Evergreen says its 747 Supertanker will revolutionize aerial firefighting. Critics beg to differ. By BEN JACKLET Issue date: Fri, Sep 10, 2004 The Tribune Remember the Biscuit fire in Southern Oregon? The largest wildfire in Oregons modern history? We would have cured that fire in two days, Penn Stohr said of the 2002 wildfire that burned 400,000 acres. That was such ideal terrain for the 747. It would have been absolutely perfect. Stohr, director of flight operations for Evergreen International Aviation Inc., does not lack faith when it comes to the Evergreen Supertanker. The Supertanker is a Boeing 747 that Evergreen is retrofitting for firefighting. It would hold 24,000 gallons of fire retardant on board, allowing pilots to pour seven times the amount of chemicals onto wildfires. And rather than just dump the liquid via gravity, the Supertanker would spray it at calibrated pressures, creating a mist or a downpour, depending on the need. McMinnville-based Evergreen is pouring millions of dollars into the Supertanker and touting it as a revolutionary addition to the nations aging fleet of firefighting aircraft, saving property, time and lives. But the project has its critics, and the questions they raise are sharp: Is the 747 too big and clumsy to fly low near fires in mountainous terrain? Will taxpayers end up footing the bill for a lucrative contract to a company with a long history of government contracts? And if the idea of a big plane dropping large volumes of liquid from the sky is so great, then why has the Forest Service repeatedly refused to use a Russian-built plane with similar capabilities, even as wildfires have raged over the past decade?
Scoffing greets brainstorm
Stohr said Evergreen first presented the idea of converting a 747 for firefighting to the Forest Service about 10 years ago. We were kind of laughed out of the meeting, he recalled. Things have changed. This spring the Forest Service grounded its entire fleet of firefighting air tankers after a string of accidents raised safety issues. Ten air tankers have since been recertified, but the Forest Service has yet to complete a long-term plan for replacing the planes that were taken out of commission. An ongoing lawsuit over environmental damage from fire retardant adds to the uncertainty. Evergreen tested its first version of the Supertanker in Arizona in March and April, spraying 536,000 gallons of water and chemicals in a series of releases mostly at altitudes of 400 to 800 feet. The Supertanker flew at only half-capacity, and real fire conditions were not simulated. But Stohr said it was clear that the basic design was sound. It worked so well at high altitude that we brought it down as low as 300 feet, he said. Our best altitude is 400 feet for accuracy. The retardant just turns into mist. It feels like rain below. Since then, Evergreen engineers have pulled out the planes prototype tank and built a larger one. Stohr said they hope to install it soon, test the plane at full capacity in October and, if all goes smoothly, demonstrate it on a live fire in Southern California as early as November. Evergreen also is looking into other potential uses for the Supertanker, such as neutralizing oil spills and decontaminating the air in response to a bioterrorism attack. Air tankers generally charge the Forest Service a fee to be on standby plus an hourly rate for operation. Earlier reports pegged the Supertankers cost as high as $20,000 per hour, but Stohr said it was too early to know the cost. Contractors who fight wildfires on the ground say they find the concept of the Supertanker compelling, but they wonder how accurate and safe it would be. If they fly it high youd get problems with vaporizing and drifting, said Ted Atkinson, owner of LaGrande-based Athic Enterprises. And if they fly it low itd be scary. You wouldnt want to be in (a 747) skimming over treetops, and I wouldnt want to be on the ground near one. Forest Service officials originally had expressed skepticism about the project, but recent interviews indicate that they may be warming to the idea. I applaud Evergreens efforts, said Jon Rollens, aviation manager for the Forest Services Pacific Northwest Region. Theyve done it on their own nickel and made some real progress. (The Supertanker) certainly may have a niche in the firefighting business. But not all observers are impressed. Im very aware of what Evergreens doing, said William Kauffman, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Michigan. I think its stupid, to put it simply. Kauffman noted that the 747 had an extremely flexible airframe that was designed to fly at 35,000 feet, not 400 feet off the ground in the vicinity of a roaring wildfire. To put an airframe this big that low, going that slow in the turbulence of a fire is going to wipe out the airframe, Kauffman predicted. Kauffman said he had spoken with an engineer at Boeing who agreed with him off the record and three pilots who told him they would refuse to fly the Supertanker. Boeing engineers studied the Supertanker concept in December 2002 and determined that it was feasible, according to Boeing spokeswoman Vicki Ray.
