June 2, 2004
Members will hear testimony on the recent actions taken by the U.S. Government to cancel a number of contracts with businesses providing aerial firefighting services, as well as the progress federal agencies have made in response to the recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding the creation of a maintenance and inspection program for firefighting aircraft. Senator McCain will preside. Following is a tentative witness list (not necessarily in order of appearance):
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The Honorable John McCain
Today’s hearing is to address the recent decision by the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to cancel contracts for all 33 of the large firefighting aircraft. That action has a substantial impact on many states and their efforts to fight forest fires. According to the Forest Service, 20 percent of all retardant used to suppress wildfires was delivered by these 33 aircraft. • We are told these cancellations were in response to a Safety Recommendation Letter issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that reviewed three accidents involving firefighting aircraft. However, it should be pointed out that the key recommendation in the NTSB letter was not for the agencies to cancel contracts. It was that the contracting agencies should further develop a maintenance and inspection program to ensure the safe operation of these planes. Rather than instituting such a safety system, however, the agencies involved simply canceled the contracts for the aircraft. • Some Forest Service officials were quoted in the press as being “surprised” that the NTSB concluded that they had responsibility for the safety of these planes. But there is no justifiable reason for such a reaction. This issue has been around for years, with reports by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the USDA Inspector General, and even a joint report by FAA and the Forest Service, all of which recommended improvements to the safety oversight program. • Moreover after two accidents in 2002, the Forest Service contracted with Sandia National Laboratories to develop a better safety oversight plan for these aircraft. Sandia visited every aircraft operator and developed a number of recommendations. Among the recommendations was a requirement that each of the 33 aircraft receive an in depth inspection. The majority of these inspections were completed by Sandia and the FAA in 2003. • The NTSB report briefly discussed the Sandia study as follows: “The Safety Board is aware that the Forest Service has recently embarked on a multi-year plan to evaluate and improve the airworthiness of its air tanker fleet, including modification of it maintenance program so that it more closely reflects the firefighting mission. The Board supports this initiative and looks forward to learning more about the progress and results of this plan.” Again, the NTSB report did not recommend grounding these planes. In fact, according to the excerpt that I just read, the NTSB supported the approach that was being recommended by Sandia. • While the safe operations of these aircraft is of paramount importance, we cannot lose sight of the fact that lives on the ground are also at risk. We are already well into fire season in many states. • The destruction that wildfires can cause is almost beyond comprehension. In Arizona, for example, the 85,000-acre Rodeo fire that occurred in 2002, which had already been declared the worst in Arizona’s history, merged with the Chediski fire to form an inferno that destroyed 468,000 acres and more than 400 structures. A total of more than 630,000 acres in Arizona burned in that year alone. • Therefore, during today’s hearing, I hope we will receive testimony from the agencies on what actions are being taken to return the tanker aircraft safely to service. They clearly are a critical part of our nation’s firefighting arsenal, especially when used for initial attacks on emerging fires, where the use of tankers buys time for fire crews on the ground, and when used to protect buildings. • I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.
Mr. Nicholas A. Sabatini
Good morning Chairman McCain, Senator Hollings, Members of the Committee; My name is Nick Sabatini. I am the Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I am pleased to appear before you today to discuss the respective roles the FAA, the Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior (DOI) play in the safety oversight of firefighting operations conducted on behalf of the Forest Service and the DOI. Recent decisions by the Forest Service and DOI to terminate contracts with companies that operate air tankers have resulted in 33 air tanker aircraft being unavailable for use this fire season. Because the decision to terminate the contracts was safety related, a clarification as to why the Forest Service and the DOI, and not the FAA, are making safety determinations with respect to these aircraft is appropriate. Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued recommendations that arose out of its investigation of two fatal aircraft accidents in 2002 in which fatigue cracking caused the wings on the aircraft to separate during flight. The aircraft were conducting firefighting operations on behalf of the Forest Service and the DOI at the time of the accidents. The NTSB recommendations, in conjunction with those of a Blue Ribbon Commission that also studied the accidents, led the Forest Service and the DOI to conclude that continued use of the aircraft tankers posed unacceptable safety risks. Consequently, the contracts were terminated and this action resulted in understandable concern about how not utilizing these aircraft would affect the ability of the Forest Service and the DOI to meet the challenges of this year’s fire season. Because the heart of this issue is the safety and airworthiness of aircraft, I understand why people believe that only the FAA should make such determinations. We are the premier aviation safety oversight agency in the world and I am proud of our record and reputation. But from the very beginning and at all times during the existence of the FAA, there has been a clear statutory distinction between civil and public aircraft operations. FAA has regulatory and oversight authority over civil aircraft operations. Public aircraft operations are conducted by or on behalf of many different government agencies and departments, including state and federal, from the Forest Service and the DOI, to the Justice Department to the U.S. military. By statute, authority for the safety oversight of these operations belongs to the agency or department responsible for the operation. While FAA can and does provide technical support to assist other agencies with their safety oversight responsibilities, the law is quite clear that FAA cannot direct or compel another agency to impose specific safety requirements or force them to meet existing FAA requirements. Over the years, the definition of what is a public aircraft operation has changed. In response to the death of the governor of South Dakota in an accident involving a public aircraft flight, Congress narrowed what could be considered a public aircraft operation in order to impose FAA regulatory standards on a greater number of operations. Until the statutory change in 1994, an aircraft was largely used as a civil aircraft or public aircraft throughout its life. Since 1994, the function of the operation defines whether it is civil or public. Using the example of the governor, when his flight crashed, it was a public aircraft operation merely because it was being operated by the state of South Dakota. Congress felt that transporting the governor from point A to point B was not an inherently governmental function; in other words, that there was no reason that the flight could not be performed by a civil aircraft meeting FAA standards. As a result, the law was changed and today, public aircraft operations are limited to only those operations that are inherently governmental in nature, such as firefighting, search and rescue, prisoner transport, and military operations to name a few. These government functions may require aircraft to be operated in a manner that is beyond what the FAA may consider to be safe for civil operations. It is one reason FAA regulations do not apply to them; the functions could not be performed effectively within the bounds of existing FAA regulations. Another issue central to today’s hearing is surplus military aircraft. Although many public aircraft operations, including firefighting, could be performed using FAA certificated aircraft, many operators use aircraft that have been retired by the military. The aircraft that crashed in 2002 were both former military aircraft. From FAA’s perspective, the difference between other FAA certificated aircraft and a surplus military aircraft is significant. An FAA certificated aircraft holds two certificates for each aircraft. The first is a type certificate that certifies that the aircraft design meets specified FAA safety standards. This certificate would be issued for each aircraft type, such as a Boeing 777 or an Airbus A320. For each individual aircraft, the FAA issues an airworthiness certificate that certifies that the specific aircraft conforms to the approved design. Before each civil aircraft operation, the operator must confirm that the aircraft is in airworthy condition and must operate it within limitations prescribed by its type certificate. Military aircraft are not required to meet FAA design standards or to receive an FAA type certificate. During their operation in the military, the operation and maintenance of these aircraft do not necessarily conform to FAA standards. Therefore, when the military wants to surplus them, FAA is not in a position to confirm that the aircraft are fit for civil operation. However, surplus military aircraft offer an affordable option for performing specific governmental functions, especially if the operations adhere to defined limitations. A non-military state or federal agency with a surplus military aircraft can apply to the FAA for a restricted category type certificate. Similarly, if a private Part 137 operator (an entity holding a certificate for agricultural operations) has surplus military aircraft, they could also apply to the FAA for a restricted category certificate. (Part 137 of the Federal Aviation Regulations specifies that, in a public emergency, a person operating under this part may deviate from the regulatory requirements for relief and welfare activities approved by an agency of the United States or a state or local government. This enables Part 137 operators to be compensated for conducting public aircraft operations on behalf of a government entity.) FAA reviews the information submitted with each application. Although the amount and type of information the FAA is provided varies from aircraft to aircraft, we look at what the aircraft was used for in the military, its maintenance records, its service history, its modification records, and the purpose for which the aircraft is expected to be used. We also inspect the aircraft. Based on our