Contract Dispute Grounds Firefighting Planes

The US Government is waiting for new Canadian fire fighting planes as Texas burns and people die.
Menderman
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by www.humanevents.com/search.php?author_name=Audrey+Hudson 09/07/2011 www.humanevents.com/downloads-pdfs/THarbour%20Ltr%209%206%20

Nearly half of the federal government’s firefighting air tankers are siting idle at a California airport, grounded by the Obama administration in a contract dispute just weeks before wildfires swept through Texas killing a mother and her child, and destroying 100,000 acres.

The massive blazes forced Texas Gov. and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry to abruptly call off a campaign appearance in South Carolina earlier this week to respond to the crisis, and may force him to cancel his first debate appearance Wednesday night.

The U.S. Forest Service terminated the contract with Aero Union five weeks ago to operate seven P-3 Orions that are critical to the agency’s firefighting mission, leaving the federal government with 11 tankers under contract to help battle more than 50 large uncontained wildfires now burning nationwide.

That’s down from 40 tankers used by the Forest Service just a decade ago, according to Rep. Dan Lungren (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Administration, who is challenging the decision to dismiss the largest provider of heavy air-tanker support to the federal government.

“We were certified to fly all season, but they just terminated us and threw 60 people out of work and left the country vulnerable to fires, as you can see right now in Texas,” said Britt Gourley, CEO for Aero Union.

“This is our 50th anniversary fighting fires for the Forest Service. It’s not quite the way we wanted to celebrate it,” Gourley said.

Gourley said the government did not provide details on why the contract was canceled, but that they did not agree with Aero Union’s 15-year maintenance plan.

“We wanted to sit down with them and ask why it was canceled and find a quick resolution, but they didn’t want to talk about it. They just said, ‘We don’t want the airplanes, have a nice life,’ ” Gourley said. “I had to let go of my staff–60 people and their families were devastated,” Gourley said. “It’s really been tragic.”

The Forest Service says it will not use aircraft that does not meet its requirements, and in this case that included the long-term airworthiness inspection program, although the company passed its annual inspection.

“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 Services fire and aviation management program.

“This contract termination notwithstanding, we possess the aircraft support needed for this year’s fire season,” Harbour said.

In a letter to the administration questioning the canceled contracts that was obtained by HUMAN EVENTS, Lungren said the aircraft “are some of the best available for fighting fires in the United States.”

“The [Federal Aviation Administration] representative stated that the disrupted contract issues which led to the grounding of Aero Union’s entire fleet do not relate to the suitability of these aircraft to perform for the remainder of this fire season,” Lungren said in the Aug. 15 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees the Forest Service.

“I am deeply troubled by the Forest Service’s sudden action, particularly as California enters into the fire season. Our aerial firefighting fleet is already seriously undercapitalized,” Lungren said.

In addition to the 11 tankers in the fleet still operating, two air tankers are under contract to operate on-call, and up to eight military firefighting aircraft can be called to assist if needed.

Aero Union operated six Lockheed P-3 Orions, and was preparing to add a seventh to the fleet when the contract was canceled. The four-engine turboprops were originally used as anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft that were built for the U.S. Navy.

Ultimately, those aircraft will be replaced with two-engine CV 580s from Canada, which Lungren said is “worrisome” because those aircraft will carry a smaller load of fuel-retardant and require more downtime.
Read the rest here: www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=46009#disqus_thread

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