Dan Gibson must be crazy.
Or maybe he’s foolish.
Some seem to think he may have a death wish.
How else to explain Gibson’s burning desire to be spending this wildfire season back in the air, soaring at precariously low levels through smoke, cinder and viciously dangerous updrafts, delivering thousands of pounds of fire retardants or water precisely on-target – all in a plane the federal government declared unsafe? But this summer, instead of flying firefighting air tankers, Gibson is cooling his heels at home, powerless to act as infernos engulf the American West. He and the planes he was flying only last year sit idle and unused, after having been summarily blackballed by the U.S. Forest Service less than one year ago, based on allegations that the veteran firefighting contractor for whom Gibson worked, Aero Union, was operating unsafely.
Gibson and others intimately familiar with the planes, the company and the case say this is untrue. They say the 7 grounded planes – which constituted 1/3 of an already-dangerously-depleted federal air tanker fleet at the time of the surprise contract cancellation – aren’t just airworthy, but that they’re ideally suited to fighting the sort of fires that are ravaging the West this summer. Documents and interviews support this defense of Aero Union and its planes – indicating that the U.S. Forest Service made a monumental mistake when it terminated the contract last summer, leaving the agency dangerously short of air support as it entered the 2012 wildfire season.
Dan Gibson isn’t crazy. And he isn’t some foolhardy sky cowboy with a death wish. He’s a 38-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, who flew combat missions in Vietnam. He was educated and trained at the same U.S. Air Force Academy that had the Waldo Canyon fire licking at its boundaries only a few weeks ago. He believes the grounded Aero Union planes, flown by skilled practitioners like him, could have changed the course of events this summer. And he’s baffled about why such a potent weapon in the federal wildfire-fighting arsenal would sit unused, even as great swaths of the American West go up in flames, based on government claims that are unsupported and demonstrably false.
It’s a question many Westerners may also be asking, as the federal government proceeds to bungle one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in years.
Gibson laughs when asked whether the military surplus P-3A Orions flown by Aero Union are safe. “Absolutely,” he says. “These planes were as safe as any plane I flew in the military, and in some cases safer, no doubt about it.” Gibson expresses complete trust in the aircraft, his colleagues and the company he worked for before the “shocking” contract cancellation of last summer. The planes, though aging, are carefully maintained and ideally suited to the mission, he told us — and better suited, in many cases, than aircraft flown by other contractors or that were brought in as replacements planes.
“I flew a lot of combat missions in Vietnam, and we obviously did careful pre-flight planning and preparations before those missions,” Gibson said. “Well, the exact same thing applied to these airplanes and these missions. None of us would have taken those planes up if we had any doubt at all about the structural or mechanical integrity of the airplanes.”
So why aren’t Aero Union and its planes in the firefight this summer? “I really can’t explain it,” he says. And the mystery only deepens the closer one looks at the case.
When the Western wildfire season of 2012 burst into full fury in mid-May, announced by a string of mammoth blazes stretching from Northern Colorado to Southwestern New Mexico, these perfectly airworthy, perfectly serviceable, critically-needed aircraft – aircraft that had less than one year earlier provided the backbone of the federal heavy air tanker contractor fleet — sat idling on the tarmac at a California air base, all due to a relatively trivial bureaucratic paperwork dispute that left federal officials dangerously short of the air support they needed to get a handle on the situation. This is the story of why those critically-needed planes are sitting there, unused, when they should have been, and could have been, flying missions that spared forests and saved homes – all because federal officials evidently cared more about paperwork than they cared about public safety.
With the issue of the firefighting air tanker shortage now out on the table, it’s time to delve deeper into one of the central questions raised by the case: Was the terminated contractor, Aero Union, flying unsafe planes last summer, when the Forest Service used that allegation to terminate a contract that summarily reducing the contractor fleet size by one third? That decision left only 11 heavy tankers in the Forest Service air “arsenal” at the beginning of this wildfire season, down from 44 tankers it had under contract 8 years ago. With one fatal crash in early June, and another plane grounded over safety concerns (something that might raise questions about whether the agency grounded the right contractor), this left just 9 heavy air tankers in the federal contractor fleet, to cover an entire country, by the time the 2012 summer wildfire season began heating up in early June.
At the time of the Aero Union contract cancellation, and repeatedly since then, Forest Service officials have insisted that this anemic level of air support was adequate to meet the threat. But such statements seem like foolish bravado in light of subsequent developments – devastation that offers prima facie proof that the Obama administration was dangerously unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with a wildfire threat that has only been growing.