evaluation, FAA may issue a restricted category type certificate. The issuance of the certificate is based on the fact that the aircraft had been acceptable to the U.S. military and that the military was satisfied with its operation and with the maintenance performed on it. The requirements for continuing airworthiness are generally based on using the military maintenance and inspection manuals that accompany the aircraft. The type certificate sets forth specific limitations designed to minimize the risk of operating the aircraft. The limitations include, for example, that the aircraft cannot be operated over populated areas, that it cannot carry passengers or cargo, and that it cannot be operated in another country without permission of that country. The certificate would also restrict the type of operation the aircraft could perform to that which the agency had reviewed. In other words, an aircraft approved only to conduct agricultural operations could not also be used for weather control operations. The operational approval is very limited. Once an aircraft receives a restricted category type certificate, the operator has an ongoing responsibility to ensure that the aircraft continues to conform to the certificate and is in a condition for safe operation, much as is the case with civil aircraft operations. The difference is that with a public aircraft operation, ensuring that the operator is meeting the safety standards falls to the agency on whose behalf the operation is being conducted, not the FAA. It is critical that you understand our statutory responsibilities and limitations in order to appreciate that we are not dismissing or in any way discounting the importance of aviation safety regardless of whether the operation is civil or public. Whether or not FAA is primarily responsible for the safe operation of public aircraft, we know that our expertise in aviation safety is invaluable to other agencies in the development and implementation of safety standards and practices to oversee their public aircraft operations. We have been working with the Forest Service and the DOI to help them define the firefighting environment and its effects on aircraft structure. In the civil arena, FAA has decades worth of information detailing how the structure of an aircraft is affected by different types of operation. This information has enabled the FAA to create maintenance and inspection programs that make our civil fleet the safest in the world. There is little data with respect to firefighting operations, which require low altitude operation in turbulent air with heavy loads. Understanding how and where this type of operation results in stresses on the airframe that may lead to fatigue and cracks will translate into the ability to develop maintenance and inspection programs that are appropriate for the firefighting environment. Realistically, it will take some time to obtain sufficient data to develop precise programs, but FAA will readily lend its expertise to help the Forest Service and the DOI to refine the required programs as new information warrants. Since early 2003, the FAA has advised the Forest Service and the DOI large air tanker airworthiness review program, conducted by Sandia National Labs. The review evaluated the certification, maintenance, operation and other aspects of aerial firefighting in order to improve the airworthiness of its air tankers following two in-flight structural failures in 2002. This advice was provided in the form of comments on Sandia’s draft reports, and was incorporated into Sandia’s final recommendations to the Forest Service and the DOI. FAA has also identified specific aircraft certification offices (ACOs) as focal points for some restricted category aircraft. For example, the Atlanta ACO is designated as the focal point for the Lockheed C-130A. The Los Angeles ACO is designated as the focal point for Lockheed P2V as well as the Douglas military variants. The Forest Service and the DOI, or any other federal, state or local entity may utilize these resources to access technical assistance to improve their safety oversight. Finally, in response to the significant Congressional concern expressed recently with respect to the Forest Service’s and the DOI’s decisions to terminate their air tanker contracts, FAA committed to immediately provide to the Forest Service and the DOI broad criteria to establish the basis for an effective maintenance and inspection program for the firefighting environment. In addition, we will provide guidance on the type of data the Forest Service and the DOI should be obtaining and reviewing as part of their maintenance and inspection program. And finally, we will provide to the Forest Service and the DOI the names of FAA designees who could assist them with both immediate technical assistance and ongoing support. Mr. Chairman, aviation safety is critical to the national interest regardless of the type of operation or who is responsible for its oversight. Firefighting is also of paramount importance to the safety and well being of our country and I understand why Congress is so concerned that the Forest Service and the DOI are able to meet the demands they face in the coming fire season. FAA is committed to assisting the Forest Service and the DOI in any way we can to ensure that its firefighting operations are conducted as safely as possible, given the inherently dangerous environment in which the aircraft must operate. While our statutory responsibilities limit our safety and regulatory oversight to the civil fleet, we appreciate that our technical expertise can be valuable to other agencies conducting public aircraft operations. Improving aviation safety is in everyone’s best interest and FAA will continue to be dedicated to having the safest system in the world. This concludes my prepared remarks. I will be happy to answer your questions at this time.
Mr. William W. Grantham
I would like to thank this committee and particularly Chairman, Senator McCain, for this opportunity to provide you with facts related to the perceived safety concerns which resulted in cancellation of the large airtanker contracts by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. On May 10 2004, the Departments of Agriculture and Interior announced the cancellation of the large airtanker contracts. This action has resulted in the loss of a critical firefighting resource, termed a “National Resource”, by a sitting President of the United States. The action transfers unacceptable risk to other firefighting resources, and leaves individual States, Forests and urban wildland interface communities, in an under-protected position during what has been projected to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in our history. The basis for the contract termination is the recently released NTSB Safety Recommendation. While their assessment may have reflected a situation that existed in 2002, it fails to take into account the strides of the last two years. It appears the NTSB has not been made aware, of the cooperative and collaborative efforts made by industry and the FAA. Neither was it made aware, of efforts with the USFS/BLM sponsored programs that included Sandia National Labs, which resulted in strides to improve the safety of the existing airtanker fleet. The NTSB Letter cited, “There appears to be no effective mechanism in place to assure the airworthiness of these firefighting aircraft”. This statement does not recognize that immediately following the Blue Ribbon Panel’s report on Aerial Firefighting issued in December of 2002, operators began collaborative programs with the FAA, and the Forest Service-BLM sponsored program with Sandia National Labs Airworthiness Assurance Group. Deficiencies noted by both the BRP and the NTSB have either been addressed or were works in progress. An effective mechanism has been developed that can in fact assure the continued airworthiness of a majority of the fleet. The Industry has fully cooperated and complied with, any and all requirements that had been issued by the FAA, USDA/FS, BLM and Sandia up to the cancellation date. Actions complied with include Airworthiness Directives, enhanced aircraft inspections, review of aircraft, inspection programs, personnel qualifications, record keeping and many other prerequisites prior to the start of the 2003 and 2004 contract periods. Aircraft Loads and Structural Health Monitoring programs have been initiated and great progress was being made to satisfy this crucial need for information, that is meant to not only assure the structural airworthiness of the current firefighting aircraft, but determines the suitability of any future aircraft either modified or purpose built. Statements have been made regarding a “lack of FAA oversight” of firefighting aircraft and our industry in general. Records exist that prove all the contractors receive visits from their respective FAA District Offices. ALL firefighting aircraft that were withdrawn from use in 2002 as well as those whose contracts were terminated have FAA Certificates of Airworthiness, FAA Approved Supplemental Type Certificates issued for the special purpose of firefighting, FAA Approved Inspection Programs, private engineering firms with FAA DER’s have been hired. Furthermore, all operations are conducted in accordance with Title 14 CFR Part 43, 61, 65, 91, 137 and other appropriate airworthiness regulations. At no time has the FAA found it necessary to take action on the certificates or flight status of these aircraft, other than the issuance of Airworthiness Directives with which operators of affected aircraft immediately complied. Incorrect statements have also been made about a lack of records pertaining to aircraft prior usage. These statements are also incorrect. At no time has any operator been visited by NTSB personnel to look at airtanker records, other than during the specific investigations related to the accidents of 2002. With regard to the necessity to upgrade the fleet to modern equipment, industry concurs, and has always concurred with this necessity. No contractor advocates, desires or would operate any aircraft that is found to be either unsafe or no longer able to have its airworthiness assured, in accordance with recognized FAA approved procedures. It is the desire and commitment of our industry, to work collaboratively with the agencies to develop a safe, responsible and economic plan of transition, to an evolving appropriate fleet of aircraft. Whatever perceived problems remain; can be addressed through cooperation between our industry, the FAA and responsible, accountable leadership within the agencies. We therefore respectfully request this committee; give due consideration to providing its full support of the current and continuing efforts of industry, FAA, Sandia and the Interagency Airtanker Board, to immediately restoring all available firefighting aircraft to operational status. We further request direction and support be given to the agencies to work with industry, to begin the process of determining a safe, responsible, sustainable and economic transition plan, appropriately funded to ensure our nation is not placed in this situation again. Thank you.
