Tester: Dire need to modernize Forest Service’s firefighting airtankers

Senator calls for additional planes in wake of weekend’s accidents

(U.S. SENATE) – Following the recent tragic accidents of two aging airtankers, Senator Jon Tester is demanding that the Forest Service modernize its fleet of firefighting airplanes.

On Sunday, a Missoula-based, Korean War-era P2-V airplane fighting a wildfire along the Utah-Nevada border crashed, claiming the lives of its pilot and co-pilot.  A second accident also involving a P2-V occurred the same day near Reno, Nev.

The Forest Service currently has nine large airtankers in operation, down 75 percent from a decade ago.  All of the agency’s remaining planes are aging P2-Vs.

Tester, who first called on the Forest Service to upgrade its airtanker fleet in February, said the agency needs to move fast to fight what is already an active fire season – with as much safety as possible.

“These incidents indicate the need to swiftly replace the aging air fleet and begin contracting new planes for the Forest Service fleet,” Tester wrote Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.  “Unfortunately, the Forest Service has yet to provide a long-term pathway for aircraft replacement.”

Tidwell told Tester at an April Senate hearing that the Forest Service was working to increase its firefighting capabilities, but the agency has yet to finalize new contracts to modernize its fleet.

Some companies have decided not to wait for the Forest Service to provide a long-term plan.  Tester noted that Missoula’s Neptune Aviation recently bought and retrofitted new planes in an effort to modernize its fleet.

Airtankers are effective tools for fighting wildfires.  They keep wildfires small and less costly, saving the Forest Service $300 million to $450 million per year. 

Wildfires burn millions of acres every year in the United States.  The state of New Mexico is currently dealing with the largest wildfire in its history.

Tester’s letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is available below and online HERE.


June 5, 2012

The Honorable Tom Tidwell
U.S. Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, D.C. 20250

Dear Chief Tidwell:
It is with grave concern that we write regarding the readiness and preparedness of the U.S. Forest Service’s Large Air Tanker Fleet.  Sadly, in separate incidents two P2-V planes, owned by major Forest Service contractors, crashed.  The first air tanker crashed while deploying retardant on a fire on the Utah-Nevada border killing both the pilot and co-pilot.  The second plane crash-landed at the Minden, Nevada airport after experiencing problems when delivering fire retardant on a fire north of Reno.  Thankfully, no one was hurt in the crash landing.  Though the causes of both crashes are yet to be determined, these incidents indicate the need to swiftly replace the aging air fleet and begin contracting new planes for the Forest Service fleet. 

The Forest Service has indicated that working with planes over 50 years of age often leads to difficulties securing replacement parts, lengthening the time grounded and increasing contracting costs.  Over the course of the last decade the Forest Service has commented on retiring the aging fleet of large air tankers, such as the P-2V, which are decommissioned Korean War aircraft retrofitted with retardant tanks.  In that time we’ve reduced the number of operational aircraft from over 40 to 11.  In the last 48 hours, the Forest Service lost nearly 20 percent of the operational fleet, bringing the total to nine large air tankers to support fire suppression throughout the West during what already is a very active fire season.  This loss also means we must depend on additional ground and helicopter assets to make up for the lack of air tankers, a strategy that limits initial attack capabilities and which could add millions of dollars of additional costs.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service has yet to provide a long-term pathway for aircraft replacement.  After nearly a decade of waiting for the Forest Service to issue a plan, the contracting companies, such as Neptune Aviation, have stepped up and purchased new planes, retrofitting them in hopes of securing individual contracts in the upcoming year, but with no long-term guarantees.  As of April, you mentioned that the Forest Service would be securing three contracts this year for planes before the beginning of summer and we are hopeful those will be finalized in a timely manner to get more planes into the mix. 

Again, this incident clearly underlines the need to swiftly replace our aging large air tanker fleet.  Thank you for considering this request and we look forward to working with you to finalize a long term plan for the acquisition of the next generation of large air tankers.

Jon Tester