While some in the normally-skeptical media appear to take the agency’s safety allegations at face value, there are two sides to this story, just like any other. Mere allegations don‘t constitute a conviction of wrongdoing. And so it is with this case. Documents obtained by MWA, and interviews with key players, paint a very different picture of things than you’ll find in Forest Service statements and press releases of last summer, casting doubts on the agency’s veracity and version of events. The grounded planes were rated airworthy by the Federal Aviation Administration, the highest authority on such matters, and approved for flight by the Forest Service itself, just weeks prior to the contract’s surprise termination. There was a relatively-minor, easily-resolvable disagreement between the company and certain agency insiders about the company’s progress on something called the Continuous Airworthiness Program, or CAP, a relatively new initiative aimed at long-term modernization of an aging contractor fleet. But that was a paperwork issue, with absolutely no bearing on the safety and reliability of the planes flying last summer.
Aero Union representatives recently posted this letter on the Wildfire Today blog but otherwise have remained mum on such matters, because they are quietly working through an appeals process in the hope of restoring the contract, saving their company and getting their planes back into the wildfire fight. None agreed to be interviewed for this piece, perhaps for fear of angering agency officials. But evidence acquired independently seems to indicate that Aero Union’s aircraft were safe and that the agency seems to have terminated the contract for purely bureaucratic reasons. It appears that the company got the shaft, in short — though not half the shaft the American West is getting this summer, as an ill-equipped Forest Service belatedly and haphazardly scrambles to manage an out-of-control situation.
Safe to Fly
Were Aero Union aircraft safe to fly when grounded last summer? “Yes, without a doubt they were safe,” says Robert Poe, a Federal Aviation Administration designated engineering representative (or DER) who served as the interface between Aero Union and the FAA. Although Poe worked as a consultant to the company, his ultimate master is the FAA, which is unbending on it standards of what constitutes an airworthy aircraft. The planes are aging, as almost every plane in the contract fleet is, explains Poe, which means they require regular maintenance and inspections. But the company’s Vietnam-era P-3As “were airworthy and they were in good shape” at the time the contract was terminated, according to Poe.
And they must have been airworthy according to the U.S. Forest Service, which had to sign-off on that, and give the company permission to fly them through the 2011 wildfire season, before the beginning of last summer. The planes wouldn’t have been allowed to start the season without those approvals. Why they would be approved for flight, only to be grounded weeks later, in the midst of fire season and with years left on the contract, is a mystery the agency hasn’t adequately explained.
Someone who has pushed hard for answers is California Rep. Dan Lungren, who was shocked to see the contract of this home-district company terminated last summer, mid-wildfire season, even while the state of Texas was ablaze. Lungren convened a Capitol Hill meeting in October of last year between the Forest Service and Aero Union, attended by staffers from the offices of 19 separate members of Congress from wildfire-impacted states. One expert who couldn’t personally attend but submitted a written statement was David Misencik, co-founder and senior principal of Avenger Aircraft Services, an aerospace engineering firm that designed and implemented the CAP for the Forest Service and its contractors. Misencik’s statement makes it clear that he didn’t support the Forest Service’s action. Here is an excerpt from that statement.
1. Aero Union’s aircraft possess no known airworthiness issues. If any of Aero Union’s aircraft possessed any known airworthiness issues, the FAA would have a duty to investigate and ground these aircraft from flying. In April 2011, after an intensive review conducted by the FAA and the Forest Service, Aero Union’s aircraft were deemed airworthy and permitted to continue operations. In addition, a meeting was held in September 2011 between the FAA and Avenger and once again, the FAA concurred that there is no reason, from an FAA perspective, why the aircraft could not continue operations. At that time it was stated by the FAA that this appeared to be purely a contractual matter between the USFS and Aero Union as no inherent safety issues would cause the FAA to intercede and ground the aircraft. At Avenger, we have spent considerable time reviewing Aero Union’s maintenance records in designing its amended CAP. In our view, Aero Union’s aircraft have been maintained per all existing FAA requirements and are perfectly legal to fly. The FAA has concurred with this statement.