The Honorable Ellen Engleman Conners
Good morning, Chairman McCain, Senator Hollings, and Members of the Committee. My name is Ellen Engleman Conners, and it is my privilege to serve as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), representing the Board’s 429 dedicated professionals. Thank you for your invitation to testify before you today regarding the Board’s recent safety recommendations that resulted from three separate accidents involving firefighting air tankers. Please let me begin by acknowledging the tragic loss of life in the accidents being discussed today. Pilots and crews from the states of California, Montana and Nevada were killed during these three accidents. It is our hope that out of these tragedies and through the NTSB independent safety investigations, good will come. Our investigators and staff spent more than 2,500 man-hours on these investigations. These investigations were conducted by our regional aviation investigators, with assistance of specialists from our headquarters in Washington, DC. Over 2,000 aviation incidents and accidents (2,059 in 2003) are conducted every year by the NTSB’s approximately 35 regional investigators. As you know, the Safety Board is an independent Federal agency and not a regulatory or enforcement agency. We are charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in the other modes of transportation -- railroad, highway, marine and pipeline -- and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. NTSB reports are based on facts, science, and data – not supposition, guesswork, or desire. And, as you are also aware, the NTSB is not required to perform cost-benefit analysis of its safety recommendations. Since its inception in 1967, the Safety Board has investigated more than 124,000 aviation accidents and over 10,000 surface transportation accidents. In so doing, it has become one of the world's premier accident investigation agencies. On call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, NTSB investigators travel throughout the country and to every corner of the world to investigate significant accidents and develop factual records and safety recommendations. Our final reports are a Safety Board product, not the opinion of any one individual at the NTSB. Our professional staff investigates the accidents and then provides a draft report to the five Presidentially appointed Members of the Board, who then review and vote on the report, the probable cause, and the safety recommendations. The Safety Board has issued more than 12,000 recommendations in all transportation modes. In 1990, the NTSB began highlighting some issues on a Most Wanted list of safety improvements. Although the NTSB does not regulate transportation equipment, personnel or operations nor do we initiate enforcement actions, our reputation for impartiality and thoroughness has enabled the Board to achieve such success in shaping transportation safety improvements that more than 82 percent of its recommendations have been adopted by those in a position to effect change. Many safety features currently incorporated into airplanes, automobiles, trains, pipelines, and marine vessels had their genesis in NTSB recommendations. I want to briefly describe the Board’s investigations of the three firefighting air tanker accidents and the recommendations that resulted from those investigations. The first accident occurred August 13, 1994, in Pearblossom, California, and three people were killed. While in level flight, the airplane’s right wing separated. The Board’s original probable cause was released in 1995. Based on evidence discovered in the 2002 investigation of a C-130 accident at Walker, California accident, the NTSB went back to the site of the Pearblossom accident to search for additional pieces of metal to examine. We took those pieces to our laboratory in Washington, DC. Our laboratory examination of right side, center-wing fragments revealed two fatigue cracks that propagated to overstress fractures. One of the cracks was in the underside wing skin below a doubler, and the other was in the doubler itself. As a result, the Safety Board issued a revised probable cause in 2004. The airplane had been retired from military service in 1986. At the time of the accident, the airplane had a total of 20,289 flight hours, 19,612 of which were acquired during its military service. Of note, the wing failure occurred after the plane accumulated only had 677 hours out of military service. The inspection and maintenance programs used by the operator, which were based on military standards, included general visual inspections for cracks, but did not include enhanced or focused inspections of highly stressed areas, such as the wing sections, where the fatigue cracks that led to the accident were located. The operator did not possess the engineering expertise necessary to conduct studies and engineering analysis to define the stresses associated with the firefighting operating environment and to predict the effects of those stresses on the operational life of its airplanes. The second accident occurred on June 17, 2002, in Walker, California, also killing three people. The airplane was making a fire retardant drop over a mountain drainage valley when the wings separated from the fuselage. Our metallurgical examination of the center wing box lower skin revealed a 12-inch-long fatigue crack on the lower surface of the right wing beneath the forward doubler. The portion of the wing skin containing the fatigue crack was covered by a manufacturer-installed doubler, which hid the crack from view and, therefore, prevented detection of the crack during a visual inspection of the exterior of the airplane. The airplane retired from military service in 1978. At that time, it had accumulated about 19,545 hours in service. Additionally, the Air Force had replaced the wing center section shortly before it left military service. At the time of the accident, the aircraft had accumulated 21,863 hours in service. It is important to point out that the new wing center section failed after just more than 2,300 hours in firefighting service. The third accident occurred on July 18, 2002, in Estes Park, Colorado, and claimed two lives. The airplane was maneuvering to deliver fire retardant when its left wing separated and the airplane crashed into mountainous terrain. Our examination revealed extensive areas of preexisting fatigue in the left wing's forward spar lower spar cap, the adjacent spar web, and the adjacent area of the lower wing skin. The portion of the wing containing the fatigue crack was obscured by the retardant tanks and was not detectable during an exterior visual inspections The airplane was in military service until 1956. It was not designed to be operated as a firefighting airplane. However, in 1958, the airplane was converted to civilian use as an air tanker and served in that capacity until the time of the accident. The investigation revealed that the owner developed service and inspection procedures for the air tanker; however, those the procedures did not adequately describe where and how to inspect for critical fatigue cracks. The procedures were based on U.S. Navy PB4Y-2 airplane structural repair manuals that had not been revised since 1948. Many of these large air tankers are surplus military aircraft and some were built shortly after World War II. From the beginning of the investigations, it was understood that these aircraft were investigated in the category of public (as distinguished from civil) operations, and therefore, were not required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to comply with many of the federal aviation regulations codified in 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). For example, regulations pertaining to aircraft certification and maintenance and flight crew training and licensing are not applicable to public operations. Additionally, aircraft used in public operations are not required to be equipped with flight data or cockpit voice recorders. Therefore, the operator, in this case the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, is primarily responsible for their safe operation. The aircraft have been issued restricted-category type and airworthiness certificates from the FAA. However, we must be clear as to what this means. The requirements for issuance of a restricted-category type certificate to surplus military aircraft are contained in 14 CFR 21.25(a) (2) and state, in part: (a) An applicant is entitled to a type certificate for an aircraft in the restricted category for special purpose operations if he shows…that no feature or characteristic of the aircraft makes it unsafe when it is operated under the limitations prescribed for its intended use, and that the aircraft – (2) Is of a type that has been manufactured in accordance with the requirements of and accepted for use by, an Armed Force of the United States and has been later modified for a special purpose. According to the FAA in a letter dated November 15, 2002, from Ronald T. Wojnar, Deputy Director, FAA Aircraft Certification Service, to Tony Kern, USDA Forest Service National Aviation Officer (attached for the record): FAA-restricted type design certification of these surplus military aircraft is primarily based on military records and service history, unlike certification of normal or transport-category aircraft, which must be certificated to applicable FAA airworthiness standards (e.g. 14 CFR Part 23 or Part 25). Because these aircraft do not meet standard-category airworthiness standards, they have numerous restrictions placed on them. These restrictions are implemented through the operating limitations attached to the airworthiness certificate, as well as the operating limitations in 14 CFR. Significantly, the operating restrictions contained in restricted-category airworthiness and type certificates of surplus military aircraft typically do not include any enhanced maintenance requirements beyond those that applied when the aircraft left military service. As is the case with all of our investigations, open discussions were held with the parties involved. The Safety