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Witness Panel 1
Hon. Mark ReyUndersecretary of Natural Resources and the EnvironmentDepartment of Agriculture
Statement of Nina Rose Hatfield
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Policy, Management and Budget
United States Department of the Interior
Undersecretary, Natural Resources and Environment
United States Department of Agriculture
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests
Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture
Fire Aviation Programs
February 15, 2006
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today to discuss the Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) fire aviation program. Since the two Departments work closely together in fire management, we are providing a joint statement. The fire aviation program is an important and multifaceted component of our overall firefighting strategy, and is used in tandem and in support of other firefighting operations. In our testimony today, we will discuss our aviation resources, responses to reports and recommendations to improve the fire aviation program, progress on our long-term aviation plans, and the outlook for the upcoming fire season.
The fire aviation program has undergone significant changes since the spring of 2004 when contracts for large airtankers were terminated in the wake of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report addressing airworthiness issues. In 2004 and 2005, we made greater use of smaller Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) and both large and medium helicopters. This strategy, combined with the certification and return to service of 16 large air tankers has served us well. The mix of aircraft, including large air tankers, SEATs, helicopters, and other aircraft provided aerial support to our firefighters in achieving an initial attack success rate of 98.2 percent in 2003, 99.1 percent in 2004, and 98.5 percent in 2005.
The increasing accuracy of interagency predictive services capabilities assists in the refinement of fire aviation management. Advances in technology, data-gathering, and data analysis, combined with increased collaboration between interagency meteorologists and fire behavior and fuels specialists, provide greater accuracy in predicting the potential for, and severity of, fire activity. In turn, this allows managers to move and place aircraft where the needs are greatest and aviation resources can be most effective.
The Forest Service and DOI continue to have the firefighters, equipment, and aircraft necessary to achieve a high rate of success in suppressing fires on initial attack. We have increased our fleet of firefighting aircraft to assist ground firefighters, particularly during extended attack. As you know, during any year, the vast majority of wildland fires – numbering in the thousands - are suppressed without the benefit of air support. If a fire continues to grow and locally available resources are inadequate, fire managers request additional resources, including aviation support. Aviation assets are managed through the National Multiagency Coordination Group and prioritized for prepositioning, initial attack, and extended attack.
In calendar year 2005, more than 66,000 fires burned 8.7 million acres of Federal, State and private lands. In calendar year 2005, Federal suppression costs totaled $966 million. Wildland fire use - by which fire was used to achieve resource management objectives in predefined geographic areas - accounted for an additional 489,000 acres.
Large Airtankers - Large airtankers are only one of the many tools we use to suppress wildland fires. The primary role of large airtankers is to rapidly deliver a large amount of retardant in the initial attack of a wildfire. In May 2004, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) terminated the contracts for 33 large airtankers based on the recommendations of the NTSB regarding the airworthiness of these firefighting aircraft; the NTSB recommendations were the result of investigations of three large airtanker crashes.
The report noted the need to have maintenance and inspection programs for all firefighting aircraft based on their operational service life in the firefighting environment. It was the opinion of NTSB that the Federal Aviation Administration, the Forest Service, and DOI all have a role in ensuring airworthiness for aircraft used in firefighting operations, but that the primary role for assuring the airworthiness of large air tankers rests with the Forest Service.
At the time of the NTSB report, the mechanisms to ensure airworthiness of firefighting aircraft were not fully developed. Consequently, the contracts for 33 large airtankers were terminated. Two subsequent actions were immediately taken: first, the Departments developed a strategy of utilizing SEATs and additional large and medium helicopters to provide aerial support; this reconfigured fleet performed successfully albeit at a higher per hour cost during the 2004 fire season. Second, a process to address airworthiness was developed by the Forest Service through contracting with aviation technical experts.
Following the work of the aviation technical contractors, a determination on the airworthiness of two models of large airtankers was made and these aircraft returned to service. The Forest Service spent considerable time and effort with the owners and operators of all large airtankers to respond to the NTSB findings. We have been unsuccessful in assessing the operational service life for fourteen Douglas DC-4, 6, and 7 aircraft. Without confidence in a method of determining the structural strength and fatigue life of the Douglas aircraft, neither the Forest Service nor other Federal firefighting organizations can be reasonably assured of their safety. Therefore, consistent with the manufacturer’s (Boeing Corporation) advice, the DC-7 that was flown experimentally in 2004 and 2005 will not be Federally-contracted during 2006.