2. The Continued Airworthiness Program is a long-term aircraft sustainment plan that reduces operational risk. As I mentioned earlier, Avenger has been at the forefront of designing and implementing CAPs for the Forest Service and its contractors. In addition to this involvement, Avenger has been previously asked for its opinion by the USFS in terms of operational risks of other large Air Tanker platforms such as the P2V, DC-10 and 747 model aircraft. We have provided in executing the mission of fighting fires. In the end, it is really the mitigation of risk that permits an aircraft to be operated in this manner and the USFS has always determined what was the acceptable level of risk, It is obvious to Avenger that the USFS has tightened what it feels is an acceptable level of risk for the large Air Tanker fleet since we are first involved in 2004 and we feel the USFS is to be commended by its more recent approach to putting large Air Tankers on contract by mitigating risk to the maximum extent known within the aviation community (i.e. through a meaningful Continued Airworthiness Program based on actual usage). That being said, my technical opinion is that there is less inherent risk in the operation of the P3 aircraft by Aero Union right now than has been accepted by the USFS in operating other aircraft models in previous years/contracts. I personally have heard of no operator of large Air Tankers that have been on contract since our involvement in 2004 that have conducted more structural repairs, more structural part replacements and more structural inspections than Aero Union. The existing US Navy maintenance program that they have been using has ensured a high degree of risk mitigation and the FAA program they have partially incorporated and wish to now fully amend and incorporate will bring them an even greater level of risk mitigation. In fact, upon completion of the amended CAP, Aero Union will have the highest degree of risk mitigation the FAA rules require of any operator. The current financial situation, brought about by the onset of the contract cancellation has prohibited them from ensuring the maximum mitigation of risk possible.
3. Aero Union, with Avenger’s assistance, is far ahead of the upcoming FAA Airworthiness Directive and was expected to have 100% completion of its initial CAP inspections and related maintenance prior to the 2012 fire season. Through detailed discussions with the FAA, the FAA has announced their intention to make regulatory changes via an Airworthiness Directive that would require all Restricted Category Aircraft (including the current Forest Service Air Tanker Fleet) to establish a Continued Airworthiness Program. This Airworthiness Directive is currently being worked by the FAA and is expected to require full implementation of a Continued Airworthiness Program within thirty-six (36) months of the release of the AD (the implementation period is subject to change within the FAA between now and when the AD is released, but this is the initial estimate by the FAA). The existing, FAA-approved CAP (which is required as part of the USFS contractual requirements) involves both dealing with life-limited components and structural inspections. Aero Union’s maintenance team has shown that it has completed approximately 85% of the structural inspections that the existing FAA approved program requires, with the remaining inspections planned to be covered before the 2012 fire season. The plan for the revision to the CAP being sought now would permit Aero Union to be fully compliant with the FAA-approved system for both the life-limited components and the structural inspections by Fire Season 2012. Avenger was in the midst of completing Aero Union’s amended CAP this summer when the Forest Service cancelled the Aero Union contract. Due to the economic hardship caused by the contract cancellation, Aero Union could not continue operations in a sufficient manner to complete the amendment to the Continued Airworthiness Program.”
Misencik concludes the statement by expressing Avenger’s strong desire to continue working with the agency and Aero Union to complete remaining work on the CAP, and to “assist Aero Union in pursuing its 50-year relationship with the Forest Service and mostly importantly provide the US Forest Service with the necessary resources to protect the general population from catastrophic results of uncontrolled forest fires.” But the Forest Service repeatedly has ignored all opportunities to resolve issues with Aero Union and get the planes back in the air – something one attendee at this Capitol Hill meeting finds frustrating and dumbfounding, given the fire threat the country obviously confronts.
“I can’t understand what (the Forest Service) is doing and why they are doing it, “ says Sandra Wiseman, who has followed the case closely as the senior legislative aide to Rep. Lungren. Wiseman says that any issues related to the CAP program “have to do with the fleet’s long-term safety, not the safety of the planes flying today,” and she can’t understand “why the (Aero Union) planes couldn’t be safely flying today, helping us fight these fires, while the company completed what was left to do on its CAP work.” The agency’s stubborn refusal to work with the company is just one element of the case that Wiseman finds baffling, starting with the question of why the Forest Service would have grounded airworthy aircraft at a time when every tanker is critically needed. The agency’s robotic, rote, non-responses to such questions has left Wiseman frustrated. And while she declined to speculate about any possible political motives on the agency’s part, she did say this: “I think it’s an absolutely outrageous example of a government that’s too big, in which the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing.” She says there are staff members in the agency who seem to operate beyond accountability, and who continue to repeat the claim that the planes were unsafe, despite ample evidence – some of which is presented in this story – that the opposite is true.
Most of those familiar with the company and its operations share Wiseman’s surprise that the contract was severed mid-wildfire season last summer, with no detailed explanation offered by the Forest service for why. The agency’s most definitive statement to date on the matter was made in its July 29, 2011 press release. “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices” said Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program. “This contract termination notwithstanding, we possess the aircraft support needed for this year’s fire season.”
The company made the following points in its defense at the time the contact was cancelled. Aero Union planes all had current and valid airworthiness certificates from the FAA at the time. The planes were continuously monitored by an FAA-designated DER. The company had received no notice from the FAA of any safety issues with its planes – and had passed a comprehensive FAA review in April 2011, just three months before contract termination. The Forest Service had inspected the planes and approved them for flight not long before they were grounded.
