- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

A fleet of government planes used to battle wildfires has been grounded by the Bush administration after an independent study found lax inspections led to an "unacceptable" safety record.
A blue-ribbon panel was convened by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in August after two crashes in which the wings came off of fixed-wing planes killed five firefighters.
Nineteen government-owned P-58 Barons and four Sherpa (Shorts 330) smoke-jumper aircraft were suspended from service because of concerns raised in the report. Additionally, the government will no longer hire independent contractors to fly C-130A or PB4-Y aircraft previously used as air tankers.
The Barons principally are used as lead planes to guide larger air tankers to retardant-drop areas.
"Pilots in two Forest Service regions reported that, of the approximately 10 Barons available to them during the 2002 fire season, two sustained engine fires, one had a severe fuel leak, two experienced engine failures, and one sustained permanent wings-skin deformity due to overstress," according to the report.
Private operators were praised in the report for doing "an admirable job" of keeping the aircraft flying, but the report stated "there are few checks and balances to ensure that the aircraft are airworthy and safe to fly throughout a fire season."
The air tankers are constructed by private-sector contractors who are allowed to salvage retired military bombers, transports and patrol aircraft from the Pentagon's boneyard. The report found a pattern of crashes every 20 years and said "the fatal air tanker crashes this year were predictable."
On June 17, three men were killed when the wings came off of a C-130A fixed-wing aircraft near Walker, Calif. A Nevada TV station videotaped the wings snapping off and the plane bursting into flames on ground impact.
A month later, on July 18, a PB4-Y air tanker converted from a World War II-era Navy bomber carrying 2,200 tons of fire retardant crashed 45 miles northwest of Denver, killing two firefighters. The report found that contract aircraft have not been undergoing safety certification by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"The Federal Aviation Administration has abrogated any responsibility to ensure the continued airworthiness of 'public-use' aircraft, including ex-military aircraft converted to firefighting air tankers," according to the report.
The panel also found government officials lack an understanding of the safety-certification process and "are in the untenable position of having to determine whether an aircraft is safe to fly. As expected, they are often not qualified or equipped to make that assessment."
A House Republican leadership aide called the report "alarming" and said "there will be substantial congressional oversight on this next year."
"The challenge is one of cost because the agency is hamstrung with the tremendous cost of firefighting. But we can't spare any expense. We are talking about people's lives," the aide said.
In a joint statement, Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth and Bureau of Land Management Director Kathleen Clarke acknowledged the aerial-firefighting system is in need of repair.
"We are going to make some near-term changes to fix the safety issues identified by the panel and will be consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a rigorous inspection and maintenance program before we fly another mission or put another flight crew at risk," Mr. Bosworth and Miss Clarke said in the statement.

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