In January 2006, three Lockheed P3B large aircraft became available from the U.S. Navy. Ownership of these aircraft has been transferred to the Forest Service. The Forest Service, on behalf of the firefighting agencies, will pursue competitive bids to install tanks and operate the aircraft. Conversion and inspections of these aircraft could take a year. They are expected to be available for the 2007 fire season.
Airworthiness efforts related to airtankers and other aircraft are continuing. The Forest Service plans to have all airtankers and agency owned aircraft instrumented with Operational Loads Monitoring Systems by the end of 2006. The Forest Service’s Operational Loads Monitoring Program collected, converted, and disseminated over 800 hours of flight loads data and expects that figure will quadruple for 2006. These data will be analyzed by aviation technical experts to identify aerial firefighting environment. The long-term goal is to gather and analyze data regarding operational loads and continue to use that data to enhance the continuing airworthiness of aircraft used in aerial firefighting. The data collected and its analysis were instrumental in the reintroduction of the Lockheed P2V aircraft and have helped validate its use for the next 5-10 years. All of the airtankers have been configured with traffic collision avoidance systems.
During the 2006 fire season, we expect to have available 16 large airtankers, subject to testing and inspection, and 4 military C-130 aircraft equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems (MAFFS). An additional 4 MAFFS will be available when maintenance and inspections are complete in the early summer.
Helicopters – Along with SEATs, additional large (Type I) helicopters and medium helicopters have allowed us to fight wildland fires even with the reduction in the number of large airtankers. While the large fixed-wing airtankers have the ability to fly faster and go longer distances to deliver retardant, a Type I helicopter, with a close suppressant/retardant supply, can exceed a fixed wing airtanker in capacity and effectiveness. This provides improved operational effectiveness through quick turnarounds, precision drops, and increased gallons delivered.
For the 2006 fire season, the Forest Service and DOI plan to have available 15 exclusive use and 94 call-when-needed large helitankers and helicopters, as well as 39 exclusive use and 110 call-when-needed medium helicopters. Seventy three smaller (Type III) exclusive use helicopters are stationed around the country for local use in areas of high fire potential. There are also a large number of call- when-needed Type III helicopters available.
Single Engine Airtankers - For the 2006 fire season, the BLM, which manages the vast majority of the DOI fire aviation program, will implement a refined aviation program that will achieve greater operational efficiencies by focusing on faster, higher-capacity aircraft, and by enhancing collaboration and cooperation to position these aircraft where the need is greatest. The overall number of aircraft will essentially remain unchanged from last year, but they will be managed in a more efficient manner.
Vendors are gradually transitioning from piston aircraft to the faster turbine aircraft which have a higher capacity, are more reliable, and perform better at higher altitudes. By using faster, higher-capacity aircraft and extending the lengths of the exclusive-use contracts, the BLM will achieve the same or greater capacity than in 2005. For example, two 800-gallon SEATs would replace three 500-gallon SEATs. Additionally, these aircraft will be contracted at the national level, allowing for improved cooperation at all organizational levels and for greater flexibility in positioning and utilizing the aircraft where they are most needed. The net result is that all geographic areas will have greater access than in previous years to more aircraft when the need arises.
Additionally, in a separate effort the BLM has initiated a program to collect flight data encountered in firefighting operations. This program, which stems from the findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission (discussed below in more detail), is in the process of evaluating each type of aircraft and its use in the Department’s fleet. BLM instrumented two aircraft in 2005 to monitor structural conditions and gather data regarding operations in the fire environment. A third aircraft will be equipped in 2006. The long-term goal is to gather and analyze data regarding structural conditions and continuing airworthiness in the fire environment for each aircraft’s particular mission, whether it is smokejumper aircraft, helicopters, aerial supervision, or other types of aircraft and missions.
WORKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
In 2002, prior to the NTSB study, the Forest Service and DOI co-sponsored a Blue Ribbon Panel to review all aspects of the aviation program. Both Departments appreciate the efforts of Mr. Hall and Mr. Hull who were Co-Chairs of the Blue Ribbon Panel. As a result of the NTSB and Blue Ribbon Panel reports, the Departments have a number of efforts underway to anticipate and address the long-term aviation needs of the fire community, and for the continued protection of lives, property, and resources. The feasibility of aircraft such as the S3 Viking and other aircraft for use as airtankers is being studied.
