Firefighting aircraft at risk |

Firefighting aircraft at risk

Sun News ServiceAn air tanker makes a retardant drop on Alpine County's Burnside Fire Monday.

The safety of a fleet of nearly 800 firefighting aircraft, many of them aging, converted warplanes, has raised controversy for years as the number of tragic air accidents mount.

The fleet suffered another fatal accident Monday when an air tanker crashed on takeoff Monday in Reno causing the death of the three people onboard. The plane had made retardant drops on the Burnside Fire south of Lake Tahoe, and was taking off to fight a different California fire when witnesses say the plane’s engine caught fire.

The incident was not an isolated mishap, according to an Associated Press review of planes owned and contracted to the U.S. Forest Service. Since 1991, 27 people have died in the crashes of air tankers either operated by or contracted to the U.S. Forest Service.

According to a February Scripps Howard article, 28 Forest Service aircraft have crashed between 2002 and 2006.

In 2004, the concern over the safety of two air tankers similar to the one that crashed in Reno Monday caused the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to ground the 1960s tankers during middle of fire season.

The federal government questioned the “operational lifetime” of the planes, along with almost 30 other large firefighting planes, before clearing them once again for duty in August of 2004.

The rate of recent air accidents caused the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, to heavily criticize the agency’s safety program in February.

“The Forest Service has suffered numerous, potentially preventable aviation accidents over the years, and continues to be at risk for more,” the investigators with the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General noted in a February Scripps Howard News Service article.

Congressmen from a number of Western state have also joined the chorus of voices calling for stiffer safety regulations for the firefighting aircraft.

As the fire season started this spring, four congressmen sent a letter to the undersecretary of agriculture demanding an update on the safety plan for the air tanker fleet that fights wildfires across the Western United States.

Colorado Congressmen Mark Udall and John Salazar, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-WV, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-OR, signed the letter that pointed out that a year had passed without action since Mark Rey, undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture, promised a safety plan for the aircraft.

“The very least we can do for the brave men and women who risk their lives to protect people and property is make sure they have the safest equipment available to do their job,” said Congressman Mark Udall, in a written statement in April. “Mr. Rey’s assurances of last year that he and his agency are ‘working on it,’ when we’ve not seen a new safety plan, are just not going to cut it. These firefighters deserve better.”

The Forest Service responded to the scathing February Inspector General’s report by assuring that they were ramping up safety inspections of their fleet of 26 aircraft and the 771 aircraft that are used to fight fires on contract.

The agency resisted the call for the Federal Aviation Administration to take a heavier oversight role of their aircraft, despite investigators saying the Forest Service “possesses neither the technical information nor the expertise to assess its firefighting aircrafts’ airworthiness,” according to the Scripps Howard article.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to arrive at Reno-Stead airport Tuesday to begin searching for clues into Monday’s air tanker crash, officials said.

The crash marked at least the third time a P2V owned by Neptune suffered a fatal crash while fighting wildfires on government contract over the past 15 years. Two men were killed when one crashed near Missoula in 1994 and two other men died in a crash near Reserve, N.M., in 1998.

“The Associated Press contributed to this report

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