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Thu, May 20, 2004

FAA Will Conduct Emergency Tanker Inspections

Arizona Congressman Calls For Even Faster Action

The FAA Tuesday said yes to a request from the US Forest Service to inspect 33 grounded aerial firefighting tankers grounded last week to see if any can be returned for service. But for one Arizona congressman, that's not good enough.

Rep. JD Hayworth (R-AZ) wants President Bush to authorize the FAA to actually rule on whether the grounded tankers can fly firefighting missions once again.

The Arizona Republic quotes Hayworth, who was obviously rattled by the "Diamond" fire, 45 miles north of Phoenix. The flames came within a quarter-mile of Sunflower (AZ). And fire season isn't even supposed to be in full-swing yet.

"This is just a foretaste of what the summer may hold, and we've got to bring all our assets to bear on this. Fires are burning, and you've got to pull all the fire alarms," said Hayworth.

Hayworth and other members of the Arizona congressional delegation were highly critical of the Forest Service's abrupt decision to ground the 33 tankers. The agency said it did so after three fatal accidents between 1994 and 2002, where stress fractures caused the wings to fold. Those that were grounded are between 47 and 60 years old.

The Forest Service said last week that it would use firefighting helicopters and smaller aircraft to battle wildfires. Hayworth says those aircraft won't be able to do as effective a job as the tankers.

Although the FAA has agreed to facilitate the emergency inspections, it gave no indication of when they'll start or how long they might take -- another reason for Hayworth and company to be nervous.

"There's some reason to be hopeful," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR). "But I'd hate to get people's hopes up that 33 will be back up in the air."

FAA spokesman Les Dorr pointed out another problem in his interview with the Republic. It only has jurisdiction over civilian aircraft. "What we can do is help the Forest Service and private industry to develop the inspections and maintenance programs they need to fly these planes safely," he said.

There are other issues that the FAA will inherit when it inspects the aircraft. Many of the former military aircraft have spotty maintenance records -- in other words, there are gaps in the maintenance logs that can't simply be dismissed. Combine that with the fact that aerial fire bombardment puts as much or more stress on the aircraft as they would otherwise have sustained over their lifetimes -- as much as ten times the amount of stress put on an aircraft flying a civilian passenger or cargo profile.

As the controversy rages and the fallout over the Forest Service decision to ground those 33 tankers continues to swirl around Washington (DC), the companies that own those aircraft are sitting on pins and needles, hoping against hope that someone will reverse the decision.

If it stands, says Matt Ziomek, who owns nine of the grounded tankers, "It'll break us."

Ziomek, whose three companies are based in Kingman (AZ) and in other states, figures he has about 45 days before the bottom falls out. "We own them. We crew them. We insure them. We fix them when they break. This is what we do, aerial firefighting. We don't do other types of flying. It's 100 percent of our income. Now, it's like we've been fired."

FMI: www.afia.com

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