USFS/BLM call Congressmen "Extremists"
rest of the article here......
Pilots break their silence
Association members speak out, issuing warning about future of aerial firefighting
By Steve Geissinger, SACRAMENTO BUREAU
SACRAMENTO � From the father of aerial firefighting to pilots who recently flew through tornadoes of fiery debris in Southern California, aviators are saying the U.S. firefighting fleet is undergoing fundamental, long-term changes that may cost extra lives and homes � especially in this populous state.
Federal agencies' shift from troubled, aging big air tankers toward more helicopters and single-engine planes � rather than finding new large air tankers � is based on faulty fiscal conclusions and flawed accident statistics, according to several pilots breaking a 50-year-old code of silence in the wake of reports by the Oakland Tribune, a sister publication of the Tri-Valley Herald.
The Aerial Firefighting Industry Association, which represents 15 firms that supply planes, maintenance and pilots to government agencies, also is touting a decade-old National Air Tanker study that showed an overwhelming benefitto-cost ratio for big air tankers and envisioned a fleet of 41 modern
aircraft by now.
The fray developed in the wake of crashes that were blamed on worn-out, retired-military planes and safety groundings that have left the once mighty, 33-plane big tanker force at less than a third of strength.
Pilots say they have remained silent, until now, because of a military-like code of silence and the implied threat of harsh retribution.
Aviators, who fly under contract for the U.S. government, say helicopters and small tankers can't replace the role of big air tankers, aren't less expensive by some yardsticks and also suffer high crash rates.
Pilots say the data is contained in the government's own reports.
"We have an industry in transition but without a known destination yet," said Robert Fish of Associated Airtanker Pilots, a group that represents the tightknit, small community of aviators.
"Joe Ely, a U.S. Forest Service fire control officer who first used air attack on fires in 1955 in Mendocino, told me last year that fires require many tools � big planes with lots of retardant for project (large, stubborn) fires, smaller planes to handle the initial-attack requirements and helicopters for spot fires," Fish said.
After the first drop, Ely said, "a ranger said it was a real help and an editorial headline declared, 'Aerial Firewagon Vital Development.'
"And sure enough, the next summer we had seven air tankers ready to go and by the following summer, they were all over California. The more air tankers we could support, the more fires we could help control," he said.
Queries about the assertions of pilots and air tanker contractors, directed to experts at U.S. agencies, were referred to media representatives, who reiterated assurances from top U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials that the fleet will remain as effective, if not more so.
In recent days, top officials at the agencies have largely squelched congressional concerns and discounted a handful of outspoken politicians as extremists. Higher Bush administration officials have referred queries back to the agencies.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said he does not believe the reduction in big tankers will affect the agency's firefighting efforts this summer. "What we've done is make up the difference with helicopters," he said.
But contract pilots cite a December 2004 U.S. Department of Interior report that concludes helicopters and small air tankers � all things considered � have accident rates and mechanical problems at nearly the same rate as big tankers.
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