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A federally contracted air tanker belonging to a private flying service breaks up in midair near Walker, Calif., in 2002. [#2 of 3] (Photo: KOLO-TV)
IN JUNE 1992, with controversy surrounding the two big federal and California aerial firefighting fleets, Roger Stark strolled the state Capitol to lobby for his beloved air tankers.

Two days later, he was killed instantly in the crash of one of California's decades-old, military-surplus bombers — the kind of aging planes cheered by Western states' residents and firefighters every summer as they thunder overhead to drop red goo that slows deadly, destructive wildfires.

The crash of his plane — following scores like it — triggered a years-long news agency probe that helped spur a complete, $70 million overhaul of California's fleet and a dramatic reduction in pilot deaths.

But interviews and documents obtained in recent months by the Oakland Tribune reveal that budget cuts will hamper the readiness of California's modernized fleet of 23 medium, fast-attack tankers this summer and that the federal government's aerial program is in a crisisfollowing a string of recent deadly crashes.

Among the many points of concern:

  • Just seven of the four-engine tankers, out of a federal fleet that numbered 33, will be structurally sound enough to fly this summer.

  • The airworthiness of three others in the U.S. fleet is so questionable they can fly only over unpopulated areas, not the often-endangered and expanding regions where forest and homes mix.

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  • Federal officials plan to rely more heavily on helicopters and small crop-duster-type planes — a concept some critics say is flawed.

  • U.S. and California air tankers still lack some safety devices common to the aviation field.

  • Budget cuts may force California to ground about three of its 23 tankers every day this summer to save money — the same kind of situation that drove Stark, the state's ill-fated chief firefighting pilot, to the Capitol 13 years ago to battle fiscal slashes.

  • Government agencies employ a flawed contract system that lacks full federal aviation agency oversight.

  • U.S. and California tanker pilots' survivors say they still are suffering because their spouses were contract employees lacking regular government workers' benefits.

"This all should be worrisome to everyone," said Stark's widow, Joann.

The reason less than one-third of the federal fleet's 33 big bombers will take to the air this fire season, according to some activists, is because of an outdated Pentagon national-security policy that hampers homeland security in the post-Sept. 11 era.

U.S. officials acknowledged that, under congressional pressure, they have grounded about two dozen old, unsafe federally contracted planes that were literally falling apart in the sky. There is no money to rebuild the old planes and no newer generation of military-surplus aircraft to replace them.

Though the Pentagon is willing to part with propeller-driven cargo and patrol planes, they do not have appropriate surpluses.

At the same time, the military, citing national-security needs, will not turn over former jet warplanes to civilian government agencies. Smaller jet aircraft, some say, could be refitted for the job of fighting blazes.

Government officials cite concerns that terrorists may set wildfires within the U.

S., which they say constitutes a clear threat to national security.

 

The air-tanker developments are a major blow to most Western states, which cannot afford their own fleets and rely on the U.S. government contracts with private aviation firms. Even California, which owns its own fleet, depends heavily on federal planes — because U.S.-owned lands cover one-fifth of the state.

Together, the events bode ill for the coming fire season in the West, which — because of a number of wild-card factors — always has the potential to surpass any that have preceded it, despite official forecasts. And the potential for deadly wildfires grows with each new home built in the woods.

California suffered its worst fire season in 2003-04, in terms of homes and acres burned, primarily in the south. It is a problem government consultants have said national leaders should tackle immediately.

"Tankers are just an awesome tool," said George Haines, a division chief for the California Forestry Department on the central coast. "After 30 years in the business, I still get excited as they come in on approach to drop. And I grin from ear to ear when a building fire is stopped in its tracks."

Though "people love to see the big tankers, they are old, and there's no (military surplus) replacements in sight," said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Filling the gap

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management plan to at least temporarily fill the gap with scores of water-dropping helicopters and crop-duster-type, single-engine planes — a tactic some fire experts say falls short.

