Jumbo jets may get shot at fires
An unusual sight may materialize over forests fires this summer – jumbo jets swooping over blazes and dropping massive payloads of fire retardant.
California forestry officials are intrigued by a new 747 supertanker that may be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Forest Service before this fire season. While the jumbo jet may not be suited to every forest-fire situation, state fire officials see a huge upside to a firefighting tanker that can hold 20 times the retardant or water of the state’s largest current air tanker.
“If they’re available and we need them, and the Forest Service has them carded, we’ll take a shot,” said Mike Padilla, the chief of aviation for the California Department of Forestry.
Padilla has witnessed a test drop by the aircraft. The plane has the potential to revolutionize aerial firefighting, officials believe, but also will have certain limitations.
“We’re trying to keep an open mind about how we would use a tanker that large,” he said.
The Forest Service, which would be one of the agencies to utilize the aircraft under contract with owner/operator Evergreen International Aviation, said the air tanker may be better suited to areas that have fewer mountains and canyons.
“A lot of our fires are in steep, narrow canyons, and that is not a safe place to put a big airplane like that,” said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. “Because of our topography, it will probably not be used as much in California. We need something smaller and more nimble.”
While the aircraft may not have the maneuverability to drop into canyons, the amount of retardant it can hold will make it a useful new tool, said Padilla.
“It’s a question of where and when you can use it,” he said.
Evergreen International Aviation has spent the last two and a half years and $40 million retrofitting the 747 to hold 24,000 gallons of firefighting liquid.
The Oregon-based company, which has been involved in aerial firefighting for more than 40 years, anticipates licensing of the aircraft to follow the tests and demonstrations it is completing. The supertanker is scheduled to fly test runs in Sacramento before the end of this month.
Evergreen International Aviation plans to own and operate the aircraft under a firefighting contract with the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. The plane can also be used to contain oil spills and neutralize chemical spills, according to the company.
The jumbo jet will fly between 400 and 800 feet off the ground and expel its fire retardant from a pressurized system at the targeted area. The drops can be made at differing pressures, said Jordan Hanson, a spokeswoman for Evergreen.
“It can fall like rain or it can fall aggressively,” she said.
Multiple drops of retardant are possible, or the aircraft can let loose all 24,000 gallons in a 25,000-foot-long swath, according to the company. The plane flies at 138 mph when making a drop, the company said.
The addition of the Boeing 747 to the nation’s firefighting fleet could be a welcome way to modernize the assemblage of predominantly World War II-era aircraft that have been plagued with safety concerns and accidents over the last several years.
In 2004, the Forest Service and BLM grounded 33 large tankers due to safety concerns about the aging fleet. That action followed the crashes of three tankers, including one that broke up in midair while fighting a fire in Walker, Calif., that June. The aircraft’s crew of three was killed.
Evergreen International Aviation has touted the 747’s safety as an air tanker, but also its ability to cut tens of millions of dollars off of a federal firefighting budget that runs into the billions each year.
In 2004, California alone spent $166.4 million to fight fires. That cost does not include property damage or environmental damage estimates.
The company studied seven catastrophic 2002 fires and estimated the new tanker could have saved the government over $100 million in suppression and rehabilitation costs.
The 747 is not the only enormous passenger jet that is being modified to fight forest fires – although it is by far the largest.
A DC-10, with a 12,000 gallon capacity, completed test drops both in California and in France last year. The converted passenger jet, based in Victorville, Calif., received it’s Federal Aviation Administration certificate this week.
The plane, which drops retardant from external tanks, represents a giant step forward in air tanker evolution, said Rick Hatton, a managing partner of the DC-10 development company, 10 Tanker STC.
“It could change the way that firefighting is done from the air,” Hatton said. “[Fire experts] hope this amount of water dropped right on to the fire could do a lot more damage to the fire.”
The former American Airlines jet can unload 12,00 gallons in eight seconds and reload in under eight minutes, Hatton said.
Although he said he wouldn’t fly the plane at its drop altitude, 200 feet, up a box canyon, the air tanker is very maneuverable and could be used in a variety of terrain.
“As more and more people build near the wilderness, these big tankers become more and more useful,” he said.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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