SACRAMENTO Ed Herlik, a Colorado pilot who's proved he has the right stuff, insists he has the answer to today's gap in military-surplus, propeller-driven planes for conversion to firefighting air tankers. Some aviation experts agree with him that surplus A-10 jet tank killers are the solution. Some don't.
But much of the debate from Capitol Hill to Sacramento, over transforming so-called Warthogs into Firehogs, has become political. It now centers largely on whether the Pentagon has kept up with changes triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Though homeland defense officials are concerned terrorists could ignite wildfires, government firefighting agencies are still barred from acquiring warplanes for conversion to air tankers by a decades-old military policy of storing such aircraft as insurance, then scrapping them.
Herlik a former U.S. Senate staffer, patented inventor, book author, Desert Storm veteran and Air Force reserve lieutenant colonel is urging acquisition and conversion of A-10s to wildfire bombers.
The U.S. government's own reports have expressed interest in studying the move. But as one, dubbed the National Study of Air Tankers, put it, "the Pentagon is clearly not inclined to provide those aircraft, saying they are needed for national security purposes."
A-10 supporters say the lines between national security and homeland defense have blurred since Sept. 11. Some members of Congress, representing parts of the West, and a handful of California legislators have voiced interest in creating Firehogs.
But the idea has lacked champions with power at the top levels of the legislative and executive branches of both federal and state government, even though government reports have suggested the highest officials in the nation take notice of the aerial firefighting problem and despite A-10 supporters' belief it's a cheaper solution than many other proposals.
"There's unlimited money to fight wildfires after they start but none to develop air tankers that work," said Herlik, who has flown everything from big transports to the A-10. "Like modern combat, no amount of money will build an effective system after the wildfires start. It's a lethal 'come as you are' environment."
Herlik, and a small number of colleagues, formed AeroTech Limited, aimed at setting up a conversion and training facility somewhere along the Front Range of the Rockies. Their long-running saga of interaction with the government packed with mixed, even confusing twists and turns is documented in detail on their Web site, www.firehogs.com.
But even with the current crisis big, unsafe federal tankers grounded and a gap in enough newer, military-surplus planes to make more big air tankers government agencies aren't officially interested in the A-10.
"I haven't seen anything that we're giving that serious consideration at this point," said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The comments contrast with findings of a federal blue-ribbon commission formed after two big, aging federally contracted air tankers literally fell apart in mid-air in 2002.
"Several presenters (at a series of public hearings) suggested the A-10 Thunderbolt II, or Warthog, modified for aerial firefighting, could be a viable candidate," the commission report said. "The A-10 was designed to operate in a close-air support role, which is somewhat analogous to fire retardant delivery."