Board worked closely with the aviation personnel from the Forest Service (FS), DOI, Interior and the FAA from the early stages of the Walker and Estes Park investigations through the final release of the accident report and the Safety Board’s recommendation letter. Early in the investigation (within the first month or so) it became evident that there were serious issues concerning the airworthiness of these airplanes and the oversight to ensure their safe operation. The Safety Board staff was well aware that corrective actions needed to be initiated immediately. As the NTSB drafted its recommendations, we held biweekly meetings and teleconferences with the FAA and the FS to share our concerns and our proposed recommendations with them. All told, the Safety Board has spent hundreds of hours and participated in dozens of meetings or telephone calls with members of FAA, FS, and DOI on this topic. The Safety Board also met with the Blue Ribbon committee several times during the course of its investigation. The Commission’s report parallels the NTSB’s safety recommendations. The Safety Board also briefed the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy (ICAP), which advises GSA on the technical and operational issues related to aviation management, to ensure that the issues and concerns we had would be used to foster safe, effective, and efficient aviation in other US government agencies. The Safely Board is a member of ICAP. The Safety Board’s investigation of these three specific accidents focused on airworthiness and maintenance issues associated with the large air tankers. However, because all aircraft engaged in firefighting operations are exposed to the same harsh environment and increased stresses and are likely operating outside the manufacturers’ original design intent, the NTSB report noted that the deficiencies identified may well apply to all aircraft in the firefighting fleet. Frequent and aggressive low-level maneuvers with high acceleration loads and high levels of atmospheric turbulence are an inherent part of firefighting operations. A 1974 report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) noted that “…. Because the maneuver loading, in both the repeated and high magnitude applications, is so severe relative to the design loads, shortening of the structural life of the aircraft should be expected.” Similar findings were included in a November 1996 Supplemental Structural Inspection Document issued to Conair, a Canadian manufacturer and operator of firefighting aircraft. We did not inspect all aircraft in the firefighting fleet, nor did we investigate all companies involved in aircraft firefighting. However, the safety issues identified in these investigations are present in some, if not all, other large air tanker operations. Thus, the NTSB safety recommendations that result from those accidents are applicable to the entire large air tanker industry. In order to meet the intent of these recommendations, that is assessing the structural integrity of the tankers, the owners and operators must have in place the appropriate programs and personnel. It is for the operator, in this case, the U.S. Forrest Service, to determine that the recommendations have been accomplished. An example of safety recommendations being applicable to the broader industry is shown in the 1996 TWA flight 800 accident. The airplane exploded off the coast of Long Island, killing 230 people. The NTSB did not investigate all manufacturers of large aircraft, but the recommendation to inert the center wing fuel tank was aimed at all transport category aircraft. In the NTSB air tanker investigation, the Board found that no effective mechanism currently exists to ensure the continuing airworthiness of firefighting aircraft. Specifically, the maintenance and inspection programs being used do not adequately account for the increased safety risks to which these aircraft are being exposed as a result of their advanced age and the severe stresses of the firefighting operating environment. In the case here of the air tankers, the NTSB did not need to look at more operators/aircraft. Our report concluded that there are no adequate standards and oversight programs for heavy firefighting aircraft either in the FAA or the DOI. No one appears to dispute that finding. Indeed, responsible private operators concur in the judgment that all firefighting aircraft should be maintained in accordance with specialized procedures that take into account the age and operating environment of the aircraft. What the NTSB has recommended is that the federal standards for this need to be established and once again responsible operators are awaiting the establishment of such standards premised on an in-flight monitoring program--the heart of such an inspection program. The primary purpose of aircraft maintenance programs is to ensure the aircraft is airworthy, that is, in safe condition and properly maintained for its intended operation. Historically, service experience has demonstrated that it is essential to have regularly updated knowledge concerning the structural integrity of the airframe. In the case of air tankers, the structural integrity of the airplanes is of particular concern, because factors such as fatigue and corrosion tend to manifest themselves over time as the aircraft age. Accordingly, owners and operators must be aware that because the airplane is being used in a manner significantly different from its originally intended mission profile, they must maintain and inspect these aircraft in accordance with a program that is continuously evaluated and updated based on technical and engineering support and the manufacturer's knowledge of in-service experience. However, for many aircraft used in firefighting operations, very little, if any, ongoing technical and engineering support is available because either the manufacturer no longer exists or does not support the airplane, or the military no longer operates that type of aircraft. Further, the current operators of these firefighting aircraft are typically unable to structure a maintenance program that accounts for the new mission profile because: 1) the airplane’s design and service life information (such as service reports and maintenance data) is not readily available; 2) the operator lacks the necessary engineering expertise; 3) the magnitude of maneuver loading and level of turbulence in the firefighting environment is not defined; and 4) the effects of this operating environment on the service life of the aircraft structure are undefined. Currently, there is not sufficient data to make engineering decisions or conduct engineering studies or modeling. A minimum amount of loads data is just becoming available. In some cases there may be no inspection techniques that can identify some of the hidden damage that we have found on the airplanes. We are not aware of any current Original Engineering Manufacture (OEM) support for these airplanes that is sophisticated enough to be effective. We know some of the history of some of these planes because they came from the military, but we do not have the type of structural load history that would define the structural health when they entered firefighting service. We certainly do not know the history while in firefighting service. We need to be able to predict the problem, preclude the problem, and short of that, find the problem before there is a structural failure. These require more sophistication than we believe is being applied. In order to ensure that there is a robust oversight and inspection infrastructure that will ensure the safe operation of aircraft used in firefighting operations, the NTSB recommended that the USDA and the Department of Interior (DOI) develop maintenance and inspection programs for aircraft used in firefighting operations that take into account five specific factors require that aircraft in firefighting operations be maintained in accordance with those programs; and hire appropriate personnel to conduct oversight of those programs. In addition, because some of these public use aircraft might be used for civil use at other times, we recommended that the FAA require the same maintenance and inspection programs. We also recommended that the FAA serve as the focal point for collecting continuing airworthiness data about surplus military aircraft from the OEM or military in order to share that with subsequent owners and operators. Our recommendations apply to any airframe, regardless of age. Whether an old airplane, a new airplane, or an airplane still being designed, the recommendation to have a maintenance and inspection program is the same. However, we are not locked into a rigid format for a solution. There may be many processes that can be used to prevent or predict these types of accidents. They can take on many forms, and we are happy to see any that work. We noticed that in March 2004, the industry’s Consortium for Aerial Firefighting Evolution (CAFÉ) released the Strategic Aerial Firefighting Excellence (SAFE) report. The conclusion contains the parallel to the Safety Board’s finding. The report “focuses on mapping a course that will ensure the ongoing safe and economic utilization of both the current and future aerial firefighting fleets for many years to come.” However, the CAFE also concludes that “the load environment in which the current and future aerial firefighting fleet remains largely unknown. Until this environment is adequately characterized, there is an unknown level of risk that unanticipated in-flight structural failures may occur in both the current and future operational fleets.” Furthermore, the industry SAFE report states: “Many of the aircraft operating in the aerial firefighting role are not well supported by their Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). This is often a result of the OEMs no longer being in business or wishing to avoid economic/liability issues associated with operating a limited number of aircraft in a severe role, for which they were not originally designed. For this reason, every attempt should be made to procure the original design/modification engineering data for