Tony Kern's Comments dispelling rumors and John Watt's Thoughts on Tony's Comments, 8/16/02 - 8/19/02
Posted on the AT Message Board & Printed with Tony's & John's Permission

From Dennis Brown on August 16, 2002 at 1146 hours:

The following is a note from Tony Kern that hopefully will dis-spell some of the rumors or concerns going around, or at least explain some things.

Dear colleagues

In the last few days, its become clear that there are some rumors swirling about regarding a variety of aviation issues. I know that it is hard to believe in our organization, but some of the conclusions being drawn are only partially based on fact. Let me try and put to rest two current rumors, so that we can get busy and move on to starting some new ones.

1. Conspiracy rumor 1. Management plans to replace all the leadplanes with helicopters.
Facts: FS is in the process of taking possession of 25 inoperative AH-1 Helicopters from military surplus. From these dead hulks, we plan to possibly field 4-5 aircraft over the next 4 years as an interim supplement to the leadplane fleet for large fire coverage while we continue to pursue fixed wing replacements. The rest are to be used to provide parts to keep the 4-5 going. We needed to act now on the aircraft because the stockpile was becomming picked over by foreign sales and we didn't want to get the leftovers. Eventually, if the concept proves worthy, we plan to utilize the commercial sector to provide platforms for the mission. This is precisely what has been in the draft strategic plan from the beginning and has been briefed and coordinated to RAO/RASM Council and Fire Directors.

The logic for the helicopter air supervision modules goes along two separate tracks. First, if this summer has taught us anything, it is that we need more than one type of aircraft for a given mission. It is conceivable, that given the wrong sequence of events (i.e., a Baron airworthiness issue), we could find ourselves without any leadplanes at some point in the future. We have to prepare now for that eventuality. Until recently, we have been running consistently near 50% daily availability for much of the season. Simply put, we need more aircraft and soon. The better solution would be to take 80 million dollars and buy new airplanes. The only thing preventing us from taking this logical step is a lack of 80 million dollars. We're still working on that part of it. This does not alter in any way the ongoing effort to relace the Barons with a suitable fixed wing aircraft. In fact, we are currently conducting a market survey to see what is available in the near to mid-term future for sale or lease.

The second thought process is tied to potential partners in the project. There has been some interest shown from other federal and state agencies to assist the FS in modifying and enhancing these helicopters (and possibly an accompanying ground command and control vehicle) to provide for other missions, for example Law Enforcement, Homeland Security, Forest Health, and emergency response. Because we love to build relationships (and because we don't have any money), this is an interesting possibility.

Conspiracy Theory 1A: Tony is out to get rid of leadplanes - this is just a continuation of the last AD
Facts: Tony likes leadplanes - he wishes he could be flying one right now. I have become more and more convinced of the importance of the low level lead mission over the past two years -- beginning with some orientation flights with Mike Lynn and especially following the tanker tree strike incident last year and our increased reliance on MAFFS this year. Leadplanes are good things - the mission is needed and the aircraft need to be replaced and upgraded - and only a fool doesn't change his mind when confronted with evidence (but don't hold me to that in future decisions).

Conspiracy Theory 2. The Blue Ribbon Panel is a Trojan Horse for (insert your conspiracy here).
Facts: The panel's charter is very broad to allow it to look into many areas, but the primary focus is on the airtanker situation and all of its sub-components. This was emphasized on the initial conference call with the panel on August 15th. The panel is composed of real thinkers who have the credibility to make a difference. They will be in the field and seeking information from all levels of the organization. This is a good thing - an opportunity to get your ideas to someone who will have direct access to senior decision makers - please take advantage of it. A schedule of their field visits will be made available in the very near future. Specifically, the commission is to determine the adequacy of the current system by identifying strengths, weaknesses and failpoints, and to provide information in the following five areas:

· Safety
· Operational effectiveness
· Costs
· Sustainability
· Strategic guidance

Finally, let me ask that if you have any questions about the real or perceived intent of management actions, call us and ask. We are all on the same team - really. Besides, we are not smart enough to construct a real conspiracy out here, our brains too choked with smog.