Large airtankers, helicopters, and SEATS have specific missions in responding to wildland fires, ranging from the delivery of crews and supplies, providing a management platform, to dropping water and retardants. The collection and analysis of flight data will aid us in improving aviation safety for the future. It will also provide a foundation for discussions about “purpose-built” air tankers, or air tankers specifically designed and built for missions and operations in the fire environment. The data we are gathering will be analyzed by independent aviation experts, either original manufacturers or other experts. We will limit our aircraft to those having the structural strength to operate safely in the fire environment.
In response to the Blue Ribbon Panel findings, both DOI and the Forest Service modified its aircraft contracting process to focus on obtaining the best value without compromising safety considerations. In addition, DOI and the Forest Service have progressed in the implementation of training, including on-line training for SEAT contract pilots. Additional training modules for helicopter pilots, air tactical supervision pilots, and others are scheduled to be completed and available in the future. Prior to the 2006 fire season the Forest Service will train nearly 300 agency and contract pilots through its sponsored crew resource management courses and the National Aerial Firefighter Academy.
An interagency work group chartered by the National Fire and Aviation Executive Board, comprised of the Agency Fire Directors and the National Association of State Foresters, is identifying unified and consistent mission standards, as well as assessing the long-term needs of the aviation program. Recognizing the evolution and changing needs of the aviation program, the National Fire and Aviation Executive Board chartered a group to address the next 10 to 15 years of interagency fire aviation needs. The first phase of this group’s work, which provides a broad overview of the entire aviation program, including large air tankers, is currently underway.
Phase 2 of the group’s work will address the Congress’s direction for a strategic plan and will contain more specific elements such as the issues surrounding “purpose-built” air tankers; the anticipated numbers and types of airtankers that will be needed; the infrastructure that will be required to support a future air tanker fleet; acquisition, infrastructure, maintenances, and other associated costs; and acquisition and management models.
Phase 3 of this effort will be the creation of an implementation plan that will be developed shortly after completion and approval of Phase 2. We anticipate initial implementation to occur in fiscal year 2007, with full implementation phased in over a number of years.
OUTLOOK FOR THE 2006 FIRE SEASON
The 2006 fire season is shaping up to be another challenging year. Drought conditions continue across much of the southwest and fire activity is expected to begin early and remain above normal through June into July. Below normal fire potential exists in the northeast based on a wet winter. In Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula continues to be an area of concern with higher than normal fire potential. We expect to have firefighting resources - firefighters, equipment, and aircraft - comparable to those available in 2005. If local areas experience severe fire risk, we will increase firefighting ability by staging or deploying our firefighters and equipment as needed.
In conclusion, we would again like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these aviation issues with you today. Each aerial resource, whether fixed wing or helicopter, fills a key role in the multifaceted interagency fire suppression strategy. We have shown that we have the capability of adjusting for the short-term as we complete our long-range plans. We are keenly aware of the challenges we face regarding fire aviation and aerial support of our firefighters on the ground in protecting lives, property, and resources. We are facing these challenges head-on and with determination, and we are pursuing every possible avenue to maintain and improve the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness we’ve all come to expect from the fire aviation community. We appreciate your continued support and look forward to working with you as we move through this process toward an ever more modern and efficient fire and aviation program for the future. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Hon. Nina Rose HatfieldDeputy Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and BudgetDepartment of the Interior
Mr. Tom HarbourDirector of Fire and Aviation ManagementU.S. Forest Service
Witness Panel 2
Mr. James HallCo-Chairman of Blue Ribbon Report of Aerial Fire Fighting Safety
Hearing Date: February 15, 2006
Presentation to the United States Senate
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Subcommittee on Public Lands & Forests
Review of the progress made on the development of interim and long-term plans for the use of fire retardant aircraft for firefighting on federal land.
The Blue Ribbon Panel has not been directly involved with the work of the USDA-FS since it submitted its report in December of 2002, nor has the Panel remained formally constituted since the publication of its report. However, members of the Panel did assemble in Washington on December 17, 2003 for a progress briefing that was given by the USDA-FS.