future aerial firefighting aircraft.” “The original design of most of these aircraft assumed that their primary mode of operation would be take-off, climb to altitude (typically from 14,000 – 30,000 ft ASL), cruise at altitude, descend and land. Consequently, their continuous use in a low-level environment (defined as less than 2,500 ft AGL) during aerial firefighting operations is quite different from the passenger/cargo role for which they were primarily designed. As has been documented on many occasions, aircraft performing any role in a low-level environment are subject to a far more severe loads environment as a result of a significant increase in frequency and, on occasion magnitude, of the gust and maneuvers load spectra they experience. In the case of aerial firefighting aircraft, the severity of the low-level environment is further exacerbated by the increased turbulence that is frequently encountered near the fire. Continued operation in this type of environment can result in either an increased frequency of known structural problems and/or the occurrence of structural problems that have not been previously exhibited by similar aircraft operating in their original passenger/cargo design role. In past years, much emphasis has been placed on the high g-loads that have been recorded by aircraft operating in the aerial firefighting role. While the occurrence of such loads is obviously of some concern, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that they are not the primary cause of the operational failures. Rather, the majority of the damage sustained by aerial firefighting aircraft structures appears to be attributable to cumulative effect of the large number of cyclic (fatigue) repetitions of relatively low-level (magnitude) loads to which the aircraft are subjected.” The industry’s SAFE report concludes: “There is a need to implement structural health monitoring programs on a large number, if not all, of the current air tankers. Data obtained from these programs will define criteria against which the suitability of future aerial firefighting aircraft can be evaluated prior to conversion and ensure the ongoing safe and economic management of the current fleet until such times as it can be replaced. While some steps were taken to address this issue during the 2003 fire season, to date only funding to support the limited FAA program has been assigned for the 2004 fire season. As far as CAFE is aware, the USDA/FS has so far allocated no funding to support structural health monitoring programs during the upcoming 2004 and subsequent fire seasons.” The Safety Board is also aware that the USDA began work with the Sandia Laboratory to develop a maintenance and inspection program for firefighting aircraft. In addition, the Canadians have developed an extensive program to conduct appropriate inspections of these aircraft. However, neither the nascent USDA nor the mature Canadian programs are currently in place at in the United States. The National Transportation Safety Board recognizes that aerial firefighting is an intrinsically high-risk operation. However, the risk of in-flight structural failure should not be considered an unavoidable risk of firefighting. This increased risk of fatigue cracking and accelerated crack propagation can and should be addressed through proper maintenance programs. Again, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on these important safety matters. I will be happy to answer any questions that you might have.
Mr. Mark E. Rey
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss, on behalf of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, the recent termination of contracts for 33 large air tankers used for firefighting due to concerns over their airworthiness. Our decision to terminate the contracts was ultimately based on the unacceptable safety record of these large air tankers that has resulted in multiple aviators deaths from airworthiness failures. The land management agencies are responsible for the safety of aviators, firefighters, and the public during firefighting operations and based upon the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there was no other alternative. At the same time, I want to stress that our ability to fight wildfires and protect communities continues at a high level. The reduction of 33 air tankers from our fleet of hundreds of aircraft changes, but in no way diminishes, our firefighting efforts. Airworthiness On May 10, 2004, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management terminated the contracts for 33 large air tankers due to concerns presented in the NTSB Safety Recommendations about the airworthiness of the aircraft and public safety. The large fixed-winged air tankers were used in wildland firefighting to drop fire retardant primarily at the beginnings of fires (known as initial attack). Private companies operated the 33 air tankers during the fire season under contracts with the federal agencies. The decision to cancel the contracts was based on a series of events and the cumulative findings of two reports: (1) the Blue Ribbon panel of aviation experts which issued its findings in December 2002; and, (2) the April 23, 2004 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report on three air tanker accidents. The Blue Ribbon Panel cited numerous concerns with the reliability of the large air tankers, composed of aging retired surplus military aircraft. These reliability issues presented safety concerns, as well as operational problems. For a time, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management thought they could work through these concerns, following the Panel’s recommendations for a more robust inspection and maintenance program, and relying on the efforts of the aircraft owners and the Federal Aviation Administration certification process for private use. The report of the NTSB validated the Blue Ribbon panel but added critical findings that led us to conclude we could not continue to use these aircraft under the current circumstances. One critical finding of the NTSB report states “…no effective mechanism currently exists to ensure the continuing airworthiness of these firefighting aircraft.” Since most of the large air tankers were designed and used for military operations before their acquisition by contract companies, the NTSB recommendations also indicated that a complete history, including maintenance and inspection records, is not available for many of the air tankers. The average age of the large air tankers is 48 years with some tankers more than 60 years of age. There is a lack of baseline data to determine the level of stress placed on the airframes during firefighting. Further, there is missing documentation for some airplanes about their previous missions flown, and what additional stresses those flights might have put on the structure of the aircraft. Time has caught up with this program and with the air tankers. Since the NTSB identified the Forest Service and Department of the Interior as the agencies responsible for the safety of these aircraft, it was time to make this decision. Since 1958, more than 130 large air tanker crew members have died. The Blue Ribbon Panel reported that, if ground firefighters had the same fatality rate, this would equal more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year. This is totally unacceptable. The Chief of the Forest Service and the Director of the Bureau of Land Management terminated the air tanker contracts because the risk to aviators’ lives is too great and because alternative aircraft are available. We could not continue to use these aircraft, putting aviators and ground firefighters at risk for more catastrophic accidents when we don’t have enough data or the ability to confidently assess the risk, nor a program in place to mitigate the risk. We could not subject the same communities we are trying to protect from wildfire to the additional risk of an air tanker breaking apart over homes in the wildland urban interface. Firefighting Operations There is a widespread perception that we can drown a wildland fire if we drop enough water and retardant, and that without the large air tankers, homes and forests are at greater risk. We need to be clear - wildfires are put out on the ground. The large air tankers were useful in the initial attack of fires. However, they were only one of the tools fire managers use in deciding how to fight fire safely. Fire retardants are chemicals that impede the progress of wildfire, but do not stop it. Fire retardants slow the fire’s growth and rate of spread to give ground forces more time to complete suppression actions. Those ground forces are the key – firefighters put out fires, not air tankers. Moreover, even though air support is a valuable tool, it extends beyond large air tankers. It includes helicopters and Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS). Fire intensity levels, determined by factors like wind speed, rate of fire spread, and smoke inversions, determine if aircraft may or may not be the right tool to slow a wildfire. At lower fire intensities, aerial support generally is not needed and at high fire intensity, fire retardant is not useful. Aviation assets are also affected by weather conditions. There were several days during the California fires that aircraft could not fly because of wind conditions and the associated turbulence in the air over wildland fires. Over the past few years, we have gradually increased the use of helicopters in firefighting support. The fixed wing air tanker fleet was actually only delivering about 20 percent of all suppressants, including retardant, foam and water. Although fixed wing aircraft can often arrive faster, travel faster, and carry more to a fire, they are limited by the maneuverability limits over mountainous terrain, and proximity of a suitable and secure airport with reload facilities. In many ways, the smaller aircraft and helicopters provide increased flexibility in their use than the larger tankers. We have the best trained and best equipped federal wildland firefighting forces in the world, and our state and local