New Firefighting Planes on the Way, but No Help Now

Ed Andrieski/AP Photo

The U.S. Forest Service today said four private companies have won contracts to provide seven "next-generation" firefighting airplane tankers, although they won't help with wildfires now raging across Western states. The current fleet contracted to fight fires is an average of 50 years old.

The new planes will be jet-powered, fly at 300 knots (about 345 mph) and carry 2,400 gallons of retardant. But the seven new tankers won't be much help against the 15 large wildfires burning in Western states. Only three of the seven planes will fly this year, and not until late summer, according to a Forest Service news release. The remaining four will not be available until 2013.

A series of high-profile crashes in 2002 and 2004 led to stricter safety standards that eliminated dozens of aging air tankers from the fleet. The number of available planes dropped from 44 in 2006 to only 11 at the beginning of this season. Critics have complained that the forest service has moved too slowly to modernize the fleet.

The agency's own fact sheet calls for as many as 28 large air tankers.

In recent days the Forest Service has called on tankers borrowed from the Canadian government as well as state firefighting agencies in Alaska and California.

One of the companies awarded new contracts today is Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont. One of its planes crashed June 3 while dropping retardant on a file in Utah, killing both pilots.

A preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board did not cite a cause. Neptune removed another of its older tankers from service in February after finding a crack in a wing.

In addition to Neptune, contracts were awarded to Minden Air Corp. of Minden, Nev.; Aero Air LLC of Hillsboro, Ore.; and Aero Flite Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.