Here comes competition
In Kauffmans view, the Forest Service has long ignored a far better option than the Supertanker: the Ilyushin 76. The IL-76, as its known, was built for the Soviet Army in the 1970s to haul soldiers in and out of battle situations. Six of the planes have been converted into firefighting Waterbombers, capable of dumping 12,000 gallons of water or foam retardant onto wildfires from 300 feet up. The IL-76 has put out fires in Siberia, Australia and Greece. But it has not been allowed into the United States despite a decade of effort by proponents to offer it at cost during fire emergencies. Its capability has been well-documented, said Kauffman, who says he has no financial relationship with anyone promoting the IL-76. If it comes over here, everybodys going to see that it works. Its going to be on CNN and in the newspapers, and then its all over. But the Forest Service is doing everything possible to prevent or hinder this demonstration. Jim Barnett, an aviation management specialist in the Forest Services Washington, D.C., headquarters said the agency hasnt allowed the IL-76 to operate here because it does not have U.S. certification with the Federal Aviation Administration and the planes dump-it-in-one-shot technology does not meet the agencys firefighting requirements. If they want to be used by us they have to meet our criteria, Barnett said. If the IL-76 chooses not to do what we require, then theres not a whole heck of a lot that we can do for them. Tom Robinson, spokesman for Global Emergency Relief, the Canadian company trying to arrange a deal between Russia and the United States to use the IL-76 during fire emergencies, has heard those arguments for years, and they make him furious. Canadian officials also havent used the IL-76. Forests are burning down, and we have the best resource in the world to stop them, Robinson said. And yet the Forest Service says they dont have any use for it. It doesnt matter how good it is, theyre not going to use it. If Kauffman is a believer in the IL-76, Robinson is a zealot. I believe in this aircraft, he said. Ive flown missions on it. Robinson said he was on board in 1998 when the IL-76 attacked the worst wildfire in 100 years in Greece. Fifteen Greek planes were grounded, and CNN said the fires looked unstoppable, he says. We did an observation run, lined up, opened up, and 10, 12 seconds later the first fire was gone. We came back and loaded up again and then went out and put the second fire out.
Both sides sound the alarm
Robinson said the IL-76 remains the biggest and farthest-ranging air tanker on the market. As for the Evergreen Supertanker, Robinson said, The only reason Evergreen is doing what theyre doing is because of us. I wish them the best of luck. However, experts will tell you that planes an accident waiting to happen. For his part, Evergreens Penn Stohr isnt too impressed with the IL-76 either. I wouldnt walk under the wing of that thing for fear itd fall on me, he said. It wasnt an airplane that was well-thought out in design. It isnt U.S.-type certified. And I think the Forest Service would rather buy American. The Forest Services Barnett also noted crash statistics that show that a total of 48 IL-76s have gone down over the years. Robinson agreed that the crash statistics seem alarming. But he points out that the IL-76 was widely distributed during the Cold War, and most of the crashes occurred in chaotic situations in places such as Angola and Turkmenistan, where they may not have received regular maintenance. The Boeing 747 has crashed 33 times since 1974, according to the online database airdisaster.com. Kauffman and Robinson worry that the Forest Service is playing politics and playing favorites, giving Evergreen more access because of a long-standing and well-documented history of collaboration between the Forest Service and Evergreen in projects that sometimes also have involved the Central Intelligence Agency. Evergreen has held many government contracts over the years, for flying foreign dignitaries and eradicating drug crops as well as fighting fires. The Forest Services Barnett, who used to manage a helicopter crew for Evergreen, said his agency is showing no favoritism whatsoever. The difference is, Evergreen put a lot of money into getting something that would work within our requirements, he said. The folks that have done the IL-76 have not done a similar job. Stohr scoffed at the notion of favoritism: Believe me, if it was a matter of favoritism, wed be up and running right now. No, were fighting and kicking and scratching just like any operator that has come up with an idea. We havent received one dollar from the U.S. government to promote this. We have fought for position on our merits. James Marks contributed to this report. Source: Portland Tribune
Errors of fact in the Jacklet piece, Trial by Fire: http://www.portlandtribune.com/archview.cgi?id=26154:
(a) Tom Robinson represents “Global Emergency Response” www.waterbomber.com, not “Global Emergency Relief.”
(b) Global Emergency Response is a Russian-US-Canadian joint venture and not a “Canadian company.” For a legal description of the JV, please see the lead-in to this item: http://www.waterbomber.com/rebuttal.htm)
(c) Although the Il-76 waterbomber has performed DownUnder at the Southern Hemisphere’s largest airshow for a week, and been taken to another week’s test at Zhukovsky, in Moscow, by the Australasian Fire Authorities Council, (and found to be a “very, very good firefighting airplane”) http://gfmc.online/media/2003/news_03172003_aus.htm it has never seen firefighting duty in Australia… but that is another story.