Information in our presentation is based on published information and on a listening watch of progress toward a safe, affordable, and effective fleet of retardant/water dropping firefighting and related support aircraft. We have also considered a document provided to us by the USDA-FS titled ‘Actions Taken in Response to the Findings of the Blue Ribbon Panel,’ dated October 2005.
There has been some progress in both the safety and effectiveness of aerial firefighting. The USDA-FS has increased its emphasis on initial attack and made changes to the mix of aircraft types. The change in the mix of aircraft types is partly because some of the large tankers have been disqualified from eligibility for contracts. We have been told that the present mix of large tankers, single-engine tankers and helicopter tankers seems to be improving the effectiveness of firefighting operations. While progress has been made toward determining what is necessary to keep aging aircraft airworthy and training has been improved, accidents continue to take place. The involvement of the FAA in assuring the airworthiness of the air tankers remains minimal.
You have indicated that you want to review the costs and effectiveness of utilizing single-engine fire retardant aircraft and heavy-lift helicopters as opposed to the Forest Service’s reliance on multi-engine retardant aircraft in earlier seasons. Most recently, the approach has been to use fewer large multi-engine tankers, supplemented by single-engine tankers, and an increased number of heavy-lift helicopters. In the earlier fire seasons the mix included a larger number of large multi-engine aircraft and fewer heavy-lift helicopters. Thus, there is not a clear distinction between the traditional and the most recent practices. We have been informed that the single-engine tankers were effective for initial attack – in some regions. We have also been advised that teaming a few single-engine tankers with a large airtanker made a positive difference in controlling a number of fires. However, we do not have access to the financial information or the measured effectiveness of the different operations to assist you with the comparisons that you wish to make. We are advised that the USDA-FS Pacific South-West region is making progress in analyzing aging aircraft problems and introducing new technology into both training and firefighting operations.
We have not been provided with the USDA-FS long-term strategy for replacing aging multi-engine aircraft. We understand that the USDA-FS is prepared to conduct a three-year study of its aviation assets.
Unfortunately, we cannot be of great assistance in assessing the three recently acquired P-3 aircraft. The earlier model P-3s that have been in service were seen as effective and were the newest aircraft type in the heavy airtanker fleet. However, there was a fatal P-3 airtanker accident in April 2005 and the NTSB has not released its analysis of that accident. We have no way of ascertaining whether aircraft design, performance, or airworthiness were among the factors involved in the P-3 accident. It does seem risky to acquire more of the same aircraft type involved in this most recent accident before learning what factors contributed to that accident. In the following parts of this submission, we comment on the low probability that the USDA-FS is capable of conducting and controlling a safe aviation operation. As the operator of the public aircraft employed in aerial fire suppression, the Forest Service appears particularly unprepared to assure their airworthiness.
As our major product was our December 2002 Report, we will structure our comments in the context of the Panel’s findings and the progress, or lack thereof, in addressing the Panel’s findings through its consultations.
The Panel’s first finding was: The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.
In our March 26, 2003 report to this subcommittee, we noted that contractor personnel flying the large airtankers were subject to lower safety standards than were government personnel flying the lead planes and smoke-jumper aircraft. We also noted that both contractor and government aerial firefighting was being conducted at lower safety standards than we feel could be justified.
Sadly, since our last appearance, a four-engine P-3 airtanker crashed, killing its crew, in addition to a number of helicopter accidents. Each aircraft was attempting to support the wildland fire management program. The safety record, after more than three years since the release of our report, remains unacceptable.
Efforts were made by the USDA-FS to assess the structural integrity of the aircraft, and some types are no longer eligible for firefighting contracts. Some structural assessments have been carried out under contract, and some in-flight data has been gathered from a sampling of aircraft that were fitted with stress recording devices. We understand that the information from the instrumentation was fairly limited, and while it may provide useful data, it will be, on its own, far from sufficient to call for detailed measures that will assure the airworthiness of the airtankers. We are unaware whether the data from the instrumented aircraft has been analyzed. In any event, we have no indications that the data has been put too much use.
Some aircraft operated by the Forest Service have been fitted with airborne collision avoidance devices.
