In the news today, Bob McAndrew, president of Evergreen Aviation, has directed that the 747 Supertanker be converted back into a freight hauler. Given the capricious policy of the US Forest Service that allowed them to cancel a hard-won seasonal firefighting contract with Evergreen when the NIFC's National Preparedness Level dropped below a "4", I can hardly blame them. One USFS aviation head I talked to some weeks back was actually lauding USFS for being “fiscally responsible” when drawing up the contract in such a way that it was guaranteed to self-destruct just as the California wildfire season really took off. Due to the fact that the NIFC indexes the severity and numbers of fires around the country when computing the National Preparedness Level, it was a given that the 747 contract would lapse at the end of the summer, when most of the country was getting cooler temps and precipitation. It was not a clause intended to be popular with Evergreen when the contract was drawn up, obviously. Evergreen’s response has been to gut the 747 and convert it back into a cargo carrier. Considering the fact that they can make $180,000 a day hauling cargo, it’s the only fiscally sound thing to do. This mammoth air-tanker can be converted back to firefighter duty in about three days time, according to sources at Evergreen, but they have no contract and will have to wait until next May to pursue this course again. If there are any wildfires between now and then? Well, we'll have to do without the 747 Supertanker's services.
Now that the 747 is out of the running, the DC-10 is the last plane standing if there's a wildfire. But will it get a contract from CDF or will this project also have to be abandoned? After all, the DC-10 could also be used to haul cargo, and despite what some nay-sayers have said about it being past its prime, there are DC-10s still flying that have DOUBLE the number of hours in service. As one commentary stated, B-52s have been flying since the 1950s and you never hear about them crashing. It’s not a question of age, therefore, but simply one of maintenance, the lack of which doomed a couple of heavy air-tankers back in 2002. Insofar as pursuing a USFS contract for the DC-10, between their overreaction to the 2002 tanker crashes which resulted in the grounding of ALL heavy air-tankers and the lack of trustworthiness they displayed in crafting the 747 contract, they have shown themselves to be risk adverse in the extreme. Perhaps it’s time to cancel the contracts of some of the USFS leadership and bring in some more forward-thinking replacements. Now THAT might break the impasse and drag the federal aerial firefighting force into the 21st century. For more info, visit Firebomber Publications or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.