Airplanes And Fire

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With the fire season under way out West, pressure is intense to get the fleet of air tankers that was grounded in April back in the air. But this week, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is still struggling to get data needed to specify a "life limit" on some of the grounded aircraft. Officials at Lockheed Martin said it might take as long as four months to collect the data required to satisfy the U.S. Forest Service that the P2 tankers, built in the 1940s, are airworthy. NIFC spokesperson Rose Davis told AVweb on Tuesday that they don't have a timeline in place, they are just working through the process. "Weather has helped us so far," she said, noting that the Northwest region has had a fairly light summer fire season. But it's been dry in California, and a busy fall is expected when the Santa Ana winds kick in, in October, Davis said.

Meanwhile, an editorial in Montana's Missoulian newspaper on Monday suggested that maybe the Forest Service shouldn't be in the aircraft certification business anyway... isn't there already a federal agency assigned that responsibility? Oh yeah ... the FAA. "It seems wasteful to divert precious resources and occupy a land-management agency with the task of creating, maintaining, evaluating and certifying its own air force," the Missoulian wrote. "We don't know much about airplanes -- certainly nothing about metallurgical stresses, operational life limits and other technical issues needed to certify planes as airworthy. Our guess is that, as an agency, the Forest Service knows next to nothing." So far, in Oregon, the small single-engine air tankers that have been taking up the slack to fight fires have been getting positive reviews. They are quicker to respond and much cheaper to operate, and because they are more numerous, they can be kept on standby closer to anticipated fires.