Mike Venable: General aviation critical to safety

The Rye Fire burns along the east side of Interstate 5, one of several major fires that recently ravaged Southern California. Austin Dave/The Signal
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We are all very much aware of how devastating the wildfires have been this past year. For weeks this fall, many Californians tuning in to the news have seen the image of an air tanker or helicopter flying over fires, dropping fire retardant to slow or stop the spread of flames.

The 2017 wildfire season in California has been one of the worst in memory and one of the most destructive on record. A confluence of circumstances, beginning with an unusually wet winter and spring, stimulated the growth of wildland vegetation, followed by the hottest California summer on record. The situation has created a tinderbox at the ground level in the state’s wildlands.

While it seems like each year the state goes on alert for fire season, people may not realize the extent to which general aviation and our local airports play a crucial role in stopping the spread of these fires.

We have sixteen air attack bases throughout our state ready to respond to crises as they happens, serving as the base of operation for planes and helicopters. It is the hard work of a small number of pilots and ground personnel who operate these air attack bases to support fighting wildfires in our state.

Since early October, CalFire has responded to more than 250 wildfires; at its peak we were battling 21 major wildfires that consumed more than 210,000 acres. More than 8,000 buildings were destroyed and damages are expected to far surpass $1 billion. The impact of these wildfires will be felt for years and years.

With everything from California’s Fast Attacks Grumman S2 Air Tankers and Bell UH-1H Helicopters the state contracts for VLAT’s (very large air tankers) DC-10, 747, BAE-146 to assist, it was all hands-on deck to combat these fires. CalFire has the largest aerial firefighting flee in the world, and we are proud of the work we do to protect our state.

But the work of tanker pilots like myself would not be possible without the robust network of about 3,100 airports nationwide that can be called to action to respond to a wide variety of emergencies and natural disasters such as winter storms, earthquakes and oil spills.

However, legislation being debated in Congress could threaten our network of airports and our ability to respond to wildfires and other disasters. A proposal in Congress to privatize the air traffic control system would transfer oversight of our air traffic control system to an un-elected board that is largely influenced by the major commercial airlines.

This un-elected board made up of private interests would determine everything from the division of funding within the system to taxes and fees, to access and provision of service.

Under our current system, oversight by our elected officials ensures the public interest is protected. I worry about how much this board would value our national network of airports, which is critical to our national infrastructure and emergency preparedness. This includes 218 public-use airports in California that during a time of crisis can mean the difference between life and death.

These private interests would no doubt make their decisions based on what will benefit them, concentrating resources in only the largest airports. I am deeply troubled by this and fear it would constrict airports where we desperately need them for the safety and economic future of our communities.

Mike Venable is an air tanker pilot and member of the California Fire Pilots Association.

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