The USDA-FS notes in its progress report that “safety as a core value” was a goal and that they will develop a systems-safety approach. We are dismayed to see “safety as a core value” still listed as a goal when it should have immediately been adopted as a core value – even as the paramount core value. In our view, three years after our report and with continuing accidents and fatalities in the fleet it operates, this is a feeble and telling response to the Forest Service’s unacceptable safety record.
The USDA-FS has discontinued the use of the two aircraft types that experienced structural failure accidents in 2002. The rationale for that decision does not seem to be related to the suitability of those aircraft, if appropriately maintained, but due solely to the fact that they had accidents. The use of fewer large airtankers has been offset by the greater use of SEATS (Single Engine Airtankers) and helicopters, without any apparent assessing of the structural effects of more intense use of these aircraft. There appears to have been no consideration of the mid-sized twin-engine tankers like the S-2s used by California and other states.
Flight load monitoring devices (which gather data on in-flight stresses and are quite different from flight data recorders that capture altitude, speed, and control positions, etc. for accident investigation purposes) have been installed on a small sample of the large multi-engine tankers. Flight load data has been gathered, but to our knowledge it has not been validated and analyzed. As far as we know, none of the USDA-FS aircraft have been fitted with flight data recorders to assist in accident investigations. From what we have seen, the concern of the Forest Service is with aircraft exceeding certain maximum ‘g’ acceleration criteria and not the cumulative effect of low-level turbulence. Literature suggests the low-level turbulence is as great a concern in generating structural fatigue as the exceeding of the maximum allowed for ‘g’ levels.
There appears to be an increasing amount of public opposition to the dropping of water mixed with retardants. The mixture is much more effective in fire suppression than water alone. However, concerns are being expressed about the contamination of lakes and rivers as well as risks to both communities and firefighters. It may be that tankers will, in the future, be restricted to dropping water. If so, there will likely be more emphasis on helicopters and ‘scooper’ aircraft that are typically able to scoop up water from lakes and rivers without stopping to be loaded.
We have received information that various elements of the Forest Service and some regional offices have been working on some of these problems, but in an uncoordinated manner and without central direction.
The Panel’s second finding was: Because the wildland environment has changed significantly, controlling wildland fires cannot be considered an auxiliary mission to land management. Wildland firefighting has grown to a level of importance that warrants the attention of national leaders.
From what we have been able to gather, the Forest Service has obtained some climate forecasts that predict a continuation, for at least several years, of the dry conditions recently experienced in much of the United States. How that information has been employed to justify the resources necessary to maintain a safe, efficient fleet of fire suppression aircraft is not known. A viewpoint that allows the natural regeneration of forests through periodic fires and more attention to the presence of fuels in unwanted areas appears to be gaining prominence - but we have seen little indication of progress. Our 2002 comment that “fire policy to address all of this is not evolving at a rate that is essential to address the situation,” remains valid.
The USDA-FS has developed a strategic plan to address the appropriate mix of aircraft (the composition of which has not been made available to us) to meet new environmental requirements, but has reported no change other than increasing emphasis on initial attack. This seems to us to be a very slow response to the fatal aircraft accidents, the loss of homes at the wildland urban interface, and the loss of many millions of dollars worth of commercially valuable forest.
The Panel’s third finding was: Under the current system of aircraft certification, contracting and operation, key elements of the aerial wildland firefighting fleet are unsustainable.
Considerable sums have been spent on attempting to assure the structural integrity of the air tanker fleet. Some aircraft types that were part of the fleet in 2002 are no longer used. The original fleet of lead planes has been disposed of. To our knowledge, no method has been validated that will determine the remaining operational service life of the large airtankers and many of the other aircraft used in aerial firefighting. There have been some attempts to work more effectively with the FAA on the initial certification of the air tankers, but we have seen nothing to suggest that there is an effective way to ensure the continuing structural integrity of the aircraft. The FAA, we understand, has been making efforts to cooperate with the Forest Service, but its involvement in assuring the airworthiness of the firefighting aircraft has changed little since the time of the Blue Ribbon Panel. There is no formal understanding between the FAA and the Forest Service. The additional role of the FAA, we are informed, is limited to such matters as providing lists of individuals and firms that the Forest Service may choose to engage to assist them.