Please feel free to forward this on to all affected or interested parties.

Tony Kern
National Aviation Officer
USDA Forest Service

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 John Watt's Thoughts about Tony's letter, August 19, 2002 at 1300 hours:

Thanks to Dennis Brown for putting Tony Kern’s letter on the web page. One of the best services of this message board is the flow of information from all quarters of the aerial firefighting program. I believe that Kern understands, from his military (government) aviation experience that bureaucracies are slow to accept or beget change without external pressure and additional sources of money. The method of placing external pressure will be through the Congress and Senate. Unfortunately that means deals will need to be cut with sponsors of competing interests and the elephant that will be built from the blind men’s vision of the problem will take years of evolution to become an elephant. The AAP, CFPA, and all concerned firefighters and the public can be guides for those needing guidance. Being active in all phases is necessary. I’m glad to see that the AAP is to maintain a presence throughout the Blue Ribbon Panel review process. The aerial firefighting system needs repair and tuning. It goes beyond the very major problem of where the airtanker fleet is today and where it needs to be tomorrow.

All groups have an organizational culture; it is very evident in the way firefighting agencies approach their tasks. These cultural attitudes are a product of public policy (and pressure), funding, history, training, and employee length of service. For those of us in government service, CDF for me, those revolutionary ideas we have when we are youngsters in the outfit may take an entire career to implement as we advance through the system. We like to believe that we are thinking “outside the box” but the box’s sides may have been moving incrementally without our seeing it happen. This is not to disparage the system but to show the basis for my comments on Rumor 1 in Kern’s letter.

The federal strategic aerial firefighting plan, in its present vision, is heavily slanted toward helicopters. This is due greatly to the cultural development of those persons in positions able to develop policy. More federal fire management personnel have worked with helicopters than have worked in the fixed-wing program. Fire management teams have aviation staff that is biased towards helicopters. The experience and background needed to qualify, as the Air Operations Branch Director, is nearly 100% helicopter related. You relate to your experience when trying to accomplish tasks. I believe this is where the drive is coming from for the AH-1 as the ATGS/ASM/Lead for “large fire coverage”.

The ATGS in the federal system is often a secondary function, again based on cultural development. The lead plane (airtanker coordinator) was in place long before the ATGS evolved from the reconnaissance and casual aerial supervision mode. Many lead pilots have often had to assume the role of ATGS in the absence of, or due to the inexperience of, the ATGS. The lead pilot is a professional aviator in contrast to the part-time, collateral duty, ATGS as many of the positions are staffed. The ATGS community is evolving for the better but now is in competition for aerial firefighting funds as they try to upgrade their aircraft and communications packages.

The Air Service Module was conceived to try to combine the skill of the lead pilot air tanker coordinator with an experienced ATGS. There is a lot of developmental ground yet to cover to clearly define roles and create a coordinated crew system. I’d like to see more information on the subject from those who are currently performing the ASM.

What to do about the Baron? The search parameters that lead to the CJ1 being the best aircraft for the ASM task need to be reexamined. As the rational unfolded my thoughts saw the ASM concept falling to third priority behind corporate transport, and a yet unidentified mini-AWACS command and control program. See Kern’s comments on partnerships, helicopters, and an “accompanying ground command and control vehicle”. The Baron has worked for many years but it to is a compromise between firefighting and the deals cut for corporate transport that sold the program. Any partnerships that bring more money to the table than the fire agencies can muster will keep the firefighting role secondary.

As the Blue Ribbon Panel starts work I hope they truly seek a wide breadth of information. If the panel’s charge is to review the status of the airtanker program then the focus should remain within those bounds. If it is a review of the entire aerial firefighting program the participation of AAP is critical due to competing interests.

Lest anyone thinks I’m anti-helicopter let me say I enjoy working with a mixed fleet of aircraft. It allows a choice in providing a service to the firefighting community and the public. I wish to see a balanced approach to the problem solving process.