firefighting partners make us even stronger. Tens of thousands of initial attack efforts are successful every year without any aerial support from large air tankers. In fact, approximately 98% of all fires targeted are suppressed upon initial attack. Firefighters know how to set protection priorities and employ strategies and tactics to be safe and successful in suppressing the wildland fire. Operations for 2004 Firefighting resources are coordinated at the national level by the National Multi-agency Coordination group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The group is made up of federal agencies and the National Association of State Foresters. Eleven geographic area coordination centers provided information on anticipated needs for the 2004 fire season. The information was developed into the 2004 strategy that addresses the initial and extended attack needs for the nation. This plan will be reviewed and modified on a bi-monthly basis or as the severity of the fire season dictates. We are currently activating all of our aircraft so they are prepared to assist the ground firefighters. Helicopters and single engine air tankers are pre-positioned throughout the country based on intelligence regarding drought, anticipated weather conditions and expected fire activity. The National Interagency Coordination Center will continue to move aerial assets as needed through this summer’s fire season to support the ground firefighters. Through new contracts, we have increased our fleet of other aerial firefighting support assets in order to reduce the impact of the loss of the large airtankers. Contracts are being negotiated to add large helitankers, which can deliver up to 2000 gallons of retardant and large helicopters with buckets, which can deliver up to 1000 gallons of retardant. Details are being finalized for the short term plan to maintain our success rate suppressing wildfires at initial attack. Questions have been raised about the use of the large air tankers by the states. The National Multi-agency Coordination group has issued guidance on the use of aviation assets. State contracted large air tankers will be used on federal lands where states have formal protection responsibility and are in operational control of the fire. No federal personnel may be assigned as state contract officers on an unauthorized tanker, nor may any federal employee be assigned to a position to exercise operational control of an unauthorized tanker. We have been working with the FAA to develop a protocol for assuring airworthiness of the firefighting craft, and their testimony today reflects our mutual intent in that regard. We are also engaged with the FAA in developing criteria to review the airworthiness of the 33 air tankers that were the subject of the terminated contracts. We expect to finalize a process in the next couple of days, and will share that with the Congress as soon as possible. The Administration recognizes the need for a long term strategy for firefighting operations, integrated with the overall operations of the affected agencies, and we are working to develop that long term plan. We are currently conducting an evaluation of the cost effectiveness of aviation resources, including tradeoffs between different types of resources, and we expect to incorporate the results of that study as the long term strategy is developed. Summary We appreciate the work of the members of the Blue Ribbon Panel, the NTSB, the FAA, and Congress to help us deal with this issue. This will be a challenging fire year, but not because of the absence of airtankers. With the drought, too much fuel on our forests and rangelands, and the expanding wildland urban interface, fires will continue to be tough to suppress. Where appropriate, we will manage wildland fires for resource benefits including fuel reduction, and suppress wildfires that present a danger to lives and property. During the past several years, we have limped along with an aging air tanker fleet by reducing delivery capabilities, restricting flight hours and pouring tax dollars into enhancing maintenance and inspection programs. Continuing to pay more for less capability in a fleet of unknown airworthiness is a doomed strategy, poor public policy, and bad stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Safety is the most important value of the firefighting community. To continue to use these large air tankers when no mechanism exists to guarantee their airworthiness presents an unacceptable level of risk to aviators, to the firefighters on the ground, and to the communities we serve. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on this important safety matter. I am happy to answer any questions you might have.
Mr. Mark Timmons
Mr. Chairman and Members: I am the owner and Chief Executive Officer of Neptune Aviation Services, a former contractor with the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture to provide Heavy Airtankers for wildland fire suppression. Prior to the Termination for Convenience by the Department of Agriculture of our contacts on May 10th, 2004 we had seven (7) aircraft contracted for the upcoming wildland fire season, five full time contracts and 2 exclusive use spares. We are based in Alamogordo New Mexico and Missoula Montana, with our corporate offices in Missoula Montana. We employ one hundred and (100) people of whom 35 are A&P mechanics and 8 and IA’s, and nineteen flight crewmembers. Our physical plant consists of a hangar and shop facilities in New Mexico that allows us to put one (1) of our aircraft inside at a time for maintenance and a retardant tank manufacturing facility. In Missoula, we have a facility where we can put two aircraft inside for maintenance at one time; a full machine shop and engine overhaul facility. Neptune Aviation has been identified by many outside sources as having facilities and maintenance procedures and process that are equal to, or exceeding the best of the FAR Part 121 (airline) standards (see Herlihy’s Submission To The Oversight Hearing on Firefighting Preparedness: Are we ready for the 2004 Wildfire Season on May 13th, 2004). Neptune Aviation Services is certificated as a FAA Part 145 Repair Station No. N16R011N with the following ratings: Airframe Class 1&3, Limited Airframe for the Lockheed P2V-5 and P2V-7, Limited Power Plant with Overhaul capabilities for the Curtis Wright R-3350, Limited Radio, Limited Propeller with Overhaul Capabilities for the Hamilton Standard model 24260, Limited Accessory, Limited Instrument, Nondestructive Inspection, Testing and Processing. Neptune Aviation is in the process of incorporating the Lockheed L-188C into the Repair Station operation specifications including the Rolls Royce 501-D13 power plant the Aero Products 6440 series propeller. FAA 137 Commercial Agricultural Aircraft Operations certificate number CILG838C. The objective of this testimony is to provide input from an aerial firefighting contractor for heavy airtankers concerning the recent actions of the Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior to Terminate for Convenience their contracts with said contractors based on an incomplete and flawed N.T.S.B. Safety Recommendation. An additional objective is to convey to this committee what the industry has done and is doing concerning the NTSB report and the Sandia Laboratories report of 2003. Lastly, I would like to address the question of FAA oversight over the companies that have historically contracted with the aforementioned mentioned agencies. Termination For Convenience On May 10th, 2004 at 14:20 hours Eastern Standard Time, The Department of Agriculture and The Department of Interior notified the contractors of Heavy Airtankers that their contracts with their respective agencies would be terminated at 1700 hours Eastern Standard Time on May 10th, 2004. The means of Notification of Termination of these Contracts was provided by fax, and preceding the notification to the companies involved, notification was provided to the press. Thus, the first notification of termination to the companies and personal involved was provided by the press, not by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior. No personal contact was made by the agencies that terminated these contracts to the companies that were involved. At the time of the termination for convenience many of the companies had aircraft and support crews in the field fighting wildland fire. In the case of Neptune Aviation, we had two (2) aircraft in the field fighting wildland fire; it was unfortunate that these crews had to continue to operate their aircraft with the knowledge that they would no longer have a contract at the end of the business day. The question of aircrew safety was apparently not a concern in the timing of the termination of these contracts. It was a testimony to the quality of the aircrews and companies that they finished the day safely fulfilling their contracts and obligations to the very agencies that had terminated their contracts with out regard for their safety. While it may seem that the Department of Agriculture was taken by surprise by the content of the NTSB report, the agencies were in possession of the draft copy of the NTSB report for over one (1) year prior to the release of the final draft (testimony by The Honorable Ellen Engleman-Conners during the Oversight Hearing on Firefighting Preparedness in U.S. House of Representatives on May 13th, 2004). In fact the Department of Agriculture was a partner throughout the two (2) year investigative process. We can only conclude, that while not all of the NTSB’s recommendations may have been present in the draft report; the major conclusions concerning their findings were present. During this period of the time while, the Department of Agriculture was aware of the draft findings of the NTSB report, they were continuing to encourage the operators of the heavy airtankers to modernize their fleets by making large investments of capital. On December 10th, 2003 in Boise Idaho, and again via a telephone conference on April 16th, 2004 The Department of Agriculture encouraged the heavy airtanker industry to modernize