The Panel’s fourth finding was: The variety of missions, philosophies, and unclear standards of federal land management agencies creates a “mission muddle” that seriously compromises the safety and effectiveness of wildland fire management.
We noted in our last appearance that no single body was in charge of fire suppression aviation activities, with the result being that risks associated with unclear command and control were higher than necessary. That situation remains. Some progress has been made toward creating improved interagency coordinating bodies, but there is still no one agency in charge.
A recent Quadrennial Fire and Fuel Review Report that was developed with the assistance of the Brookings Institution is the first substantive attempt to deal with the very difficult question of what our Panel characterized as “mission muddle.” While the Report created a blueprint for change, the mandate for the quadrennial review depends, as it must, on interagency cooperation. As the interests of the various agencies become affected, the principles outlined in the blueprint will become irrelevant unless there is a decision to allow one agency to have the final word in setting priorities and allocating resources to fire management. Discussing who is to do what while fires rage cannot be allowed.
The Panel’s fifth finding noted: The culture, organizational structure and management of federal wildland fire management agencies are ill-suited to conduct safe and effective aviation operations in the current environment.
At our last appearance we noted that a clearly articulated and widely understood safety culture seemed to be either absent or, as in the case of the mission, muddled. We noted that the lack of knowledge of aircraft condition, together with insufficient training, inspection, and maintenance, has resulted in the deplorable safety record for airtankers and a less than acceptable record for other aircraft.
We have seen no evidence of substantive improvement.
The Panel’s sixth finding related to the very limited role of the FAA in certifying ‘public aircraft.’
We noted that there had been a misunderstanding of the role of the FAA. The operators believed that the FAA had a much more significant role than it does for the certification and continuing airworthiness of public aircraft. The absence of real airworthiness oversight by the FAA puts the Forest Service in the untenable position of being both the operator and the regulator of its fleet of firefighting aircraft.
There have been several initiatives by the Forest Service in the area of continuing airworthiness, and it has hired some additional staff. However, the Forest Service does not have the expertise or experience of the FAA, and it is, in our view, most unlikely that it ever will be an effective airworthiness authority for a fleet of large, old aircraft that are being employed in a role that is much harsher than they were designed for. The USDA-FS reports increased cooperation with the FAA, but as far as we can tell, the continuing airworthiness responsibility remains with the USDA-FS, an organization that is suited to - and respected for - plant life management rather than the airworthiness of aircraft. In this country we have the world’s most outstanding airworthiness authority in the FAA. It seems completely unreasonable not to provide the resources to the FAA and give it the mandate to employ its expertise in ensuring the necessary standards and oversight of airtanker airworthiness.
The Forest Service reports that it is also examining strategies for obtaining needed funding to maintain and/or replace old airtankers. That a plan for this has not been formulated three years after the release of Blue Ribbon Panel Report is so slow as to be baffling.
The Panel’s seventh finding was: Government contracts for airtanker and helicopter fire management services do not adequately recognize business and operational realities or aircraft limitations. As a result, contract provisions contain disincentives to flight safety.
At our previous appearance we noted the importance of the contracting process as the only effective means of enforcing the airworthiness and safety requirements of the Forest Service. We also noted that the process as it was did not provide incentives for safe operation. Even by using its contracts to assure airworthiness, it is in our view, very unlikely that the Forest Service will possess the aviation knowledge necessary to include the appropriate language in its airtanker contracts. Even if it does develop suitable contract language, the Forest Service does not have, and cannot be expected to develop, an FAA-like capability of providing the necessary airworthiness safety oversight. There are still no multi-year contracts that will allow contractors to obtain adequate financing.
We are aware of some minor changes in the contracting process but have seen nothing to give us confidence that it has been changed sufficiently to take on the functions, which at the time of our Panel were presumed by the USDA-FS to have been vested in the FAA.
The Panel’s final finding was: Training is underfunded and inadequately specified for helicopters, large airtankers, and other fixed-wing operations.
When we were here in 2003, we noted that the training deficiencies remained. We are aware of some minor changes but the situation remains much as it was.
Summary/Proposal: The Forest Service and the other agencies involved with wildland fire protection appear to have made little progress in three years. Progress toward resolving airtanker safety and effectiveness has been unacceptably slow. We say this with full knowledge that the Forest Service and other agencies are staffed with dedicated individuals who are knowledgeable in their primary fields of endeavor. The problem at the time we did our work, and which remains today, is largely institutional and is associated more with mandates and appropriate expertise than with a lack of will.
