By JOHN MAXNESS
Each year around the end of July, members of the U.S. Forest Service, firefighters, and emergency crews prepare to defend homes and communities against wildfires that ravage dry land in states such as Montana, Utah and California. As all who have seen a wildfire can attest to, the slightest breeze can alter the direction, strength, and speed of the blaze. This is why all of these groups must remain in constant contact and keep a close eye out on the fire in case something changes that could threaten the lives of those who are fighting it.
This is where general aviation pilots step up. Contracted by either state fire fighting agencies or the U.S. Forest Service, commercial pilots are called upon in wildfire season to help keep fires under control. Using their planes, pilots take aerial spotters into the skies to direct emergency and fire control services below. Changes in the weather such as increased winds or a drop in temperature are monitored closely from the skies, giving the people on the ground an extra set of eyes when the unexpected happens.
These pilots work with the firefighters to coordinate ground forces against the fires, ensuring they don’t get trapped. As the pilots look out for the men and women on the ground, they are forced to return to local airports to refuel and rest for the next shift. As a result, the airports that serve the local communities so well for business purposes also serve as rescue, evacuation and rendezvous points for rescue workers and firefighters.
The airports also aid aerial retardant tankers and helicopters with refueling efforts and provide convenient landing strips that allow the aviators to take more trips to dump water and fire retardant on the fires from above. Without these pilots or airports, fire rescue and control would become less effective, possibly putting homes and entire communities at risk.
And yet it is during this dangerous season that the major commercial airlines have lit fires of their own in the halls of Congress. As the summer delays at major airports stack up, the airline companies are running out of excuses for their poor performance and have set their sights on general aviation.
The airlines are specifically pushing a proposal for reauthorization of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration that would replace the current tried-and-true funding system that has supported the FAA successfully for decades with a funding system based entirely on a complicated system of “user fees” and increased general aviation fuel taxes.
As these taxes are levied on general aviation, the commercial airlines are aiming to have the only taxes they pay – fuel taxes – be completely eliminated.
The airlines’ proposal does much more than give them an undeserved tax break; it will potentially crush the general aviation industry. Small businesses across the nation use small planes to reach customers in areas that most commercial airlines completely ignore.
Many of the communities that these businesses are a part of rely on their local airports to serve as access points to transport people and goods. If general aviation is taxed to the ground, these airports will fail to remain open, cutting off communities from vital goods and essential services – services such as fighting our nation’s most dangerous fires.
Thankfully, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has drafted its own bill that would preserve this service and the entire general aviation industry without the risky user fees. By keeping the current funding structure intact, the FAA is poised to generate historic levels of funding. This proposal was recently passed by the full House.
The Senate Finance Committee has also drafted a similar proposal that preserves a strong general aviation industry, as well as a safe and modern air traffic control system. This fair and equitable proposal would help to sustain a vibrant general aviation industry throughout our great country. Small aircraft pilots across the United States urge members of the Senate to support the Senate Finance Committee’s proposal as it moves to the floor of the Senate.
Their support can stand up against the greed of the airline companies and ensure that general aviation continues to provide essential, life-saving services for communities across our nation.
Source: GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE (MT)