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Despite warnings, aging firefighting aircraft still flying -- and crashing

In a Neptune Aviation Services hangar in Missoula, Mont., the past, present and future of the U.S. of the firefighting air tanker industry sit side by side. But until more next- generation aircraft are available, pilots continue to fly World War II-era planes in some of the most-difficult flying conditions in aviation, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

On the afternoon of June 3, an aging Lockheed Martin P2V air tanker crashed near the border of Nevada and Utah, killing the pilot and co-pilot.

The same day, one landing gear on a P2V failed to deploy, forcing the plane to circle a landing strip in Minden, Nev., burning off excess fuel before making an emergency landing and skidding to a halt.

Both planes were more than 50 years old.

The day highlighted the dangers that come with piloting one of the U.S. Forest Service’s aging air tankers, which average more than a half-century old.

Six people died in air tanker crashes during firefighting missions this year, and at least 22 have perished in the past decade, according to a review of accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Critics say it’s no surprise the air tankers are not fit for the rigors of 21st-century firefighting. Many were designed for other missions, then scavenged from the fields of the Pentagon's massive aircraft "Boneyard" in Arizona, and retrofitted to battle wildfires across the country.

“This is the third generation of old military aircraft that have ended up causing multiple deaths,” said Jim Hall, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. He also was co-chair of a federal commission that issued a critical report on the state of the U.S. Forest Service’s aerial firefighting capability in 2002 recommending the agency modernize its aging fleet.

But a decade later, many of those planes continue to fly -- and crash – often in some of the most difficult flying environments in aviation: remote, mountainous forests and valleys where planes can be jolted by swirling winds and turbulence and forced to fly through heavy smoke and ash.

Pilots say they have seen giant rocks and tree stumps thrown into the air – sometimes hitting planes – due to the powerful convection forces created by intense forest fires. And the weight of planes rapidly shifts as they dump thousands of pounds of water or retardant in mere seconds. The extreme conditions also can prey on the weaknesses of the tankers: Wings have fractured and separated from aircraft bodies. Engines have caught fire. Hydraulic system lines have ruptured.

Steve Kohls / AP file

A Lockeed P2V air tanker operated by Neptune Aviation makes drops fire retardant over a wooded area north of Brainerd, Minn., on April 2, 1998.

“I have serious concerns about both the size and age of the aging air tanker fleet, and fear that it isn’t up to the job of stopping wildfires that grow larger every year,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Forestry Subcommittee. “That’s what I have repeatedly told the Forest Service, as I have pushed them to address this crisis.”

Both congressional and Forest Service leaders recognize the need to update the fleet, but Congress has never allocated funding to pay for new aircraft. President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposes $1.97 billion for wildland fire management, down from about $2.2 billion in 2011. It includes $24 million to modernize the air tanker fleet, but that’s a fraction of the cost needed, critics say. Congressional  budget proposals, meanwhile, do not include any money for the fleet’s modernization.

Since 2007, one-third of the 79 forest firefighter deaths have occurred in aviation accidents,  more than any other cause, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a coalition of federal and state fire agencies.

“I’ve been on fires in California where people have had their houses burned underneath them twice before- - they rebuilt the third time in the same spot,” said Dick Mangan, a former program leader at the Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center with more than 30 years experience in wildland firefighting. “The only thing that doesn’t come back are dead firefighters. Grass grows back, the trees come back, houses come back. Dead firefighters don’t come back.”

And as wildfires have grown in size in the last decade – 2012 has seen more than 9 million acres burn, the third-highest amount this century – the number of available air tankers has been halved. Some have been retired from services; others have been destroyed in crashes. The Forest Service estimates its needs 18 to 28 “next-generation” large air tankers, but did not seek a congressional appropriation last summer because of budgetary constraints. 

“It is a monetary issue, absolutely,” said Ron Hanks, head of aviation safety with the Forest Service. “The cost, the engineering and the development – they’re costly.”

Industry leaders defend the safety records of the planes. They note that age itself does not disqualify a plane from meeting the Forest Service’s requirements, and properly maintained planes can continue to be airworthy even as they pass 50 years in age.

