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 airtankers 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 to 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 airtanker 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 airtankers, 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.
Testimony presented by Jim Hall, on behalf of the Forest Service Blue Ribbon Panel. Hall served as Co-chair of Panel. He is also a former Chairman of the NTSB and currently heads Hall & Associates LLC.