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Panel Faults Forest Service Aerial Firefighting Program

The safety record of the Forest Service´s aerial firefighting program is unacceptable and changes should be made.

That´s the conclusion of a blue-ribbon panel studying the program after three fatal crashes this summer. One was a dramatic crash caught on film by a Reno television station when the wings snapped off in the Sierra and the C-130 air cargo plane sent three crew members to their death.

The panel of aircraft experts is faulting the Federal Aviation Administration for taking a hands-off approach when it comes to certifying and inspecting the firefighting aircraft, many of which are leftover military tankers, some remnants from World War II, bought by private contractors and modified for aerial firefighting.

The panel says the FAA reviews maintenance records of the firefighting aircraft, but “rarely, if ever, physically inspect an aircraft to ensure that it is safe to fly an intended mission.”

That leaves Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or private contract personnel to decide if an aircraft is safe to fly.

The panel says safety standards for the contract pilots and crew flying firefighting missions are lower than for those flying other government missions. It says the government does not impose special standards upon private contractors to reflect the severe conditions in which the aircraft are flown.