Controversy flies around grounded firefighting tankers

In Missoula, Mt., residents have started wearing green ribbons, much like the red ribbons worn nationwide to show support for AIDS victims, yellow ones to show support for troops abroad and the pink ribbons for breast cancer. The green ribbons are part of a campaign launched by the local Chamber of Commerce to raise awareness of the plight of Neptune Aviation, a contractor that owns and operates large air tankers used in fighting wildfires.

As the summer fire season was beginning in May, the Forest Service and Interior Department terminated contracts for the 33 large air tankers provided by eight private companies. The decision came in response to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into three air tanker crashes in which one or both wings fell off the planes during flight. NTSB blamed inadequate maintenance and inspection procedures for the accidents.

In addition to Missoula's green ribbons, the decision to drop the tankers from the firefighting fleet has prompted congressional hearings and letters of protest from Western governors. It's unclear, though, the extent to which these reactions grow out of concern for contractors and local economies rather than fears that the Forest Service and Interior will not be able to contain fires without the use of the tankers.

Despite early warnings of a potentially severe fire season, the situation in the Western states has been relatively calm, said Rose Davis, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Davis said additions to the aerial firefighting fleet--including single-engine air tankers, helicopters and helitankers-have compensated for the loss of the tankers. "It's important to keep this in perspective," Davis said. "We're still doing fire management and suppression very effectively."

At least partly in response to pressure from lawmakers, the Forest Service and Interior have taken steps toward getting the planes back into service, but ensuring they are safe is no easy task. The fleet has an average age of 48 years, and many of the tankers have incomplete maintenance and inspection records. Most are retired military aircraft. The Forest Service and Interior lack the technical expertise to evaluate the planes' condition, and the Federal Aviation Administration does not have jurisdiction over public-use aircraft.

FAA officials agreed to assist the Forest Service and the Interior Department by providing guidance on how to set up an emergency inspection program. The Forest Service and Interior then hired DynCorp Technical Services of Fort Worth, Texas, to evaluate the planes' documentation and inspect the aircraft. In July, DynCorp cleared eight tankers, all of which are P-3s owned by Aero Union of Chico, Calif., to return to service. The U.S. Navy, which still uses P-3s, helped DynCorp obtain the data it needed to clear the planes.

But the arrangement with DynCorp has hit a snag. In August, the Forest Service and Interior informed Neptune and Minden Air Corp. of Minden, Nev., both of which operate P-2s that are no longer used by the U.S. military, that additional documentation is needed in order to determine the "operational life limit" of the planes.

The P-2s were manufactured by Lockheed Martin, and the corporation has agreed to collect engineering data and records on the P-2s. But this is proprietary information that Lockheed won't share with DynCorp.

"From what we understand from DynCorp, we do need additional information to determine the life limit," Davis said. "We really need to know that to make a risk assessment." Davis said DynCorp is still doing data analysis for all of the contractors. "That's what we hired them for," she said.

But Tom Greer, a spokesperson for Lockheed Martin, said the company has been in negotiations with the Forest Service and Interior for "well over a week" to provide records on the planes and to conduct the safety assessments. Greer did not say directly that the company would refuse to share its data with DynCorp, but he stated that the documents are proprietary.

"Our obligation is to the Forest Service," Greer said. "Clearly in those discussions that we've been having with them, Lockheed Martin would help them make those assessments. They require the services of someone like us to make those assessments."

Meanwhile, owners of the grounded planes remain at risk of losing their businesses. Neptune charges that the requirement to establish an exact operational life limit holds it to a tougher standard than Aero Union, and the company has enlisted the help of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who said he will launch an investigation into the Forest Service and Interior's handling of the tanker contracts.

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