Supertanker jets work well, but fire managers fear price

first_imgBOISE, Idaho – Federal fire managers say new supertanker jets being developed by private companies will dramatically increase the amount of fire retardant dropped on wildfires and will work in concert with other tanker aircraft and ground crews. Now managers are trying to decide if the extra airpower is worth the higher cost. “You can spend millions of dollars putting out a single stump,” U.S. Forest Service aviation specialist Scott Fisher, chairman of the Interagency Airtanker Board, said Tuesday while watching a modified Boeing 747-200 passenger jet drop 20,500 gallons of water on an empty field during a demonstration flight. Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation is trying to persuade federal land managers to add the 747 to the fleet of 16 smaller fixed-wing air tankers used on wildfires around the country each year. Another company, Oklahoma-based Omni Air International, has proposed using a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 modified to carry up to 12,000 gallons of water, about half the payload of the 747. “We believe they will be able to meet most if not all of our requirements for certification,” said Fisher. “They are on track to providing a whole new spectrum of aerial firefighting that we have never seen before.” But the interagency team evaluating the potential use of supertankers has yet to complete a cost-benefit analysis. The federal government and the companies developing the planes have not negotiated a price for an interim contract to evaluate the aircraft in service this summer. “We have to look at the value for the taxpayer dollar as well as the political value to having this kind of suppression capability available,” said Norbury. “We protect some very valuable lands, and the public has an expectation that we will provide a certain level of fire suppression for those lands.” Evergreen has spent $40 million the past three years designing and converting the 747 passenger jet into a supertanker. The company contends the government could have saved $108 million dollars on fighting seven major fires that destroyed 1.4 million acres in 2002 if the supertanker had been used on the initial fire attack. Evergreen officials say they are not trying to replace air tankers for which the federal government has contracted to pay $17 million this fire season. Instead, they say the supertanker would work with that tanker fleet and helicopters for a multipronged first assault on wildfires. “There’s some talk that they might want to have this supertanker on standby and only bring it out for the really big fires, but we say let’s get it out early on every fire and not keep it in reserve,” said Robert McAndrew, Evergreen president. “People pay a lot of money in taxes and they deserve faster containment.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2Conventional air tankers can only deliver up to 3,000 gallons of water, foam, gel or other retardant on a fire before returning to a base for reloading. Besides bigger payloads, the supertankers would add more range and reduce time between drops, company officials say. Federal land management agencies have not advertised for bids to supply firefighting supertankers, but after the two companies approached the Forest Service with prototypes, the agency created its Supertanker Operational Assessment Project to determine whether the larger jets would be an asset. “We’ve never had this capability before,” said Pat Norbury, national aviation operations officer for the Forest Service. “We had to know whether we would have to clear the area over three counties just to turn the things around.” The preliminary results from flight tests conducted for the Forest Service show the supertankers can fly low and slow enough to effectively target wildfires without interfering with ground-attack operations. Conventional air tankers frequently fly as low as 200 feet above a fire and use gravity to deliver water or retardant. The Evergreen supertanker has a new pressurized dispersing system that shoots retardant out of nozzles on the plane’s underbelly, allowing the jet to fly higher over a fire and still effectively deposit suppression material on the ground. last_img

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