"We'll see how the strategy works," Eardley said.

U.S. officials also can call on the usual eight Air National Guard transports, spread across the country. They can be converted quickly to air tankers, but the effectiveness of those aircraft has come into question.

The massive cancellation of federal contracts with private operators is aimed at curtailing an accelerating string of tragic crashes, a problem that once plagued California and recently has crippled the federal government's aerial firefighting force.

At the crash rate of federally contracted air tankers — crashes have claimed 136 lives since 1958 — "ground firefighters would have suffered more than 200 deaths per year," said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, in a recent blue-ribbon panel report.

"There's not a standard of safety for firefighting planes that is equivalent to what you see for military or commercial aircraft," he said.

Each crash, whether federal or state, has left bitter questions and grief-filled holes in the small community of tanker pilots, which numbers less than 100 nationally. Though called daredevils and the last of the barnstormers, many are family men with military-combat backgrounds that were no more dangerous than firefighting.

Stark, the widow of the state's chief firefighting pilot who died in 1992, says she never will forget her husband saying, "As long as the parts are working, I have control." But his crash, like all the others involving California planes, was blamed on pilot error rather than mechanical difficulties.

Some of the other survivors' emotional wounds also never have healed. Calder Johnson was 5 when his father, Donn Johnson, died in a 1987 California air tanker crash. His mother, Diana Lynn, still remembers Calder saying, "I'm on the edge now."

She's a self-described "tanker widow" who is among those who say they have discovered "chilling secrets" as part of an unofficial behind-the-scenes, safety-watch network that eyed Stark's crash and many others. Most of their claims point to a lack of concern for safety by officials — assertions authorities dismiss.

When Lynn's son was denied a college tuition waiver because his father was a contract pilot for the state, she waged a successful publicity campaign to change that law.

Pursuing benefits

Survivors also are continuing to pursue an array of other benefits, provided to regular public safety officers killed in the line of duty but denied the families of contract aerial firefighters.

Crashes are hard on ground troops, too, but also are potentially deadly for them.

In the 2001 state Navy S-2 submarine chaser collision over Mendocino County in Northern California, firefighter Jim Wattenburger — as he fled from plunging planes — locked eyes with one of the doomed pilots.

"He recognized what was happening, and so did I," said Wattenburger. "The closer he got to the ground, his mouth got wider and wider and his eyes got bigger and bigger."

In California, the same kind of budget cuts that drew Stark to the Capitol during the early 1990s fiscal crunch have returned to again threaten the firefighting fleet owned by the state Department of Forestry. Jim Wright, the department's deputy director, told lawmakers that California will have to ground about three of its 23 planes every day this summer to save about $1 million, unless deeper cuts are made in ground forces or the department is allocated more funds. California, which contracts out for operation and maintenance, owns the largest fleet of any state.

Important tool

Wright said the public has the perception that air tankers "are the panacea of fire protection," and he called that notion false. He said tankers are an important tool for the mainstay: ground forces.

When the forestry department was queried by a reporter, it passed questions to the Schwarzenegger administration. Sandy Kooney, a spokesman for the Resources Agency that oversees the department, downplayed the impact of the tanker unstaffing. He said the department easily can staff the planes in an emergency or shift other aircraft to the area.

But Doug Baker, president of the California Fire Pilots Association, warned that the cutbacks will allow some blazes to grow larger than normal, potentially wiping out the anticipated budget savings.

"Before we went to (jet) turbines, the airplanes were parked one day a week for maintenance," Baker told legislators. "Now we have a modernized fleet that requires little or no maintenance during the summer.

"That was one of the selling points of why the state spent $70 million to upgrade their tankers to turboprops — so we could have seven-day-a-week coverage."

Ironically, the department is scheduled to receive the last of its modernized Navy S-2 submarine chasers this summer — an effort that began in earnest more than a decade ago after Stark's crash.

