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Congress adds air tankers to Forest Service fleet

Coast Guard rescue craft will be altered and added to the firefighting fleet, whose aged planes have been involved in many fatal crashes. Questions are raised on the shape of the 'new' planes as well.

By W.J. Hennigan

8:43 PM PST, December 20, 2013

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Tucked inside the defense bill approved by Congress this week was a provision that would add seven air tankers to the U.S. Forest Service's beleaguered air fleet.

The fleet of planes, which drop retardant to give firefighters on the ground crucial time to put out raging wildfires, has been reduced from 47 to 12 over the last decade because of fatal crashes and fears about the planes' safety. Many of the aircraft were former military planes built during the Eisenhower administration

The Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 late Thursday after included language by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would transfer seven surplus HC-130H Hercules cargo planes from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Forest Service.

"This is a real step forward in replenishing the Forest Service's dwindling air tanker fleet, which is critically important to fighting wildfires," McCain said in a statement. "Congress must do more to restore the Forest Service air tanker fleet, but this transfer will boost their ability to fight wildfires."

The Forest Service said the planes are expected to be ready "incrementally" by fall 2014.

Few details were disclosed about the seven "new" planes. What is known is the HC-130H is a search and rescue airplane that flew for the first time in 1964 and remains in service with the Coast Guard today.

"If the planes are in good shape, it is very good news," said Bill Gabbert, a former fire management officer who now writes for the blog WildfireToday.com. "However, they were used by the Coast Guard for maritime patrol... and there are questions about how the salt environment may have affected the metals on the aircraft."

The U.S. Coast Guard will transfer the HC-130Hs to the Air Force, which will spend up to $130 million for structural reinforcement to extend their operational lifetime to about 10 years. The planes will then be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service, which will turn them over to private companies.

Nearly all of the nation's firefighting aircraft are owned and operated by private companies — more than a dozen of which are part of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Assn. trade group.

Tom Eversole, association executive director, said the provision is contrary to what the Forest Service has requested in recent years. The agency said it wanted to modernize and use "next-generation" jet aircraft.

The HC-130H is a four-engine turboprop. It will have a tanker capacity of 3,000 to 4,000 gallons per aircraft, according to the Forest Service.

Demands that the service replace its air tanker fleet have come from former pilots, government officials, firefighter advocacy groups and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which works alongside the service on wildfires in the state.

Since 2001, air tanker crashes have killed 22 aviators. Six died last year.

william.hennigan@latimes.com