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Fri, Apr 22, 2005

Congress Keeps An Eye On Tanker Situation

Forest Service Stands Behind Aero Union

Members of Congress are watching very carefully safety issues surrounding America's dwindling firefighting tanker fleet, down to a mere 32 aircraft now in the wake of Wednesday's mishap in Northern California. This, as the assistant director for aviation at the US Forest Service stood solidly behind the company that owned the ill-fated Lockheed P-3 Orion.

"We're always looking at the safety of the fleet, but we're not planning any immediate steps at this point," said Larry Brosnan at the Forest Service's Fire and Aviation Management Department. He was quoted by the Enterprise-Record newspaper in Chico, CA.

Congressman Wally Herger (R-CA) agrees. Not only does he firmly believe in the safety of the tanker fleet, he is especially confident in Aero Union, owner of the P-3 that went down in the Lassen National Forest Wednesday.

As ANN reported Thursday, the Orion was on a training mission with three people on board and had just completed a practice drop of fire retardant when it went down in steep and rugged terrain in the Ishi Wildlife Area.

The mishap came three years after two tanker crashes where airframe fatigue was thought to have been a factor. Dozens of tankers were grounded last May as a result of those crashes. But Brosnan and Herger were quick to defend the remaining fleet of 32 aircraft.

"We've inspected their aircraft twice and we're confident of their airworthiness," Brosnan told the Chico paper.

Aero Union was the first firefighting aviation company to get back in the business after the Forest Service grounded its aircraft a year ago. Herger fought hard in lobbying for that return to flight.

"Even with this tragedy, Aero Union has the best record of those in the business," Herger said. "They're very important, not only to our community, but they're important toward preventing our forests from burning down ."

N926AU was being prepared to go on duty for the Fire Service on May 1st. It was to have been deployed in firefighting operations for at least six months.

Flight crews aboard the four Aero Union tankers now on duty for the Forest Service were ordered to stand down Thursday "to give them a little space," according to National Interagency Fire Service spokeswoman Rose Davis.

In the meantime, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), said the P-3 mishap highlights the urgency of the tanker situation in the US. Even before Wednesday's crash, he planned a news conference to suggest changes in the tanker fleet. Among other things, Rohrabacher wants to accept a Russian offer of an Ilyushin IL-76 Ifile photo of type, below) to help in this year's firefighting effort.

"This heightens the concern we have that the people responsible are not doing their job," Rohrabacher aide Don Ernsberger told reporters.



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