their fleet of aircraft prior to the 2008 contracting period or be in risk of not being awarded any future contracts. In fact, Neptune Aviation acquired two (2) L-188 for the purpose of modernizing our fleet at a cost of over one and a half million dollars. NTSB Safety Recommendation A-04-29 through -33 While the NTSB Safety Recommendation provided a concise and an accurate evaluation of the two tragic accidents that occurred in 2002, it failed to accurately access the current condition of the heavy airtanker industry, nor did it even attempt to determine the changes that had, and are occurring within the heavy airtanker industry today. This oversight can only be described as negligent, both in its lack of effort and in its scope to determine the current state of the industry, and incompetent in their failure to conduct any type of coherent research on current airworthy programs. The NTSB either failed to contact or was ignorant of the Sandia National Laboratories detailed study of the airworthiness of the individual aircraft and companies involved in the airtanker industry in 2002. Sandia issued draft reports concerning each company and their aircraft in 2003 outlining what steps each company needed to accomplish in order to maintain the airworthiness of their aircraft. Prior to the start of the 2003 wildland fire season, Neptune Aviation Services was in compliance with all the recommendations contained in the Draft report, as were all airtanker companies. In order to accomplish this all the airtanker companies expended large amounts of capital, out of their own pockets, to meet or exceed the recommendations of the Sandia Laboratories. The final draft of the P2V Sandia report has been sent to the FAA for review and comment is expected to be finalized and released at any time. The Final report for the P3A has already been released by the FAA, the reports concerning the DC 4/6/7 are also soon to be released by the FAA. The NTSB was either unaware or was not concerned with the fact that The Department of Agriculture had hired a Airworthiness Program Director who was tasked with airtanker airworthiness and modernization. The research and recommendations that Ron Livingston had developed and presented was never used in the NTSB report. In fact, Mr. Livingston has stated that the heavy airtanker operators and the DOA are in compliance with the recommendations that the NTSB makes in its report (see Ron Livingston’s submission to this committee). It is his belief that all the 33 large airtanker contracts should be reinstated based on the in-depth inspections that were recommended by the Sandia National Laboratories in 2003. Prior to the release of the NTSB report there was no attempt by that agency to determine what each operator’s capabilities were to maintain their aircraft, and maintain their aircraft in an airworthy state. The only operator that was examined was the operator that suffered the tragic loss of the two (2) aircraft in 2002. Not one other operator was visited, evaluated or consulted with. Rather, the NTSB made broad generalizations concerning the capabilities of the industry as a whole without regard to any due diligence or care for accuracy in the NTSB report. In doing so, the NTSB caused significant damage to the reputation of individual operators causing the real potential of future financial damage. This is an example of gross negligence and disregard for the companies that are involved in contracting Heavy Airtankers. FAA OVERSIGHT / CIVIL vs. PUBLIC AIRCRAFT The NTSB states in their Safety Recommendation that “…public firefighting flights are not statutorily required to comply with most FAA regulations (including those pertaining to airworthiness and maintenance) nor, accordingly, are they subject to FAA oversight in those areas. Therefore, the Forest Service and the DOI, as the operators of these flights, are primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of these operations.” In reality this does not reflect current practice with respect to the companies that operate heavy airtankers. There is a perception at the national level of the FAA that little to no oversight is being conducted over the companies that operate heavy airtankers, and the oversight that is provided is nothing more than eye floss. On April 20th and 21st, 2004 at Long Beach California, during Long Beech P2V Air Tanker Maintenance Steering Committee Frank Lieberman of the FAA Washington Office AFS 300 stated that he was very surprised and impressed to hear that there were approved Airtanker Operators MEL’s, AIP’s, Maintenance Programs, and STC’s. In addition, he was pleased there was so much in the FAA Approved substantiation met for these aircraft. Contractually, all contractors that provide aerial firefighting aircraft to The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior are required to possess U.S. Airworthiness Certificates and the operators must have Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 137 Agricultural Operating Certificates by the FAA. In order to acquire an Airworthiness Certificate the operator must be in position of an FAA issued Type Certificate (TC) under FAR 121 that will specify operating limitations and maintenance requirements. Having been issued TC’s, Airworthiness Certificates, Pilot Certificates, Mechanic Certificates, and 137 Operating Certificates, the FAA is responsible for evaluating and determining that applicable regulations are adhered to. These regulations include Title 14, CFR’s and determining what applicable regulations are adhered to. These regulations include Title 14, CFR’s 21, 25, 39, 43, 45, 47, 61, 65, 67, 91, 137 and in some cases 145. In order to determine regulatory compliance status of the operators, field inspectors are assigned inspection items that must be accomplished each year, in the same fashion as they do with CFR 135 and 121 certificated air carriers. The FAA’s authority to perform the inspections cannot be avoided by the operator and are not affected by Department of Agriculture or Department of Interior decisions regarding air tanker operators. In reality this oversight continues into and during the wildland fire season. At no time are Neptune Aviations aircraft, as well as other operators are removed from FAA supervision. In order to resume operations in 2002 after the tragic accidents each aircraft was required to undergo extensive inspections and repairs that were approved by the FAA. This also included a continuing airworthiness program for each aircraft and the wing structures specified in the AD (Airworthiness Directive) that was issued by the FAA. Adherence to this airworthiness program is under the oversight of the FAA. While the debate continues on the national level of who is responsible for assuring that heavy airtankers are maintained in a airworthy state, the local FSDO’s have been taking that responsibility and have been providing oversight over maintenance and flight operations, both during the period when the aircraft are under contract to The Department of Agriculture and The Department of Interior, and when they are not. AIRWORTHINESS OF THE CURRENT AIRTANKER FLEET Shortly after the tragic loss of two aircraft in 2002 the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior and the FAA grounded the heavy airtankers pending an evaluation and examination of the wings of the respective aircraft. This was accomplished by contracting with various FAA designated engineering representatives. In order to resume operations in 2002 each aircraft was required to undergo extensive inspections and repairs that were approved by the FAA. This also included a continuing airworthiness program for each aircraft and the wing structures specified in the AD (Airworthiness Directive) that was issued by the FAA. While I cannot comment on what each operator does for airworthiness inspections, I am sure that they each have similar inspection and repair procedures that have been approved by the FAA. In the case of Neptune Aviation Services, the aircraft received an expanded Depot Level inspection on each of the aircraft wings prior to returning to service in 2002. Each aircraft was completely dismantled from wing station 0 – 192 on both sides of the aircraft. This included the removal of upper stress panels, retardant tanks, fuel cells, liners and ribs. Full replacement of the internal doublers was completed using a modified version engineered and approved by a structural DER and the FAA. Detailed inspections (x-ray, fluorescent penetrate, detailed visual) of center wing and associated structures were completed. Outer wing structures were inspected for abnormalities. In the case of one aircraft, this included the replacement of one complete outer wing panel for preventive measures related to a previous repair prior to Neptune Aviation Services owning the aircraft. An aircraft was disassembled at the manufacturing breaks including outer wing panels and tail locations to verify Neptune Aviation Services was not missing any possible hidden areas of corrosion or concern. All wing attachment bolts were magnetic particle inspected. Sandia National Laboratories inspected Neptune Aviation Services in November 2002, they had only one operational recommendation directed to Neptune: to include a supplemental document incorporated in the AAIP for over weight landing. This inspection program to assure airworthiness of Neptune Aviation Services aircraft has become incorporated in our yearly inspection process. Once every other year each aircraft undergoes an expanded Depot Level inspection of each aircrafts wings. These inspections entail over five hundred (500) additional man-hours per aircraft every other year, which Neptune Aviation Services is not reimbursed. This inspection is identical to the inspection completed in 2002 and is in addition to the full airframe Depot Level inspection that each aircraft undergoes every eighth (8) year. The NTSB in its Safety Recommendations expressed a number of concerns with the operation of ex-military aircraft and aging standard category aircraft. Some of these concerns are due to lack of diligence in conducting proper research or a