WASHINGTON — The Forest Service air tankers used in California and other Western states are potentially vulnerable to accidents, investigators warn in a new report.
Despite strides in improving air safety, federal investigators believe the Forest Service could still use more money, better long-range planning and stricter aircraft inspections, among other improvements.
Failure could prove fatal.
"The Forest Service has suffered numerous, potentially preventable aviation accidents over the years, and continues to be at risk for more," investigators with the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General noted this week.
In June 2002, for instance, three crewmen died when their 45-year-old air tanker broke apart over the mountains north of Yosemite National Park. National Transportation Safety Board investigators subsequently cited "inadequate maintenance" that overlooked cracks in a wing of the Lockheed C-130.
More recently, two Forest Service contractors died in August 2006 when their heavy-duty Sikorsky helicopter crashed into the Klamath River. Part of the 40-year-old helicopter's tail rotor fell off shortly before the crash, investigators found. Almost exactly a year later, another firefighting pilot died when his Bell helicopter clipped a tree and crashed in the Klamath National Forest.
All told, 28 crashes of Forest Service helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft occurred between 2002 and 2006. Sixteen crashes of the Forest Service's firefighting aircraft occurred between 1997 and 2001.
This week's report, moreover, omits more recent close calls such as a 31-year-old DC-10 tanker that mashed through some treetops last year when caught in a sudden downdraft over a Kern County mountain ridge.
"Firefighting aircraft are often subject to stresses well above those experienced in the flying environment for which they were originally designed," the Office of Inspector General investigators observed, adding that "it is imperative to ensure that they can withstand the stresses of the fire environment."
Forest Service officials largely agree with the 49-page critique, the latest in a series of reports, audits and hearings that have targeted the firefighting air fleet.
"The Forest Service takes very seriously its responsibility for safety in aviation, and has been working steadily to improve the air safety program," Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell reassured investigators in the agency's official's response.
By January 2009, Forest Service officials promise a comprehensive plan to assess the airworthiness of its tanker fleet. The agency owns and operates 26 aircraft outright and leases another 771. In addition, the Forest Service lends firefighting aircraft to states, including about 58 to California.
The leased aircraft soon will face stricter inspection and maintenance requirements, the Forest Service says. New manuals will be written, and updated budgets will be prepared. The Forest Service says additional aviation safety funds could be sought, if deemed necessary.
Forest Service spokespersons in California and Washington, D.C.,could not be reached in time to comment Thursday.
In its official response, though, the Forest Service is resisting recommendations that the Federal Aviation Administration take more responsibility for the firefighting air safety program. Currently, the FAA approves planes generally but does not specifically determine whether the aircraft are fit for firefighting.
"(The Forest Service) possesses neither the technical information nor the expertise to assess its firefighting aircrafts' airworthiness," investigators complained.
Kimbell retorted that "the FAA clearly has no ... jurisdiction" over the firefighting aircraft. Investigators suggest this turf tension might be sorted out by Congress.