Tanker Grounding Hurts Minden Business

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The grounding of the nation's 33 firefighting air tankers has left the future of a Minden company in question.

Leonard and Janet Parker own Minden Air Corp., the only private air tanker company in Nevada.

"We're still in shock. We had no warning this was going to happen," Leonard Parker told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"We were put out of business Monday when we received a fax."

The message from the U.S. Forest Service said the agency and the Interior Department were canceling contracts with private companies that battle wildland fires with large air tankers.

Officials said the agency decision came in the wake of a National Transportation Safety Board report that concluded the airworthiness of the large tankers couldn't be assured.

The former military planes are capable of dropping as much as 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant slurry on a blaze and have played a key role in battling seasonal wildfires throughout the West.

But three tankers crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members. After two planes went down in 2002, the Forest Service grounded the fleet.

The planes were returned to service after a new inspection system was developed but 10 of the tankers remained grounded last fire season.

Parker said the two former Navy twin-engine planes he operates from Minden exceed federal safety standards. He added he's never had any safety problems with the planes, built in the late 1950s.

"I'm certainly not going to stand here and tell you there haven't been problems in the heavy firefighting business. Two years ago there might have been a case for the fleet to be grounded but the situation has changed significantly. Safety standards have been raised," Parker said.

The Parkers, who moved their 15-year-old company from Tucson, Ariz., to Minden four years ago, said a key issue in the grounding decision is linked to the Forest Service's inability to develop and administer an oversight program for the large tankers.

Officials for the agency and the Agriculture Department acknowledged this week that they don't have the expertise to set up a program that will ensure the privately owned planes are safe to fly.

In addition, Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest spokeswoman Christie Kalkowski said there's no funding to set up such a program.

"The average age of these planes is 48 years, and the complete service records for them aren't available," Kalkowski said.

With the federal government as their only customer, the Parkers said the bottom line is that 17 employees face the prospect of losing their jobs.

They said the company will be reimbursed a small amount as part of canceled contracts and emphasized they intend to examine other ways to stay in the aviation business.

"We're really not sure how all this is going to play out. All we know for certain is that a bomb went off and all the pieces haven't landed," Parker said.