Managing Risk and Flying Work Horses
The first thing an outsider to the world of aerial firefighting must understand is that “safety” is a relative concept in this business. This is inherently dangerous work, which ordinary companies and people wouldn’t do, as the more than 125 industry fatalities since the late 1950s attest. It’s not everyone who chooses to make a living flying an aging aircraft, not originally designed for such duty, 500 feet above the ground, over sometimes rugged terrain, blinded by smoke and buffeted by downdrafts and updrafts, dumping thousands of pounds of sloshing liquids on a flaming bull’s eye. While mitigating such risks is obviously a worthy goal, eliminating them altogether is impossible. Managing them is probably the best that can be done.
The people running the program, and flying the planes, must weigh the risks of flying under dangerous conditions against the risk of doing nothing when wildfires break out. There’s a bit of the cowboy in many people involved. But they understand the risks they are running when they take the job. The planes aren’t state of the art, but sturdy old work horses, sometimes military surplus, frequently converted from other missions.
The aircraft flown by Aero Union, the P-3A, may be of Vietnam-era vintage but experts say it is still a reliable, versatile and effective platform for such missions. It’s a four-engine, low-wing aircraft originally designed for long-range patrol and antisubmarine warfare in the Cold War. Versions of the plane are still used by the U.S. Navy and many NATO countries. And they continue to be flown by NASA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, NOAA and other federal agencies. The P-3A’s performance and maneuverability flying at low altitudes make it an excellent platform for firefighting, especially in canyons and on rugged mountainous terrain. The aircraft achieves greater than a 2,350 foot per minute rate of climb, which far exceeds any other air tanker. The “instant power” from the turboprop engines allows the aircraft to operate from high elevation airfields with relatively short runway lengths. Such heavy air tankers are most potent when used early in the firefight, to contain a relatively new blaze before it gets out of hand.
Aero Union’s P-3As would have been an ideal tool for fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed parts of Colorado Springs. That it wasn’t available is something that every Colorado Springs resident ought to be wondering about. Would having 7 additional P-3As available this wildfire season have made a difference in that or any of the wildfires? It just makes sense that they would have. “If you reduce the size of the fleet from 44 to 9 planes, it’s just obvious that your capabilities are significantly diminished,” says Dan Gibson. “If you look at what has gone on, and the tankers they replaced us with last summer, it’s pretty clear that the replacement planes don’t have the same capabilities, or meet the same standards, of what they’re replacing.”
Aging planes obviously require regular monitoring and maintenance. But Aero Union was doing just that, according to DER Robert Poe. And the company’s performance compared favorably to other operators. “Aero Union had the Cadillac of programs, from what I’ve seen,” says Poe. “The program went above and beyond.” The company “absolutely” had reliable good planes and its inspection regime is in some ways more rigorous than what the FAA requires for civilian airlines hauling passengers. The FAA has a bar and that bar doesn’t bend, says Poe, on the question of airworthiness. “There is no middle ground,” he says, because a failure to meet the standard can land people in the morgue or in jail.
Put aside for a moment the question of why the Forest Service never bothered to fill the air tanker void that opened after the Aero Union planes were grounded in August of 2011. Today let’s just ask whether the Forest Service created greater risks by abruptly cancelling the contract, leaving the agency with just 11 planes available this summer, than it supposedly mitigated by grounding an allegedly unsafe contractor. If the contractor was operating unsafe planes, as compared to other planes in the fleet, few could fault the agency for its actions. But what if the planes are airworthy, as the preceding evidence shows, and as good or better than many of the aircraft remaining under contract? What if all Aero Union is really guilty of are relatively trivial paperwork violations, involving a long-term aircraft modernization and maintenance plan, which has little relevance to the airworthiness of the planes that were grounded? That might make the Forest Service’s decision of last summer, and its refusal to rethink that decision, seem foolish and reckless, given the devastating wildfire season we’re experiencing now. That might make it appear that the agency cares more about paperwork than about the people that it put in harm’s way this summer.
Aero Union’s Dan Gibson says he would gladly return to firefighting, and to flying the company’s aircraft, if he got the call today. But there’s no indication, as yet, that agency officials will rethink or reverse their position, perhaps out of fear of losing face. Non-Washingtonians might conclude that a bureaucracy saving face is of far less importance than saving lives and saving public and private property. But the agency thus far has refused to acknowledge error or correct its mistake.
Gibson isn’t interested in the politics of all this. He just misses the piloting challenge, the camaraderie, the sense of mission he got fighting wildfires in Aero Union aircraft. And he just wants to get back to doing that, if he can. “These planes are a national asset, and the pilots are a national asset, which shouldn’t be taken for granted,” he says. “And anything we can do to get them flying again would be critically important.”