...As FAA Offers Guidelines For Getting Air Tankers Back In The Air...

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Meanwhile, pressure is mounting to get those 33 tankers back in the air. "While the safe operations of these aircraft is of paramount importance, we cannot lose sight of the fact that lives on the ground are also at risk," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a Senate hearing on the matter last Wednesday. The FAA responded with a set of guidelines that it says will help the Forest Service establish an effective maintenance and inspection program. Operators can start today to submit documentation to the FAA on each aircraft's flight history and maintenance for a safety review. Officials said the reviews might take 30 days or longer, and even then some of the tankers might not be allowed back into the air.

The FAA noted that it is only acting as an advisor to the Forest Service, and has no regulatory authority over the tankers. "Public" aircraft operations conducted by government agencies are not subject to FAA rules, which are limited to "civil" aviation. Mark Timmons, of Neptune Air Service in Montana, told the Senate panel that his industry is getting the runaround. "The operators of Heavy Airtankers are being held hostage by the FAA, DOA, DOI and NTSB in a series of finger-pointing with no one taking any responsibility," he said. "The result being, the public is being denied a critical resource in fighting wildland fire, and in the process putting their property and lives at risk." The air tankers deliver 20 percent of all retardant used to suppress wildfires. Timmonds added that important strides have been made in air-tanker safety in the last two years that were not included in the NTSB report. Other officials in the Western states are saying they need the air tankers back in the air ASAP. "What I don't want is some faceless little person with their eyes too close together who is speaking in tongues to give us the runaround and then we won't get the planes off the ground and put the fires out," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., in Thursday's Billings Gazette.

In 2002, two military-surplus C-130 air tankers contracted by the Forest Service crashed, killing five crewmembers, after the wings broke off of the planes. Three crewmembers died in 1994 in a similar accident. The average age of the large air tankers is 48, and some are more than 60 years old. Since 1958, more than 130 large air tanker crew members have died in accidents. When the Forest Service announced the cancellation of the contracts in May, it left little hope that the tankers would ever return to service. "Clearly the days of operating older aircraft of unknown airworthiness for firefighting operations are over," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "To continue to use these contract large airtankers when no mechanism exists to guarantee their airworthiness presents an unacceptable level of risk to the aviators, the firefighters on the ground and the communities we serve." McCain said the NTSB recommended that contracting agencies should develop a maintenance and inspection program to ensure the safe operation of the air tankers, but instead, the agencies simply canceled the contracts.