half of the federal government’s firefighting air
tankers are sitting idle at a California airport,
grounded by the Obama administration in a contract
dispute just weeks before wildfires swept through Texas
killing a mother and her child, and destroying 100,000
The massive blazes forced Texas Gov. and Republican
presidential hopeful Rick Perry to abruptly call off a
campaign appearance in South Carolina earlier this week
to respond to the crisis, and may force him to cancel
his first debate appearance Wednesday night.
The U.S. Forest Service terminated the contract with
five weeks ago to operate seven P-3 Orions that are
critical to the agency’s firefighting mission, leaving
the federal government with 11 tankers under contract to
help battle more than 50 large uncontained wildfires now
That’s down from 40 tankers used by the Forest Service
just a decade ago, according to Rep. Dan Lungren (R.-Calif.),
chairman of the House Committee on Administration, who
is challenging the decision to dismiss the largest
provider of heavy air-tanker support to the federal
“We were certified to fly all season, but they just
terminated us and threw 60 people out of work and left
the country vulnerable to fires, as you can see right
now in Texas,” said Britt Gourley, CEO for Aero Union.
“This is our 50th anniversary fighting fires for the
Forest Service. It’s not quite the way we wanted to
celebrate it,” Gourley said.
Gourley said the government did not provide details on
why the contract was canceled, but that they did not
agree with Aero Union’s 15-year maintenance plan.
“We wanted to sit down with them and ask why it was
canceled and find a quick resolution, but they didn’t
want to talk about it. They just said, ‘We don’t want
the airplanes, have a nice life,’ ” Gourley said. “I had
to let go of my staff–60 people and their families were
devastated,” Gourley said. “It’s really been tragic.”
The Forest Service says it will not use aircraft that
does not meet its requirements, and in this case that
included the long-term airworthiness inspection program,
although the company passed its annual inspection.
“Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and
we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation
contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to
inadequate safety practices,” said Tom Harbour, director
of the Forest Services fire and aviation management
“This contract termination notwithstanding, we possess
the aircraft support needed for this year’s fire
season,” Harbour said.
In a letter to the administration questioning the
canceled contracts that was obtained by HUMAN EVENTS,
Lungren said the aircraft “are some of the best
available for fighting fires in the United States.”
“The [Federal Aviation Administration] representative
stated that the disrupted contract issues which led to
the grounding of Aero Union’s entire fleet do not relate
to the suitability of these aircraft to perform for the
remainder of this fire season,” Lungren said in the Aug.
15 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose
agency oversees the Forest Service.
“I am deeply troubled by the Forest Service’s sudden
action, particularly as California enters into the fire
season. Our aerial firefighting fleet is already
seriously undercapitalized,” Lungren said.
In addition to the 11 tankers in the fleet still
operating, two air tankers are under contract to operate
on-call, and up to eight military firefighting aircraft
can be called to assist if needed.
Aero Union operated six Lockheed P-3 Orions, and was
preparing to add a seventh to the fleet when the
contract was canceled. The four-engine turboprops were
originally used as anti-submarine and maritime
surveillance aircraft that were built for the U.S. Navy.
Ultimately, those aircraft will be replaced with
two-engine CV 580s from Canada, which Lungren said is
“worrisome” because those aircraft will carry a smaller
load of fuel-retardant and require more downtime.
the contract cancellation, Gourley told HUMAN EVENTS he
has reached out to his former employees and that they
could have four planes up in 48 hours to fly to Texas’
rescue, and assist in other devastating fires burning in
“First and foremost, we are firefighters at Aero Union,
and we do not want to sit idle while the people of Texas
and California suffer,” Gourley said
in a letter Tuesday to Harbour.
“We feel strongly that a contract disagreement unrelated
to the safety of our fleet to fight fires should not
stand in the way of our mission at a time when these
aircraft are most needed. The tragic scenes in Texas and
California make any contract issues appear very
secondary,” Gourley said.
Perry toured the devastation near Austin on Tuesday and
viewed some of the homes destroyed by the flames.
“These fires are serious and widespread, and as mean as
I have ever seen, burning more than 1,000 homes since
this wildfire season began,” Perry said.
“Texas appreciates the resources and support we continue
to receive from across the state and across the country
to fight these fires, and the efforts of the brave men
and women who put themselves in harm's way to protect
Texans' lives and property. Our thoughts and prayers are
with those who are impacted by these fires,” Perry said.
Audrey Hudson, an award-winning investigative journalist, is a
Congressional Correspondent for HUMAN EVENTS. A native
of Kentucky, Mrs. Hudson has worked inside the Beltway
for nearly two decades -- on Capitol Hill as a Senate
and House spokeswoman, and most recently at The
covering Congress, Homeland Security, and the Supreme
Court. Follow Audrey on