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Mon., Feb. 25, 2008, midnight

Our View: PBY out of the sky

As big birds go, the PBY is definitely on the endangered species list.

The World War II-era aircraft had a good run, an extended run, but after 60 years of service as first a patrol bomber and later an airborne fire truck, the PBY’s number may be up.

And by some accounts, the number is down to one. What’s believed to be the last working member of its class, Tanker 85, will not be available this summer to take off from the Deer Park airport, scoop water out of northeastern Washington’s lakes and dump it on area wildfires.

On the edge of Spokane’s urban boot print, where range and timberland butt up against residential and commercial developments, that decision leaves some local firefighting officials anxious. Ed Lewis, chief of Fire District 4 at Deer Park, calls the familiar PBY one of his department’s “first-line defenses.”

Many rural fire officials throughout the West can identify with that attitude.

Moviegoers who saw the 1989 film “Always” may recall the dramatic shot of a lumbering plane gliding low enough to dip into a basalt-ringed central Washington lake and swallow thousands of gallons of water into its belly while a couple of terrorized fishermen dive out of their boat. That was a PBY.

Once the plane’s military utility was over, many PBYs were converted to air tankers and deployed throughout the West to deliver water and other flame-quenching substances quickly to remote blazes.

But even though Tanker 85 still meets federal standards for airworthiness, firefighting is not a job PBYs were designed for. And after meeting the demands associated with wartime service, the extra stress posed by low-level flying in high turbulence generated by timber-fed blazes, those 60-year-old air frames are suspect.

Following a string of fatal crashes involving similarly converted air tankers (although not PBYs) from 1994 to 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed inadequate maintenance and the effects of age. In 2004, the U.S. Forest Service grounded all its air tankers.

All of this has led the Washington state Department of Natural Resources to rethink its practice of contracting with owner Bud Rude, of Spanaway, to make his Deer Park-based PBY available for 100 days each fire season. The contract with Rude expires in March, and DNR’s plan is to have an alternative arrangement nailed down by then. Department officials expect, but can’t promise, that Deer Park will remain the base.

The new plan may well result in 89-day or shorter contracts, rather than the traditional 100 days. Under federal regulations, that would spare the state from having to accept liability for the planes’ operation.

In the meantime, Rude is understandably upset to lose the contract that has paid him $250,000 a season plus $600 per airborne hour. But given the history that factored into DNR officials’ thinking, he shouldn’t have been surprised.

Area fire officials like Lewis have a more legitimate concern because they’re the ones who will have to deal with the consequences if the new arrangement, whatever it is, results in slower or lower service. DNR owes it to them to alleviate their worries as expeditiously as possible.

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