Finger Pointing
(with regard to the cancellation of 33 large AirTanker contracts
 following the NTSB Report by the Forest Service in May, 2004)

Posted by Bob Martin ( on May 25, 2004 at 18:35:00 on the Associated Airtanker Pilots' Message Board and reprinted here with his permission:

First let me say that I don’t have a dog in this fight so the outcome is really irrelevant to me. But I felt compelled to say a few things even though my words will most likely not change anyone’s mind on any of this. And, for those of you that know me you also know I don’t beat around the bush as I’m cursed with calling it like I see it without wasting the time to flower it up and make it smell pretty. I go into this knowing there will be some of you that will feel obligated to take some retaliatory shots, so be it.

There seems to be much “blame” being thrown about in these messages. With amusement I even see my name still being mentioned (boy, there’s a stretch). Most of all I see Tony Kern’s name being bantered about. What a terrible mistake. Now I urge you not to take any of the following as my attempt to “defend” Tony. I don’t think he needs any defense, especially from me. My intent is to merely stating the facts as I know them.

Many of you know I’m the person that hired Tony. I went out and recruited him because of his experience, knowledge, genuine sincerity for the well-being of fellow pilots, and his intense interest in improving the air tanker industry. I occasionally keep in touch (socially) with folks I used to work with including Tony, and I can tell that you are really screwing up if you “blame” Tony for this unfortunate mess. In my opinion, if there is one person that wants to solve this problem and get you folks back flying again, it’s Tony Kern. Believe it or not folks, he feels your pain. This whole event has brought immense pressure on him from many directions. You may not want to alienate this guy because he is one person that wants to see the issues solved quickly and can work at doing just that. Just because he doesn’t think and act like some of you doesn’t make him a bad guy.

It seems like there is a group of you that think you must “blame someone.” I guess that makes you feel better. So if it isn’t Tony Kern--who is it! I read a message written by Badger's Son (hmmm, one of those mysterious code names) saying “The God Father of this all is Bob Martin – his evil son the Dr. has only carried out his plan.” Well it’s anybody’s guess on how Mr. BS came to that conclusion but I’ll tell you nothing could be further from the truth. The only air tanker “plan” Tony and I ever discussed was what could be done to stop the accidents, and how the usefulness of the industry could be advanced with the use of modern equipment and technology. Well, this is one way we never thought of for stopping the accidents.

So, who’s to blame, maybe it’s Tom Harbor, Jerry Williams, or possibly Dale Bosworth? How about higher—Mark Rey, the BRP, FAA, NTSB or Congress? Well folks the truth is a lot of people are to “blame” and it goes back for generations. You’re right when you point to Forest Service and BLM management, but you also need to point to the owners and yourselves because it’s the system. It’s been coming for a long time and it’s the bureaucracy and industry that got things to this point.

This whole air tanker thing got started on the cheap and never really moved away from that. The industry started with old equipment, a lack of training and on a shoestring budget. The federal agencies that used tankers wanted to get them cheap and the industry had some owners that knew exactly how to do that. Through the years little changed, everyone kept doing the job the same way they always did, there were still some owners that kept marginal equipment, skimped on training, paid as little as possible and cut corners. The agencies kept expecting that and the owners kept giving it to them. A lot of tankers have fallen out of the air and a lot of good people are no longer with us because of it.

I spent 25 years in “the system” and around the industry. From the agencies side there was always a concern voiced about the marginal equipment and some of the less prudent owners. The negotiated contracting process took care of some of that concern. Then Fred Fuchs came along. Fred had the right idea about moving to turbine equipment but he was stuck in a bureaucracy that insisted on doing it on the cheap, as they always have. We still had some of those same owners that were willing to keep accommodating and doing things on the cheap. Of course, there were also owners that wanted to do things right (for more money) but the system was such that these people were being pulled down to a lower level. Well Fred was a visionary; unfortunately he made some bad decisions, became a victim of a couple unsavory fellows, and got caught in a legal quagmire. As you all know a bunker mentality prevailed after that which doomed any more forward thinking about modernization on part of the Forest Service.

So there it was, the equipment was still marginal but it was now turbine. The old piston-pounders kept getting older, the training was still not adequate, corners were being cut but nobody was complaining about it. After all, they now had 40 year old turbines—how good can it get.

So who’s to blame—nobody, yet everybody! It’s been coming for a long time folks.

You’ve got new troubles now fellas and the whining, sniping and laying blame that I read here won’t fix a thing. I read supposed pearls of wisdom like “There is only one course of action left open to us. FIGHT LIKE HELL.” Really now!

What do you have? Is this the end large air tankers? Not that it matters, but I’ve always been one that has seen value in air tankers. I didn’t always agree on how they were used but in my opinion they certainly had a place and a use. I think there are probably others, who count, that think the same thing. Tankers are probably out for the short term but I’d put my money on seeing them fighting fire again. The greatest preponderance of piston-pounders are probably gone for good, as are the C-130A’s. There may be some of the existing fleet come back, possibly the P-3’s but it’s going to be real tough to get anything that’s been used as a tanker back for long term use. In reality you’re probably looking at a whole new platform. The problem is when. It could take one, three or five years and a lot of money. My guess is there will probably be some bankruptcies and owners gone out of the business for good. Because the flight crews have to make a living you will see a large percentage of the expertise go away. Hopefully it won’t be so long as to permanently lose this knowledge base.

What can be done to make the transaction as fast and painless as possible? First of all it probably isn’t over yet. The lawyers have to get their turn at this which is unfortunate for you. A lot of time, money and energy will go into dealing with lawyers that could be directed toward finding a solution; but instead will go to buying a few lawyers some new BMWs.

In my opinion whining, sniping, blaming, chest pounding and fighting like hell won’t make the transition go any faster or smoother. That will just irritate the people that can help. I think the agencies want to solve this but they are in a real tough spot. As the people with the practical experience in doing this job you have to get engaged in solving the problem, but in a proactive and professional way. Unfortunately experience has shown that your two associations (owners and pilots) have not been very effective (my opinion). Interspersed among all of the negative rhetoric on this board I see what I consider some tidbits of good advice. The message is you need to set aside the emotion and elitism and be willing to work for the good of the industry. It won’t be an easy thing to do because most of you are going to be busy making a living. But I think for some of you this is an industry you love and will want to come back to once it gets up and running again. You certainly have some very bright, talented and professional people among your ranks; you need to have those people work with the agencies and politicians to solve this.

Well there you have it, for what it's worth yet another perspective for you to ponderor. This will most likely further agitate some of you, but just about any discussion on this topic will do the same. And I have probably insulted some of you for daring to post this on “your” board, okay. This is not intended for such people; it is intended for those of you that have a genuine interest in trying to help solve this predicament rather than just sit around griping about it.

I sincerely wish the best of luck to all of you.

Bob Martin