It is time to cut the Gordian knot rather than continue to try to unravel it. One approach would be for authority to be put into the USDA-FS and other agencies to deal with command and control problems that are necessary to ensure that one agency is clearly in charge. However, this would still leave the fundamental question of who should provide the airworthiness standards and aviation safety oversight. Alternately, and probably preferably, the government land management agencies could get out of the aircraft operating business and simply state their operational requirements. Those requirements, which could be handled entirely by competent aviation operators, would leave the land management people to their established expertise. This latter approach would be contingent on some assurance that the industry would be capable of providing the needed service on a safe, effective and reliable basis. Whatever approach is taken, our view is that significant additional resources will be required; but before additional funding is provided, the institutional arrangements need to be changed so that aviation operations can be effectively and efficiently carried out.
Finally, we believe there is need for an independent external body that can speak freely and advocate necessary change. It could advise and work with the Forest Service and the related agencies to speed up the resolution of the problems that were identified in our 2002 Report. We believe that institutional problems like these (e.g., multiple agencies and limited aviation expertise) cannot be solved from within.
Mr. James B. HullCo-Chairman of Blue Ribbon Report of Aerial Fire Fighting Safety
Testimony for the Record
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests
James B. Hull
National Association of State Foresters
February 15, 2006
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: On behalf of the National Association State of Foresters (NASF), I am pleased to offer the following statement for the hearing record. NASF is a non-profit organization that represents the directors of the fifty state forestry agencies, eight U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. State Foresters manage and protect state and private forests across the U.S.
Aerial firefighting resources are essential to the fire protection programs of most states and territories represented by NASF. Over two-thirds of the forests in the United States are in state and private ownerships. State Foresters are not only responsible for protecting these vast forests, but in most states we are also responsible for wildfire protection on all rural lands and, in some states, considerable federal land as well.
Fire protection in America is neither uniquely a western states’ event nor is it confined predominately to federal lands. More than 80,000 wildfires occur annually across our nation. Well over 60% of those occur in non-western states and over 75% occur on non-federal lands. The key point, however, is that no single entity, including federal, state, or local government, has the capacity to handle all responses to wildfires within their jurisdictional area of responsibility. All fire protection programs are thus, by necessity, strategically integrated to most effectively and economically serve all rural lands of the nation. Aerial firefighting resources are utilized in exactly the same way; in other words, we are all in this together. Therefore, at this time it is critical that we all work together, federal and state, in developing an interagency, long-term strategy for our nation’s aerial firefighting resources. We need a strategy that will provide a diverse fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that will meet the needs of our wildfire suppression mission, and do so in a safe and airworthy and sustainable manner over the long-term.
In this context, you asked me to address three specific topics this afternoon. First, you asked me to address the effectiveness of using additional single-engine air tankers (SEATs) and heavy lift (Type 1) helicopters to compensate for the loss of approximately 50% of the nation’s large, multi-engine air tanker fleet. In 2004 and 2005 the combination of additional SEATs and Type 1 helicopters along with the remaining 17 heavy air tankers allowed federal and state wildland fire agencies to achieve an initial attack success rate similar to that of previous years. However, I must caution that statement by reminding you that in both 2004 and 2005 we experienced relatively moderate fire seasons when viewed at a national level. We have yet to test this new mix of aviation resources in a long, severe fire season. In other words, we don’t really know if we can continue to be effective with only 16-17 large, multi-engine air tankers, regardless of how many SEATs and Type 1 helicopters we have available. The capabilities of each of these aircraft types are not entirely interchangeable. Each has specific strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is essential that we develop a long-term strategy that includes a sufficient number and variety of safe and effective firefighting aircraft in order to protect this nation’s forests and communities.
This leads me to your second question regarding progress on a long-term strategy. The Fire Directors of the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Association of State Foresters, acting together as the National Fire & Aviation Executive Board, have recently chartered a group of agency aviation experts to develop this desperately needed, long-term aviation strategy for the interagency fire program. This strategy, tentatively scheduled for completion by the end of this fiscal year, will continue work the Forest Service has already initiated by evaluating all realistic alternatives and making recommendations on: (1) the mix or diversity of aircraft that are needed; (2) the specific make and model of aircraft that meet the identified specifications; (3) the quantity of each needed; and (4) the appropriate business model for acquisition and management.
