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Test of Fire for Aging Aircraft

A Depression-era law keeps modern planes from being deployed first to combat blazes. Two old tankers have crashed this summer.


As a wildfire raged below in the Cajon Pass, Tanker 152 swooped low and dropped a load of orange fire retardant, wrapping up another mission for the aircraft that first flew during World War II.

The plane, a piston-powered DC-4, is part of the nation's motley armada of air tankers, built during the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations. This fleet of ragtag planes and their bushwhacking pilots form the final line of defense against what may be the worst onslaught of wildfires to scorch the Western states in recent memory.

The planes are unlike anything else used for public safety, a quirk of a Depression-era law that has fueled a growing controversy over their safety and effectiveness. As a result of the law, even when newer air tankers are available, the older planes have to be deployed first.

Tanker 152 rolled out of the Douglas Aircraft Co. plant in Long Beach in 1945 and later saw service during the Berlin airlift in 1948. It was in an Air Force museum by 1978 but was auctioned off and ended up being used by a marijuana smuggler. After the Justice Department seized the plane, it was acquired by an air tanker operator in Arizona.

"It's like stepping back in time," said Ken Bavaro, a 31-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, who as a ramp manager was directing the aircraft to a refueling area at a San Bernardino airport last month.

There are more than 100 such aircraft, mostly flown by private operators, under government contract fighting wildfires across the West. For about four months each year, these planes go from fire to fire, landing at makeshift airfields to reload with retardant during the course of performing a dozen or more drops a day.

On Friday, the day after the crash of an air tanker that killed its two-man crew, the Forest Service grounded for one day all 42 of the heavy air tankers it manages.

The ill-fated plane, a PB4Y-2 Privateer, was made by the former Consolidated Aircraft Corp. in San Diego and used as a patrol bomber by the Navy in World War II. It apparently broke apart in midair while making a retardant drop in Colorado. It was one of six Privateers still operating.

Last month, a 45-year-old C-130A went down when its wings tore off during a retardant drop in the Eastern Sierra. The accident, which killed three crew members, remains under investigation. About one tanker crashes every year, making the missions among the more dangerous in aviation. Since 1958, 152 crew members aboard airplanes or helicopters have been killed while fighting fires.

Pilots and industry officials say these aircraft are safe and represent the most cost-effective way to fight forest and brush fires. Cost savings are crucial, they say, particularly this year when spending on firefighting is expected to top $1 billion, or about double the usual outlay. Spending on aircraft operations typically represents about a quarter of the budget for fighting wildfires.

"The crews are responsive and cost effective and their aircraft are well maintained and safe," said William R. Broadwell, director of the Aerial Firefighting Industry Assn., which represents about 40 operators. "Nothing can compete with the existing commercial air tanker fleet in either effectiveness or cost."

Still, the age of the aircraft and how they are used have become contentious issues among firefighters, pilots and politicians, some of whom are calling for shuttering what they say is an outdated system. The U.S. is unique in its dependence on commercial operators for aerial firefighting, a legacy of Depression-era efforts to support private business.

For now, with so many wildfires raging this year, some airfields are drawing classic-aircraft buffs, who come to see firsthand aviation history coming back to life.

Some of the aircraft still have gun turrets; others have cockpits with cracked wooden flooring. The cabins in most are not pressurized, and gauges are still analog. It's no wonder, then, that air tanker pilots like to call them fire bombers instead.

The aircraft are used to drop retardant--a slushy chemical the consistency of mud--in advance of a fire, whereas helicopters usually drop water directly on the flames.

For a few days last month, San Bernardino International Airport resembled a World War II military operation as half a dozen air tankers--piston engines rumbling and coughing black smoke--lined up on a tarmac while waiting to take off. Another squadron of planes descended toward the airport to reload fire retardants. They were fighting a blaze that was sweeping through the Cajon Pass at the east end of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.

"In some ways it's a flying museum. You get to see some classics," Bavaro said as he directed a P-2 Neptune to a "mud pit" where it would be reloaded with retardant. In its past life, the Korean War-era aircraft was used by the Navy to patrol and drop torpedoes on submarines.

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