June 9, 2004 - Responding to aviation community concerns, a Senate committee heard directly from federal agencies about how they are working to develop guidelines to assess the airworthiness of the air tanker fleet. AOPA argued that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) acted hastily in canceling contracts for the larger tankers as the agencies didn't first explore and exhaust all available options for ensuring the airworthiness of the aircraft. As recommended by AOPA, the FAA told the Senate committee it will assist in the analysis of issues associated with airworthiness of the aircraft and develop an inspection program for the large tankers. According to the Agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, the air tankers could be back fighting fires this summer if their private operators can prove they are safe to fly.
Citing safety concerns, DOI and the Forest Service recently canceled contracts on the 33 largest aerial tankers in the fleet as the forest fire season gets under way, following an NTSB investigation of two in-flight breakups of older tankers.
After hearing from AOPA members, the association's Legislative Affairs staff contacted members from the Montana and California congressional delegations as well as DOI and Forest Service officials. While AOPA places the top priority on safety, the association urged the government to seek solutions that would improve the safety of the air tanker fleet. As a result, the FAA has agreed to quickly develop an airworthiness inspection program for the large tankers.
The private companies that operate the military surplus airplanes will be asked to supply detailed records showing each airplane's flight history, maintenance, and other information before they can be returned to service.