The U.S. Forest Service’s fleet of large, firefighting air tankers took a serious blow in the disastrous wildfire year of 2002 when fatal crashes underscored just how decrepit and unsafe the force had become.
In June of that year, one of the wings ripped away from 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 almost 60 years before 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.
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, and this at a time when the intensity and destructiveness of wildfire continues to rise.
So it was with a sigh of relief that the Western Governors’ Association reported recently that reinforcements are on the way.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 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, the governors reported.
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.