Although this strategy will address all types of aircraft and all aviation missions in support of fire suppression, it will focus heavily on the large air tanker program. As the Subcommittee is well aware, in response to three tragic air tanker crashes (one in 1994 and two in 2002), the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) chartered a Blue Ribbon Panel to evaluate aviation safety issues. In its 2002 report the Panel, which I co-chaired, called into question the airworthiness of the fixed-wing heavy air tanker fleet. Subsequently on April 23, 2004, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released the report of its investigation and sent its findings and recommendations in a letter to the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior. Because the two Departments did not have the personnel, expertise, or funding to comply with the NTSB recommendations, they terminated the contracts for the entire fleet of 33 large air tankers in May of 2004. Since then, through a program of independent analysis and increased inspections, the Forest Service has been able to gradually return some of the less ancient former military aircraft to service. At the current time, 16 large air tankers are approved and available for contract – all of which are aging, former military aircraft.
Lastly, you asked me to comment on the Forest Service’s recent acquisition of three former U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft for conversion as air tankers and my thoughts regarding certification of air worthiness. In regard to the P-3 acquisition, even though the long-term strategy has not yet been completed, we need to make operational decisions in the short-term in order to continue to provide the best aerial response to wildfire that we can. In this context, the P-3 may serve us well as a bridge aircraft to the next generation of large, multi-engine air tankers. However, until the strategy has been completed, we won’t know whether or not the P-3 aircraft will have a role over the long term. This is yet another reason why it is critical that we complete the long-term strategy as quickly as possible.
In regard to certifying airworthiness, it is time, in fact far past time, for a better answer. NASF strongly believes that our nation needs a safe, modern, and effective aerial firefighting program. As was clearly stated in the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel report on “Federal Aerial Firefighting”, the current program of relying on aging, former military and surplus commercial aircraft is not sustainable. Continued reliance on older aircraft adapted for firefighting use will merely perpetuate the problem over the long term. Ideally, this would mean funding and support for aircraft that are designed and engineered specifically for delivering fire retardant products. However, we do understand that we are currently in a time where fiscal constraint is necessary, and it is therefore only prudent to thoroughly examine all available sources of aircraft to ensure a cost-effective strategy. But, we must not arbitrarily rule out purpose-built aircraft as too expensive. We believe that the free enterprise system in this country is capable and poised to provide such aircraft if appropriate contractual assurances are provided.
Further, we believe that the missing link in this entire issue is the role of the Federal Aviation Administration. Whether limited by law or merely a perceived lack of responsibility or funding, the FAA, as the world’s premier aviation agency, must provide the leadership essential to assuring complete airworthiness of public use aircraft, including air tankers, to the same standards that have brought such resounding success to the overall airline industry around the world. The federal land management agencies cannot, and should not, attempt to duplicate the expertise of the FAA when it comes to assuring sustained airworthiness of firefighting aircraft that are such a vital part of protecting our nation. Therefore, we further encourage Congress to specifically charge the FAA with the responsibility for certifying the airworthiness of public use aircraft, including air tankers.
In closing, I want to reiterate that it is absolutely essential that we use an interagency process to develop this national aviation strategy; one that includes the Forest Service, the Department of the Interior Bureaus, and the National Association of State Foresters. To accomplish this, NASF pledges our support to work together with the federal agencies in developing an interagency long-term strategy for our nation’s aerial firefighting resources; a strategy that will cost-effectively provide a diverse fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that will meet the needs of our wildfire suppression mission in a safe and airworthy and sustainable manner over the long term. Therefore, we urge the Subcommittee to support sufficient funding for the federal wildland fire programs to ensure our collective ability, state and federal, to quickly and safely respond to wildfires across our country, and to provide for the safety of our communities, our firefighters, and the pilots and crew of our aircraft.
We appreciate the opportunity to offer our testimony and look forward to the opportunity to work with Congress and the Administration to address this critical issue.
James B. Hull
President, National Association of State Foresters
State Forester and Director, Texas Forest Service
Co-Chair, Blue Ribbon Panel on Federal Aerial Firefighting