Dan Snyder, the president of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Mont., said his company has begun buying and retrofitting former British passenger planes to replace the older aircraft. But Snyder, whose company has the biggest air tanker contract, defended the safety records of planes like the P2V.

“It’s an airframe that has really worked well for us,” Snyder said. “It’s taken the stress and strain quite well.”

Still, Snyder acknowledged that many airframes are fast-approaching their life limits. “They can only fly so many takeoffs and landings, which we call ‘cycles,’ and those cycle limits are starting to approach,” he said.

For old sub chasers, the mission has changed
Captain Todd Neal Tompkins understood the risks.

The Boise pilot had flown over wildfires for years, and firefighting often took him away from his family for extended periods during the wildfire season, said his friend, Brian Walp.

“He was in touch with the fact that when he left in the spring to go to work, it may be the last time he’d see his kids,” Walp said. “I think he lived with that idea.”

At 1:47 p.m. on June 3, Tompkins was in a Lockheed P2V that crashed into mountainous terrain while dropping retardant in a shallow valley north of Modena, Utah. Tompkins and co-pilot Ronnie Edwin Chambless died in the crash. The NTSB has not released its final report on the cause.

Scott G Winterton / AP file

The scene near Hamblin Valley, Utah, on June 4 after a P2V air tanker crashed as it dropped retardant on a 5,000-acre wildfire, killing pilots Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho.

The P2V has long been the workhorse of the Forest Service’s aerial firefighting fleet. Designed to track submarines in the 1940s, the P2Vs remained in military use until the Vietnam War.

In the years after Vietnam, the tankers were given a new job: dropping fire retardant on wildfires. Retrofitted to carry retardant but with relatively few other changes, the planes – and similar planes like the Lockheed P3 Orion -- were deployed across the American West.

“Many of these aircraft – P2 and P3s, old submarine search planes – come from the Korean War and Vietnam era,” Mangan said. “They do not have the greatest track record.”

In the past decade, P2V crashes alone have resulted in at least 10 deaths. On Sept. 1, 2008, a P2V crashed and killed the pilot and two passengers after the left engine caught fire during takeoff near Reno, Nev. The following spring, a P2V crashed while attempting to navigate foggy, windy weather in Utah’s Oquirrh Mountains, killing all three people onboard.

“Clearly, those aircraft were not designed for the missions they are flying,” said Hall, the former NTSB chairman. “We recommended a purpose-built aircraft for the types of missions being flown 10 years ago. It could have easily been accomplished during that time.”

The P2V isn't the only plane that has critics worried.

In July, the U.S. Air Force grounded all firefighting-equipped C-130s on loan to the Forest Service from the Department of Defense after one of the turboprop planes crashed in South Dakota, killing four people. While many of the C-130s are significantly younger than the P2Vs, Hall said they simply were not designed to handle the dangerous conditions above wildfires.

But newer, better-designed planes are out of the Forest Service’s reach due to cost.

The Forest Service’s modernization strategy, published in February, includes contracts for next-generation civilian aircraft like the BAe-146, which cost about $7 million apiece and carry 3,000 gallons of fire suppressant  -- much less than larger, more expensive tankers. Retrofitting adds $1 million to $4 million to the price tag.

Other retrofitted planes can be even costlier: A new C-130J, for example, which can deliver 4,000 gallons of fire suppressant, costs about $80 million, according to the Forest Service report. Or the agency can lease a C-130 flown by military pilots from the Air Force for $13,740 a day, plus $6,600 for every hour it’s in the air.

All of these options would put a significant strain on the Forest Service’s budget. But inaction also carries a price too: About $55 million was spent each year from 2009-2011 to maintain the current fleet, said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service.

Dug up from the Boneyard
After World War II, the U.S. Air Force established a storage facility near Tucson, Ariz., where dry conditions kept aircraft from corroding. Today, it is officially known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance Regeneration Group.

But many refer to it by its more colloquial name: the Boneyard.

Since its inception, the Boneyard’s fleet has grown to include planes like the P2Vs and C-130s. Now, with more than 4,400 aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles from all branches of the military and NASA, the Boneyard operates as a stockpile for military units and government agencies to take parts or entire planes for their own use or to sell to U.S. allies.

