Forest Service Looks to New Air Tanker Fleet

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Three fatal crashes grounded the nation's aging fleet of air tankers last year. As the wildfire season nears, 16 planes are ready for action, about half the number once in service. Tamara Keith of NPR station KPCC looks at one of the planes that will be the most likely successor.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Wildfire fighters have returned a powerful weapon to their arsenal. Nine heavy-duty air tankers are scheduled to return to duty just as the Western fire season gets under way. The Forest Service grounded the entire heavy tanker fleet last summer following three fatal crashes. Tamara Keith from member station KPCC reports.

TAMARA KEITH reporting:

Before it would allow the Lockheed P2V tankers back in the sky, the Forest Service had to figure out if they were safe and for how long they'd remain that way. And that wasn't a simple task. The planes were military surplus, but the military hadn't used them in decades, and that meant there wasn't a lot of data available to determine just how many hours the planes could fly before risking catastrophic metal failure, where a plane literally falls apart in the sky. So the agency brought in a consultant and dug through what data it could. Mark Rey is the undersecretary of agriculture.

Mr. MARK REY (Undersecretary of Agriculture): We've become convinced, as a result of the analysis that we completed, that the airplanes are safe to fly and they have not reached their operational life limit.

KEITH: This brings the nation's heavy air tanker fleet to 16 planes, half of what it was four years ago. Mark Rey says he'd like to bring the fleet of heavy tankers up to 25 or 30, but that will mean looking beyond the planes currently in service. The owners of the P2Vs say they have anywhere from three to 15 years left in them, and when they're finished, Rey says there won't be any new ones.

Mr. REY: We appreciate that this generation of aircraft are finite in their life span. They're not being manufactured anymore. You know, eventually they'll reach unoperational service life limit, and we'll have to find something different. And we'll start looking over the next couple of years to the next generation of aircraft.

KEITH: That next generation is likely to include this plane, the P-3 Orien. The P-3 is a submarine chaser still used by the Navy. It's already part of the Forest Service fleet, but unlike the other planes, it was still being manufactured until very recently. The Forest Service doesn't own any of the aircraft in its fleet. Currently all of the firefighting P-3 are owned by one Northern California company, Aero Union.

(Soundbite of plane's engine)

KEITH: Terry Unsworth, a former British Royal Air Force pilot, is CEO of the company. He's overseeing the final maintenance work on two planes before they head out for the season.

(Soundbite of power tools)

Mr. TERRY UNSWORTH (CEO, Aero Union): Our maintenance follows the Navy's maintenance program to the letter, so everything the US Navy do with P-3s we have to do with ours.

KEITH: Unsworth says P-3 Oriens are designed for low swoops and quick turns, and that makes them great for firefighting.

Mr. UNSWORTH: They're a beautiful aircraft: four Rolls-Royce T56 engines. The tank system you see underneath is our own design; it's a 3,000-gallon tank. And the crew can control the flow, so it drips out or it evacuates the whole tank in a few seconds.

KEITH: As the Navy moves to newer models and phases out the P-3, the Forest Service plans to help contractors, like Aero Union, get their hands on more of the surplus planes so they can be retrofitted for firefighting. The P-3s are not the only answer. As many as 16 companies are looking at retrofitting other planes or building new ones. Bill Broadwell, executive director of the Aerial Firefighting Industry Association, says a new plane built just for firefighting would be ideal.

Mr. BILL BROADWELL (Executive Director, Aerial Firefighting Industry Association): Designed for the firefighting environment, where they go out, they measure what the environment is and its stresses on the airplanes, and they build the aircraft to those specifications to be able to withstand that.

KEITH: But new tankers, even converted craft, won't be ready for this fire season. Like last year, the Forest Service will fill in with single-engine planes and more expensive helicopters. For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith.

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