As Wildfires Burn, Air Tanker Fleet Updates Uncertain

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Six years after the entire big air tanker fleet was grounded by the NTSB over airworthiness issues, some fear little has changed even as massive and abundant fires currently burning in northern California push the demand for the aircraft. Thursday, two Colorado congressmen pushed the Department of Agriculture for the Department's plan to modernize the fleet. Awareness was raised in 2002, when the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management permanently grounded nine air tanker firefighting aircraft and temporarily took 35 more out of service pending inspections. At that time, a panel of aviation experts concluded that the air tanker system was unsustainable and called for a system-wide overhaul. The 2002 groundings followed two 2002 air tanker crashes -- a C-130 in June, and a PB4Y-2 in July -- that killed five crewmen. Both aircraft suffered in-flight catastrophic wing failure.

By March 2003 inspected tankers began returning to service only to have the entire fleet grounded by the NTSB in May of 2004 for concerns. In 2006 Colorado congressmen Mark Udall and John Salazar were told by the undersecretary of agriculture and natural resources that the spring of 2007 would see a new plan to modernize the air tanker fleet. Thursday, Udall and Salazar were still waiting.