For years, these mothballed planes have been called into action to battle wildfires. In 2002, the federal firefighting commission took a closer look at the Boneyard, condemning the Forest Service's practice of using retired military planes salvaged from the facility.

One of those planes was a Lockheed C-130A, registration number N130HP. Built in 1957, the plane was retired from military service in 1978, spent a decade in the boneyard and then was retrofitted with retardant tanks to battle wildfires.

On June 17, 2002, as the plane swept low over a fire in California, its wings separated from the body of the plane, sending it plummeting to the ground. The accident, which was filmed by a witness, killed all three people on board. An examination of the wreckage found fatigue cracks in the right wing, a problem that had been found in other C-130s, according to the NTSB.

The dramatic footage sparked concern about the aging fleet. And in December of that year, the federal commission called its safety record “unacceptable.”

The C-130 crash is not the only example of structural failure. On July 18, 2002, a Vultee P4Y-2 air tanker’s left wing ripped off, sending the plane spiraling into a Colorado mountain and killing two crew members. Cracks in the frame of the aircraft, which was manufactured in 1945, went undetected because they were hidden behind the retardant tank, according to the NTSB report on the crash.

Hall, the chair of the federal commission, said the Forest Service is gradually phasing out these older planes, but not quickly enough, and without funding for newer planes.

“In the same period of time since this report was published, we have fought two wars,” but made virtually no progress in updating the federal firefighting fleet, he said in a recent interview.

At the same time, he said, the fleet has shrunk steadily. In 2002, the agency contracted for more than 40 air tankers.

“Right now, we have 17 aircraft, and that includes the Canadian aircraft that we have borrowed,” Hanks said.

Building for the future but relying on the past
In a hangar in Missoula, Mont., the past, present and future of the air tanker industry can be found side by side.

All nine of Neptune’s planes -- seven P2Vs, and two BAe-146 passenger jets that are being refitted to fight fires -- are under government contract., but the fleet of P2Vs has dwindled in recent years. Neptune will retire two of its P2V Neptunes this year and replace them with BAe-146s.

“The P2Vs that Neptune operates were built in the late 40s, early 50s – so they’re 60, 70-year-old aircraft,” said Ron Hooper, a former government contracting officer who now works for Neptune. “The BAe-146’s were in passenger service over in England, and they’re 15, 16-year-old aircraft.”

Neptune is one of only two remaining air-tanker contractors in the U.S. Last year, the Forest Service ended its contract with Aero Union, a California company that operated P3 Orions. The Federal Aviation Administration said the company failed to follow the scheduled inspections of its air tankers. (Aero Union CEO Britt Gourley said in a letter published in January by Wildfiretoday.com that the company’s “aircraft have always been meticulously maintained and continuously airworthy. He also stated that Aero Union had appealed the contract termination through the judicial process, but in the meantime had been forced to sell the aircraft and lay off its 60 employees.)

In June, the Forest Service announced it would contract with four U.S. companies to lease seven new air tankers, some of which could have been in the air this year. But two bidding companies that lost out protested, saying the contract requirements were vague, delaying the process. The Forest Service requested updated bids, which were due Nov. 1, from potential contractors. The agency has not announced new contracts.

Both Neptune and Minden Air Corp. -- the two current federal contractors --  have begun phasing in retired civilian airliners to replace the military planes. Neptune’s BAe-146s, built by British Aerospace in the mid- to late-1980s, are more nimble than the P2Vs, Snyder said. The planes foster a safer flying experience for pilots and flight crews, he said.

But they aren’t cheap. The BAe-146 cost $20,000 per day to have available plus $10,000 for every hour of flight, according to the USFS. But greater speed and greater suppressant capacity – about 1,000 gallons more than the older tankers – will help offset that.

“It flies twice as fast,” Hooper said. “Our maintenance cost will go down relative to the P2V.  So there are a number of advantages for the Forest Service from an operational standpoint, as well as for Neptune, from an operational maintenance standpoint to be upgrading our fleet.”

Minden is building a new BAe-146 service that should be ready in about a year, said Matt Graham, the company’s maintenance director.

In Missoula, Neptune hopes to have four BAE’s available next spring. The remaining P2Vs are scheduled to be phased out within the next five years, Hooper said.

The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

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