We're Fighting Fires With Antique Planes

US Forest Service also uses parts pulled from museums

By Ruth Brown,  Newser Staff

Posted Sep 29, 2013 5:37 PM CDT

(Newser) – When the US Forest Service battled wildfires near Yosemite National Park in August, it did so with a fleet of restored tankers first built in the 1950s. The planes help firefighters on the ground by dropping thousands of gallons of retardant ahead of blazes, but critics say the tankers are too old and are increasingly dangerous: 22 people have died in tanker crashes since 2001, including six last year, reports the LA Times. Eleven studies since 1995 have called for the service to replace its tankers. "It's pathetic," says a former Forest Service chief of aviation. "We have brave aviators using ancient technologies and as a result they're losing their lives. It's a horrifying fact that won't change unless government action is taken."

The planes aren't just difficult to fly—they're hard to fix. Engine parts are scarce; they sometimes have to be taken from museums, and failing that, new ones have to be built based on 50-year-old blueprints. Most of the fleet is operated and maintained by contractors. One, in Montana, has eight Lockheed P-2Vs, which were first built in 1946 to hunt Soviet submarines. The service did recently contract seven new companies to fly "next-generation" planes, but the wording is questionable: one will be flying a plane that has been on display in an aviation museum for the past decade.

A Colorado Reserve C-130 drops water on a target during a certification flight at the Tucson International Airport in Tucson, Ariz.
A Colorado Reserve C-130 drops water on a target during a certification flight at the Tucson International Airport in Tucson, Ariz.   (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
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