Liability: The Silent Player In The Water-Bomber Debate

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The Forest Service cancelled air-tanker contracts in part because it was afraid of being sued if any of them crashed, according to a report in the Billings Gazette. In a remarkably candid interview (for a government official concerned about liability) Tony Kern, the Forest Service's assistant director of aviation management, said the safety of air crews and people on the ground was the first consideration but liability was also a concern. In late April, an NTSB report on two air-tanker crashes said many of the planes are potentially dangerous and, because they are "public use" aircraft, they are outside the FAA's certification jurisdiction while fighting fires. That put all the responsibility on the Forest Service and it responded May 10 by canceling contracts for 33 large tankers. Kern noted the decision was made a little easier by the unnamed mayor of an unnamed Rocky Mountain city who wrote a letter saying she expected the federal government to "guarantee" that the planes flying over her city "will not come apart over the heads of the public." Kern said her letter brought the issue home for the Forest Service. "This could end up with a plane landing on a school," Kern said. "You are talking about the potential for negligent homicide." Officials at Neptune Aviation, an air-tanker operator, told the Gazette they were shocked by Kern's admission of liability and said the comments could open up the Forest Service to lawsuits resulting from the 2002 crashes.