In the wake of that crash, an Associated Press probe found an adjusted accident rate for California planes that was higher than that of federally contracted planes. Twenty-four pilots had died in state plane crashes from 1962 to 1991 — an average of nearly one a year.

A variety of sources and documents also questioned mechanical safety, whether the S-2 plane was appropriate for firefighting use, and the agency's investigations that always found their contract-company pilots at fault.

The department defended the safety of the planes, then suddenly announced it would scrap its entire fleet of decades-old

S-2s. But, in another complete turnaround, the agency soon decided to acquire a newer genera-

tion of S-2s and install modern, jet turboprop engines at a total cost of more than $70 million.

In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board agreed to conduct its own independent investigations of government-operated aircraft.

Since Stark's death and the fleet overhaul, the fatality rate has slowed. Three California planes have crashed since 1992 — one killed an S-2 pilot in 1998 over Riverside County, and two pilots died when their S-2s collided over Mendocino County in 2001.

Following the 1998 S-2 crash, Marshall Graves, then aviation chief for the California Department of Forestry, said that "as a result of the Stark accident, we're putting a lot of money into these aircraft."

"Back during all the crashes, we were nothing more than a contracting service for airplanes: 'Here's the planes, here's the keys, go do it.'"

Pilots' discretion

Following the 2001 collision, the state gradually has been installing Traffic and Collision Avoidance Systems on its S-2s; flying at dusk is now entirely at the discretion of the pilots, and military aircraft and pilots now can be tapped more readily in an emergency.

But as the crash frequency has declined in California's upgraded air force of medium-sized, fast-attack air tankers that can deliver 1,200 gallons of retardant each, it has skyrocketed in the federal heavy-tanker fleet that is able to deliver 3,000 gallons on forest fires endangering homes.

In 2002, a federally contracted C-130 air tanker crashed near Walker, on the eastern slope of the Sierrra Nevada in Mono County, when its wings snapped off in midair. The three men aboard were killed. A month later, a PB4Y-2 air tanker crashed near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, killing both crew members.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crashes on "fatigue fractures," and the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management formed an independent blue-ribbon commission.

Effects are still being felt from that panel's scathing report, which found:

  • Federal agencies have an "unacceptable" aircraft safety record, and under the current inspection system some contract planes could not continue flying.

  • So-called "government-operated" contract planes largely fall through a crack in Federal Aviation Administration oversight.

  • Meager contracts with private firms provide incentives against safety efforts, and pilot training is inadequate.

  • The aircraft lack black boxes and flight recorders that would aid crash investigators.

The commission heard from several experts that federal officials should modify the A-10 jet tank killer for firefighting use, but it concluded the military would not turn over surplus combat aircraft due to the red tape involved with a decades-old national security policy of storing, then scrapping the aircraft.

As a result of the commission report, officials at the two federal agencies began trying to make changes with the limited funds available. Cancellation of contracts this year has been the most sweeping move.

In reaction, some of the angered big-tanker contractors have defended their safety records. The firms said they have launched reforms that include better inspection programs and training, and are working to reverse the decisions.

The Aerial Firefighting Industry Association has warned, however, that the bottom line comes to taxpayers spending more money on the problem — an unlikely scenario at this point with the nation at war.

A group representing the aviators whose jobs are at stake, the Associated Airtanker Pilots, has issued a statement attacking the federal government's big-tanker contract cancellations as "arbitrary, capricious and counter-productive to the intended goal — conducting fire operations safely and efficiently."

Fire officials fear someone or something — terrorists, arsonists, careless citizens or even lightning — will again strike a match to populated tinderboxes in the West.

"Our fire people cringe whenever they see real estate ads for new homes that say these developments brush up against national forests," said Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest. "A lot of these communities are surrounded by dead trees or trees that are dying. I'd be very concerned if I lived in those towns."


Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger, a former seasonal wildland firefighter and Associated Press reporter, wrote the award-winning AP series that spurred changes in California's aerial firefighting fleet beginning in the 1990s.