who fly them, firefighters on the ground and people who live in areas threatened by wildfires.

The aging planes include the DC-4, DC-7 and P-3.

"It's serious, but we will be able to do our job," said Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron. Terminating the 33 contracts leaves the Forest Service with 491 aircraft -- both fixed-wing and rotor -- in its firefighting inventory.

The Forest Service had grounded tankers in 2002, after two firefighting aircraft went down while on the job in California and Colorado. In both cases, wings folded on the aircraft as they were in flight.

Most of the aircraft suspended two years ago were reinstated to flying status after they were inspected by the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque (NM). But last month, the NTSB reported that maintenance and inspection programs were not adequate.

"It was apparent that no effective mechanism currently exists to ensure the continuing airworthiness of these firefighting aircraft," the report said.

The reason? The NTSB said there was no way to completely assess the structural stresses that aircraft endure while fighting fires. Nor could officials figure out a way to trace an aircraft's maintenance background all the way back -- including, if appropriate, the aircraft's time in military service.

The government says it can fight wildfires with the remaining fleet of aerial tankers. But many both inside and outside of the Forest Service say the loss of 33 aircraft and the prospect of a long, hot summer on the fire line mean those aircraft will be sorely missed.

The Portland Oregonian reports the fire season there, as in other places, is already underway and, yes, it's a bit early. But firefighting officials are worried that, with military resources stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, and given the elevated fire risk across the West, "What it's starting to look like, to us anyway, is the perfect storm," said Mike Fitzpatrick of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

FMI: www.fs.fed.us

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