AVmail: January 16, 2003

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Reader mail this week about the blue ribbon report on airtanker safety.

Blue Ribbon Report on Airtanker Safety

Just wondering where Mr. Juan Browne (AVmail Jan. 13) got his information. First off, the PB4Y may still yet fly again, pending the release of the official NTSB report. I am a captain on the PB4Y and believe that it is safe and I would fly it again, and I believe that the NTSB report will reflect this.

Just to clarify, I am no expert on the MAFFS; I just know what Iíve seen while working with them. The MAFFS system is a rather limited system. The pilots, as skilled as they may be, donít have the firefighting training and skills that seasoned contract air tanker pilots have. They are completely reliant on the UFSF lead plane system, which happens to be grounded from fire missions as well. One MAFFS pilot said that he can put that airplane anywhere that is needed but he knows nothing about fire fighting.

Another problem with the MAFFS system is that the tank system they utilize is limited to a coverage level 4, max. That is 4 gallons per 100 square feet. This may be fine for grassland fires and fires that are located in sparsely vegetated areas, however it is useless in areas of heavy brush and forest areas where coverage levels of 6 and greater are required.

The MAFFS system, while low cost to the USFS, is not to the taxpayers. They require between 10 and 15 people per aircraft to support it. The private air taker program requires 3-4 people to support each aircraft. Iím pretty sure that it takes less money to support 3-4 people then it does to support 10-15 people. Weíve all heard the expression, "must be a government job."

The MAFFS system operates out of a limited number of bases. I personally have been on fires in Nevada operating with MAFFS aircraft from Washington, and reloading in Washington, and a fire in Utah with MAFFS from Oregon and reloading in Oregon. Iím not sure but I believe that it requires a lot more money to fly an aircraft from an Oregon base to a Utah fire then it does to fly an aircraft from a Utah base to a Utah fire. Please correct me if Iím wrong.

The MAFFS system is a good tool when used properly. The private air tankers are also a great tool when properly used, as well as the helitankers, helicopters, ground crews, water scoopers, etc. Personally I would never use a hammer to chop down a tree. Can it be done? Yes, but why would you want to? To rely on just one tool is foolish, and to condem one before the facts are known is, in my opinion, just plain stupid.

I do acknowledge that the federal air tanker system does require restructuring and upgrading in aircraft, management, and procedures. I believe that these changes are coming; however, I do not believe that the press needs to be kicking us when we are down and before all the facts are known.

One more comment for Mr. Browne: Why donít we see what the NTSB has to say about what happened before we condemn an aircraft. Until the experts come out with a report, anything that anyone says is just plain speculation and nothing more.

Mark Donnelly