Throughout the past few years, privately-owned and -operated aerial firefighters have continued to demonstrate their rapid response to the nation’s most destructive wildland fires, due largely to ongoing investments—with their own funds—in newer, more capable aircraft.
Many, in fact, are operating under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use, multi-year contracts that have helped to put the industry on a pathway to modernization. For example, the fixed-wing operators of large air tankers are moving from USFS “Next Gen 2.0 contracts” issued in 2016, toward “Next Gen 3.0” contracts that will be awarded in 2017 and implemented in 2018. By that year, the Next Gen 3.0 contracts mandate the complete transition from legacy, World War II and Korean War Era piston-engine aircraft, to newer, turbine-powered equipment. For the industry, this is a major accomplishment, considering that only six years ago there were no modern large tankers, while today there are 21. The USFS has a stated goal of a fleet of 22-28 new generation tankers, and the contractual vehicles are in place to meet that.
The shift in aerial firefighting assets also includes relatively modern military surplus CH-47D Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that were sold to, and operated by, civilian companies. These companies have invested considerable time and money to make the helicopters available to the USFS as effective firefighting tools.
During 2016, we were fortunate that no safety-related issues involving aerial firefighting aircraft surfaced. This was due, in part, to an expanding fleet of more modern aircraft, as well as the establishment of safety management systems (SMS) that are now a USFS contractual requirement. Implementation and adherence to safety management systems has yielded significant progress for both fixed-wing and rotary-wing operators.
Perhaps the largest safety issue facing aerial firefighters is the increasing presence of drones over and near firefighting operations, despite significant efforts by the FAA in areas of education, regulation, and enforcement. This issue, in fact, was a major topic of discussion at the annual meeting of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) held last November in Boise, Idaho. The industry believes it is not a question of if, but when a collision between a drone and a helicopter or fixed-wing tanker will take place, potentially resulting in the loss of an aircraft and the flight crew. Diligence on the part of aerial firefighters and compliance on the part of drone operators is assuredly necessary. Further action to improve this situation is needed, and needed now.
A continuing competitive threat from the federal government arises from the congressional action to provide the USFS with seven former US Coast Guard C-130s. The USFS is in the process of configuring these aircraft for aerial firefighting and other tasks, with two modified to date. These aircraft will be government-owned, with their operation outsourced to civilian contractors.
This scenario is very disturbing for private operators for a number of reasons. Private operators have made large investments in order to respond to the government’s need for firefighting assets. Now the creation of competition between the government and civil operators will likely damage government/industry relations, and discourage entry into this market by small business.
This also raises some important questions: With government ownership of the aircraft, would the USFS favor those assets over those owned, operated, and maintained by private companies? Could this set off a seismic shift in the competitive landscape, disrupting business plans set in motion years ago? No data suggesting that lower costs will result from this new competitive landscape have been forthcoming. Only time will tell.
Other issues present some significant concerns, as well. Helicopter operators in particular are confronting a huge challenge with respect to recruiting and retaining people with the required skillsets. One AHSAFA member has noted a shortage of qualified mechanics—especially those trained to service medium-size helicopters—which he says has “reached crisis levels.” The same is true of pilots. As another member mentioned, with contracts typically running 120 days it is very difficult to keep qualified crews on the payroll for only four to five months of work each year.
Still another concern is, what has come to be called, “fire borrowing.” The USFS, as an agency of the US Department of Agriculture (DOA), is allotted a certain amount of funding each year to pay for firefighting. In very severe fire years, the USFS has run out of the allocated money and has had to borrow funding from other DOA programs—hence the term “fire borrowing.” Some congressional efforts aimed at changing the way funding for major firefighting events is provided, but none have thus far yielded a change in the appropriations. The question we have to ask is, will the new administration make any changes to this?
The industry, then, stands at a critical juncture, in which their privately funded aerial assets could find themselves competing in a completely different environment. At that point, combating wildfires may not be the only battle they face.