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A continuing competitive threat from the federal government arises from the congressional action to provide the USFS with seven former US Coast Guard C-130s. The USFS is in the process of configuring these aircraft for aerial firefighting and other tasks, with two modified to date. These aircraft will be government-owned, with their operation outsourced to civilian contractors.


This scenario is very disturbing for private operators for a number of reasons. Private operators have made large investments in order to respond to the government’s need for firefighting assets. Now the creation of competition between the government and civil operators will likely damage government/ industry relations, and discourage entry into this market by small business.


This also raises some important questions: With government ownership of the aircraft, would the USFS favor those assets over those owned, operated, and maintained by private companies? Could this set off a seismic shift in the competitive landscape, disrupting business plans set in motion years ago? No data suggesting that lower costs will result from this new competitive landscape have been forthcoming. Only time will tell.


Other issues present some significant concerns, as well. Helicopter operators in particular are confronting a huge challenge with respect to recruiting and retaining people with the required skillsets. One AHSAFA member has noted a shortage of qualified mechanics—especially those trained to service medium-size helicopters— which he says has “reached crisis levels.” The same is true of pilots. As another member mentioned, with contracts typically running 120 days it is very difficult to keep qualified crews on the payroll for only four to five months of work each year.


Still another concern is, what has come to be called, “fire borrowing.” The USFS, as an agency of the US Department of Agriculture (DOA), is allotted a certain amount of funding each year to pay for firefighting. In very severe fire years, the USFS has run out of the allocated money and has had to borrow funding from other DOA programs— hence the term “fire borrowing.” Some congressional efforts aimed at changing the


way funding for major firefighting events is provided, but none have thus far yielded a change in the appropriations. The question we have to ask is, will the new administration make any changes to this?


The industry, then, stands at a critical juncture, in which their privately funded aerial assets could find themselves competing in a completely different environment. At that point, combating wildfires may not be the only battle they face.


rotorcraftpro.com


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