Panel Faults Aerial Firefighting Program

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The safety record of the Forest Service's aerial firefighting program, which suffered two fatal crashes this summer, is unacceptable and changes should be made, a panel studying the program said in a report to be released Friday.

The panel of aircraft experts faulted the Federal Aviation Administration for taking a hands-off approach when it comes to certifying and inspecting the firefighting aircraft, many of which are leftover military tankers, some remnants from World War II, bought by private contractors and modified for aerial firefighting.

The panel said the FAA reviews maintenance records of the firefighting aircraft, but ``rarely, if ever, physically inspect an aircraft to ensure that it is safe to fly an intended mission.'' That leaves Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or private contract personnel to decide if an aircraft is safe to fly.

``Private operators, for the most part, have done an admirable job of keeping these aging aircraft flying,'' the report said. ``However, they are handicapped by receiving little, if any, support from former military operators and the aircraft's original manufacturer.''

A copy of the panel's report, scheduled for release Friday, was obtained by the Associated Press.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and BLM Director Kathy Clarke appointed the Blue Ribbon Panel of aviation experts, co-chaired by former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall and Texas state forester Jim Hull, to study the issue in August following a pair of tanker crashes.

Three people were killed in June when the wings separated from a C-130A being used to fight a fire in California. In late July, a P4Y-2 broke up and crashed fighting a Colorado fire, killing its two-man crew.

Both planes were converted military aircraft operated by Hawkins and Powers Aviation, a Greybull, Wyo., company that contracts with the Forest Service to provide firefighting tankers. The planes were 46 and 57 years old, respectively.

The NTSB said in September that fatigue cracks in the wings of both planes caused the wings to shear off. Other safety issues are still being investigated.

The panel said safety standards for the contract pilots and crew flying firefighting missions are lower than for those flying other government missions, and the government does not impose special standards upon private contractors to reflect the severe conditions in which the aircraft are flown.

The planes and helicopters used to drop fire retardant on forest fires are flown at low speeds and altitudes through turbulent mountaintop air currents with flames and smoke shooting from the trees below.

Training is inadequate for both fixed wing aircraft and helicopter pilots and crew, the panel said. And the panel also said the thick, overgrown nature of forests today _ the result of a century of aggressive firefighting _ demands attention from national leaders.

Fires burned more than 8 million acres in 2000 and nearly 7 million in 2002, both nearly double the 10-year average.