Summer weather not only brings high temperatures, but increases the chances of fires erupting in forests and grasslands across this country. Many of the wildfires that rage originate by careless people throwing burning cigarettes out of automobile windows or leaving campfires burning. Those fires that originate naturally are usually caused by lightning strikes.
To fight these wildfires that crop up each fire season, the U.S. Forest Service relies on ground forces called ‘hot shot’ crews, and also on firefighting aircraft that battle the blazes from the sky by dropping water, water enhancers such as foams and gels, and specially formulated fire retardants onto the blazes raging on the ground.
Last summer on June 3, a firefighting aircraft, the Lockheed Martin P2V, crashed near the Nevada border, killing both the pilot and co-pilot. In Minden, Nevada, on the same day, another P2V had to make an emergency landing when its landing gear failed to deploy. These two planes, as well as most of the Forest Service’s air tankers, were more than fifty years old.
The National Transportation Safety Board reports that twenty-two people have died over the past decade in air tanker crashes, and just last year, six people perished.
The majority of these air tankers are third generation military aircraft that were designed for other purposes and were retrofitted to fight wildfires across the United States. These planes fly in some of the harshest conditions in the most difficult flying conditions available, as well.
Congress as well as the Forest Service realize the need to update the fleet of air tankers, but as of yet, no money has been allocated to do so. Although President Obama’s 2013 budget does include $24 million to update the air tanker fleet, critics say that’s a fraction of what’s needed to modernize the fleet.
The head of Aviation Safety with the Forest Service said, “It’s a monetary issue, absolutely. The cost, the engineering and the development-they’re costly.”
Until the funds are allocated to purchase new air tankers, the aging firefighting aircraft will keep flying, and … keep crashing.