The Departments of the Interior and Agriculture today announced they will return two P-2V aircraft to firefighting service on a limited basis. Both aircraft would be outfitted with structural health monitoring devices to gather information on the stresses that occur to airtankers in the fire environment, which will help determine vital safety information for the remaining P-2V fleet.
"This is another step in developing a clearer picture of the airworthiness of these aging aircraft," said Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior. "We are going to ensure the safety of these aircraft while redoubling our ongoing efforts to protect communities from wildfire."
"Safety is a top priority and a core value of our firefighting program," said Mark Rey, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the Department of Agriculture. "With our current fleet of aircraft, including single engine tankers, helicopters and other resources, fire managers continue our success rate of stopping over 99 percent of fires upon initial attack."
The current fleet consists of 800 firefighting aircraft, including a mix of both large and small airplanes as well as helicopters. In June, USDA and DOI contracted with private companies for more than 100 aircraft to ensure firefighting effectiveness this season.
Minden Air Corporation of Minden, Nev. owns one of the P-2V and Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Mont., owns the other aircraft. Minden's airtanker is already outfitted with the monitoring device; Neptune's would need to be installed. The aircraft would only be used in unpopulated areas and be subject to more frequent inspections. This technique is similar to the Federal Aviation Authority's experimental use certification, which is used by FAA to reconcile uncertainties in airplanes.
The two airtankers join seven P-3 Orion aircraft that were returned to service following a thorough safety analysis. The remaining 10 aircraft in the P-2V fleet will not be returned to service at this time because unlike the P-3 aircraft, the operational service life, which is expressed in how many hours an aircraft can be safely flown according to the original equipment manufacturer, has not yet been established. However, USDA recently contracted with Lockheed-Martin, the original manufacturer of the P-2Vs, to obtain historical data on the aircraft to help make that determination. That process will likely cost approximately $500,000 (to be paid by the federal government) and will take three to four months to complete.
On June 9, USDA contracted with DynCorp Technical Services, a Texas-based aviation engineering firm, to provide the expertise in analyzing the airworthiness documentation provided by contractors for the large airtankers. USDA and DOI relied upon DynCorp's analysis of that documentation to make the decision to return the two P-2Vs with monitoring devices to service.
Sandia National Laboratories Aging Aircraft Program will collect and transmit the data from the monitoring devices to Lockheed-Martin engineers who will use the data in helping to determine an operational service life. Data from a DC-7 owned by TBM Butler Aviation and used by the State of Oregon in firefighting operations will also be collected from its monitoring device and studied.
The P-2V operated as a land-based patrol bomber in the 1940s by the U.S. Navy and was the predecessor to the P3. The P-2V is known for its versatility and long flight range of up to 2,000 miles. It began to be used as an airtanker by private companies in the 1970s. Because the P-2Vs were decommissioned for military service before the U.S. Navy developed structural analysis and fatigue life limit programs, a service life limit was never established.
USDA and DOI in May terminated the contracts for 33 large airtankers to be used in firefighting missions due to concerns over the airworthiness of the aircraft, and firefighter and public safety. The decision was based on safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued in April after its investigation into three fatal airtanker crashes related to in-flight structural failures.