Aviation Week & Space Technology has presented an excellent summary of The State of The Airtanker Industry (a Word version of the AW&ST article can be seen at http://airtanker.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Airtanker-Angst.docx).
What seems to some to be chaotic, disfunctional management at USFS Fire & Aviation appears to others to be a tightly focused obsession by a few at the top with awarding Lockheed-Martin a $2-3 billion contract for a C130J fleet, without a civilian MAFFS/RADS RDS even being available, at all costs. While that may prove to be a worthwhile and affordable goal down the road, the commercial aerial wildfire suppression industry stands ready today to upgrade and supplement the current and proposed VLAT, LAT, scooper, SEAT, and NextGen fleets to protect lives and property in the interim. If—given reasonable, logical, user-friendly RFPs, and timely contract awards, by USFS. Instead of fiddling while Rome (Georgia?) burns.
DOD rejected the “Smokey Buys em, Air Force Flies ‘em” kite (DoD MAFFS-C130J Feb 2011). RAND Corporation, in their $800,000 study commissioned by USFS (RAND final 2012), suggested an entirely different fleet mix from what USFS wanted; their recommendations were dismissed out of hand.
Because Smokey won’t make timely decisions, aerial firefighters are left twisting in the wind. One instance of bureaucratic paralysis: after FAA approval and IAB carding, the Evergreen B747 VLAT was not called out once by USFS during a two-year CWN agreement. It was used by Israel, Mexico, and Cal Fire, but not by USFS, even when (reportedly) requested by Incident Commanders and Lead Planes. And now, while Fire & Aviation ponders one more half-million-dollar study, we enter the 2013 fire season with no national LAT/VLAT/scooper contracts in place.
The whole issue of CWN agreements for multi-million dollar operations needs to be revisited. How can any reasonable person expect a contractor to maintain Safety, Effectiveness, and Efficiency with a first-response team without at least having basic up-front costs covered, plus a reasonable retainer, let alone a profit? Seal Team 6 on CWN? There is no free lunch.
Granted, Sequestration and other budgetary restrictions aren’t making things any easier, but that’s why our “leaders” at the top get paid the Big Bucks and wear stars. And they have yet to address a core finding of the Blue Ribbon Panel back in 2002:“Possibly the single largest challenge now facing leaders of these federal agencies is to foster cooperation and collaboration among working-level staffs, contractors, and states to raise the standards of aerial wildland firefighting in the United States.”
Perhaps they are following the dictum of that sage airtanker pilot, Walter P. Johnson: “The key to flexibility is indecision”.