through omission of fact. In the CRS Issue Brief for Congress, Transportation Issues in the 108th Congress, undated May 18th 2004 the NTSB cites two (2) reports that were conducted on firefighting aircraft in the firefighting environment. The NTSB states on the bottom of page fifteen (15) and the top of page sixteen (16) “The Safety Board located studies performed in the early 1970’s by NASA on the Lockheed P2V and the Douglas DC-6 that examined the effects of the low-level firefighting missions on these converted surplus military airplanes plus a Canadian study on civilian Fokker F27 also converted to the firefighting mission. The results of the P2V study indicated that there were no adverse effects to the airframe structure due to the tank installation and the mission flown. The data for the DC-6 study drew conclusions that indicated that, unlike the P2V study, the firefighting mission did impact the structural life of the airplane. The report concluded that, “The severity of maneuver load applications, in both magnitude and frequency of occurrence, is such that significant shortening of the structural life of the aircraft should be expected.” In it’s Safety Recommendation, the NTSB included the information concerning the DC6 as well as the F27, however it did not cite NASA’s conclusions concerning the P2V. Rather it implied that the studies done on the three aircraft drew the same conclusions. Many operators are all ready taking into account the potential of significant shortening of the structural life of their individual aircraft types. In the case of Neptune Aviation we are using a Three (3) to one (1) ratio for the P2V in the wildland fire environment. For every hour of flight we are counting three (3) hours flight on the airframe. For the L-188, which we are in the process of conducting a Depot Level inspection, prior to tanking, we will be using a five (5) to one (1) ratio. This results in an accelerated maintenance program and provides an increase in safety and takes into account the potential shortening of the structural life of individual aircraft types. Prior to the termination of the heavy airtanker contracts the industry, in conjunction with the Sandia National Laboratories, was in the process of gathering data to determine the magnitude of maneuver loading and the level of turbulence in the firefighting environment and the effects these factors have on the remaining operational life of the aircraft in question (NTSB Recommendation A-04-29 – Part 3). The Sandia Laboratories installed on three (3) aircraft (Tanker 48, a P2V, Tanker 66, a DC-7 and Tanker 25 a P3-A) Structural Health Monitoring equipment. The data was gathered during the 2003 wildland fire season and was downloaded to a computer managed by the Sandia National Laboratories. The intent of this project was to provide the FAA with engineering evaluations and allow the FAA to revise the current FAA approved inspection programs of the individual operators. It is unfortunate that the Department of Agriculture terminated these contracts prior to the study generating the data needed to evaluate current airtankers, and future airtanker platforms. The NTSB states in its Safety Recommendation that “…for many aircraft used in firefighting operations, very little, if any, ongoing technical and engineering support is available. This is because either the manufacturer no longer exists or does not support the airplane, or the military no longer operates that type of aircraft” (page 7). While this may be the case for the aircraft that were involved in the tragic accidents in 2002, this is not the case for the remaining fleet of aircraft. Both Lockheed and Douglass provide full OEM support for their aircraft. This includes the DC-4/6/7, the P3-A and the P2V. Neptune Aviation has a contract with Lockheed to provide full OEM support and has enjoyed a productive relationship with Lockheed. Neptune Aviation also has acquired from Lockheed the full engineering drawings and specifications on the P2V aircraft. In addition Neptune Aviation has the full engineering drawings from Curtis-Wright and Westinghouse, along with the ownership of the original type certificate data sheet specifications (TCDS) for the J-34 turbojet engine. . This support allows Neptune Aviation to assure repair to original new standards and remanufacture to original type-certificate data sheet specifications (TCDS). Other operators have similar resources at their disposal. Because the NTSB failed to evaluate the entire industry their research failed to uncover that the operators of heavy airtankers have access to OEM engineering support, that the majority of the operators also have complete records for their aircraft and that the Sandia National Laboratories in conjunction with the FAA were already involved in developing a dynamic maintenance program for these aircraft. That in fact, the operators of the heavy airtankers had already conducted Depot Level maintenance base lines for critical structures within their aircrafts wings. The lack of due diligence in their research resulted in the NTSB coming to the incorrect conclusion on page seven (7) of their Safety Recommendation. “Therefore, it is apparent that no effective mechanism currently exists to ensure the continuing airworthiness of the these firefighting aircraft. Specifically, the maintenance and inspection programs currently being used do not adequately account for the increased safety risks to which these aircraft are now exposed as a result of their advanced age and the more severe stresses of the firefighting operating environment.” In fact all the operators are involved in a dynamic FAA approved maintenance program that takes into account the concerns the NTSB identify in their Safety Recommendations. CONCLUSIONS There is a wide spread misconception in Washington D.C. concerning the current state of the heavy airtanker Industry. The NTSB, by coming to a conclusion through faulty research, and lack of due diligence came to the conclusion that there was no effective mechanism to assure the continuing airworthiness of the Heavy Airtankers. Further, in doing so they made the recommendation that the DOA and DOI should take responsibility to assure that the aircraft in question should be airworthy. By coming to this conclusion without any basis in data, they in effect placed the DOA and DOI into regulatory situation which the DOA and DOI are ill suited to accomplish. It is unfortunate that the NTSB failed to conduct their research on the Heavy Airtanker industry with any form of due diligence, for if they had they would have concluded that there are indeed mechanisms in place to assure that these aircraft are indeed maintained in a airworthy state. The FAA on the national level does not have an understanding of what is occurring on the Local FSDO level with respect to FAA oversight and the level of interaction between the FAA and the operators of Heavy Airtankers. In addition there is a perception that the companies that operate these aircraft are a bunch of cowboys who fly and maintain their aircraft by the seat of their pants. This may have been the case in the past for some operators, however the Heavy Airtanker Industry has undergone a significant evolution in the past ten (10) years, and a radical revolution of its maintenance and flight programs in the past two (2) years under the oversight of the Sandia Laboratories and the FAA. The costs that are associated with the expanded maintenance have been, for the most part, born by the companies involved in Heavy Airtanker operations. The FAA has failed to recognize that it has, all along, been involved in approving maintenance programs and in assuring the airworthiness of these aircraft. At the Local FSDO level of the FAA there is no doubt that the operators are under constant oversight, even while on contract to the Department of Agriculture for firefighting. The Department of Agriculture has become concerned that they are libel for future and past Heavy Airtanker accidents because the aircraft are considered “public aircraft”. However, the courts do not seem to share that same opinion. The Federal Government has only been successfully sued once in the matter of a Heavy Airtanker accident. In that case, the accident was directly caused by a USFS lead plane colliding with an airtanker on short final for landing at Ramona California. In all the other cases involved in the loss of a heavy airtanker the courts have ruled that the liability of aircraft maintenance and flight operations lies with the individual operators. Further, if there is a desire to remove the question of “Public vs. Civil” aircraft in relation to Heavy Airtankers there are contractual ways to remove that concern. Lastly, The Department of Agriculture and The Department of Interior have decided to focus their attention on solely the question of airworthiness on the Heavy Airtankers. In their report the NTSB refers to all aircraft in the wildland fire environment. Many of the aircraft that are replacing the Heavy Airtankers are not under any form of FAA oversight. Their maintenance is conducted out side of any repair station, avoiding the involvement of the FAA, yet The Department of Agriculture and The Department of Interior are contracting with large numbers of these aircraft. It appears that no one is a fan of Harry Truman in any of the agencies on the national level that are dealing with the Heavy Airtanker issue; no one is willing to accept the responsibility that “the buck stops here”. In the meantime the operators of Heavy Airtankers are be held hostage by the FAA, DOA, DOI and NTSB in a series of finger pointing with no one taking any responsibility. The result being, the public is being denied a critical resource in fighting wildland fire, and in the process putting their property and lives at risk. It is my concern that we are involved in a war of attrition, the finger pointing will continue until the last of the companies have expended the last of their financial resources and have gone out of business. The resulting loss would be fifty (50) years of wildland fire experience. Respectfully submitted by Mark Wm. Timmons