New Air Tankers to Join Wildfire Fleet in West

A US Air Force (USAF) C-130E Hercules cargo aircraft rigged with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) from the 146th Airlift Wing (AW), Channel Islands Air National Guard Station (ANGS), makes a Phoschek fire retardant drop on the Simi Fire in Southern California (CA).

SSGT ALEX KOENIG / United States Air Force

A US Air Force (USAF) C-130E Hercules cargo aircraft rigged with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) from the 146th Airlift Wing (AW), Channel Islands Air National Guard Station (ANGS), makes a Phoschek fire retardant drop on the Simi Fire in Southern California (CA).

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 includes some good news for Colorado and other Western states where wildfires pose a major and constant threat.

The bill calls for transferring seven C-130 Hercules air tankers from the military to the U.S. Forest Service where they’ll be modified for wildland firefighting, according to the Western Governors’ Association.   At their winter meeting in Las Vegas last month, the governors discussed the increasing challenge of battling wildfires, including Colorado’s deadly Black Forest Fire last year.

Additionally, 15 C-23B Sherpa aircraft will be added to the Forest Service fleet, the governors reported.

A separate report by Fire Aviation reported that the Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. They are capable of carrying up to 10 smokejumpers or 30 passengers and up to 7,000 pounds of cargo.

The tanker capacity of the C-130 is 3,000-4,000 gallons of fire retardant. Each aircraft will be structurally reinforced by the U.S. Air Force to extend their operational lifetime to about 10 years, according to the Forest Service.

In the governors’ December discussion, the dwindling number of air tankers available from the federal government to fight fires was among key topics. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report last August noted that the number of Forest Service large air tankers had dropped from 44 aircraft in 2003 to just 8 in 2013.

The fleet was culled of many of its older heavy tankers after crashes related to age and airframe stress took the lives of pilots and co-pilots.

A PB4Y-2 slurry bomber plunges to the ground in flames while fighting the Big Elk Fire near Estes Park, killing its two pilots. Witnesses said a wing came off the aircraft, then a fireball emerged as the plane prepared to drop slurry on the 1,200-acre wildfire. (Matt Indent/The Rocky Mountain News)

In June, 2002, one of the wings fell off of a PB4Y-2 as it was operating over the Big Elk Fire near Estes Park. Both crew members of Tanker 123 were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found extensive stress fatigue and fractures in key components of the aircraft, which was manufactured in 1945 for the U.S. Navy, transferred to the Coast Guard in 1952, discarded in 1956, and converted into an air tanker in 1958.

The Estes Park crash occurred just a month after a three crewmen were killed when their air tanker experienced a major structural failure near Walker, Calif.

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