In 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report criticizing the aerial firefighting capability of the U.S. Forest Service. A review of aviation accident reports from the NTSB shows that six people died in air tanker crashes while on firefighting missions this year. At least 22 have died in such accidents in the last 10 years. According to critics, the issues that caused the NTSB to issue that report in 2002 have not been addressed. The Forest Service continues to use outdated planes that are not ideally suited to battling wildfires.
Many of the planes pressed into service by the U.S. Forest Service are old military aircraft, some left over from World War II. The planes are often scavenged from a Pentagon facility in Arizona known as the aircraft “Boneyard.” The planes are then converted to the needs of firefighting, allowing them to dispense thousands of pounds of water or fire retardant chemicals in seconds. The planes are asked to fly in challenging conditions, where buffeting winds, smoke, ash, and extreme heat would challenge even a modern aircraft. It is no surprise, then, that these aircraft often fail, sometimes fatally.
Since 2007, 33 percent of the forest firefighter deaths recorded in the United States have resulted from aviation accidents. Plane crashes were the most common cause of forest firefighter deaths in that time period. Forest Service leaders have recognized that the fleet needs to be updated, but the budget is insufficient to purchase new aircraft.
The most common aircraft in the Forest Service fleet is a plane that was designed to track submarines in the Korean and Vietnam wars. The plane has a long and questionable safety record. The condition of the fleet has deteriorated and it has also decreased in size, forcing the remaining planes to work harder. Until the situation is addressed, more forest firefighters will have their lives endangered by out-of-date and unsafe aircraft.
Source: NBC News, “Despite warnings, aging firefighting aircraft still flying – and crashing,” by Justin Runquist, Eric Francavilla, Bill McKee and Ian Ogburn, 23 December 2012