(published by Riverside Press Enterprise, 5 September 2003) By Richard Brooks,
Large air tankers to be tested in the USA. The local terrain, however, may be too mountainous forlarge, fast-moving air tankers. For the first time in U.S. history, jumbo jets are being readied for testing as firefighting air tankers, withtentative plans to assign them to blazes next year, federal officials say. “There are at least two . . . efforts. One involves aDC-10. The other involves (Boeing) 747s,” said Tony Kern, the U.S. Forest Service’s topaviation official. “You’d never see a fleet of 20 of these things. But you might see a fleet of 10.”The commercially owned supertankers would carry between 12,000 and 24,000 gallons of fire retardant, foam, or water, as much as eighttimes the 3,000-gallon capacity of the largest tankers now flying, Kern said by phonefrom Washington, D.C. Kern said no formal proposals have been submitted and he declined toidentify the firms involved in the supertanker effort.
A Boeing spokesman referred calls to Evergreen International Aviation, anOregon-based company with business interests that include refurbishing largeplanes and providing firefighting helicopters for the U.S. Forest Service. Top officials atEvergreen couldn’t be reached for comment. Forest service officials are considering issuing a requestfor proposals early this fall for all categories of new air tankers, including jumbos.A handful of supertankers conceivably could cover the nation because of their capacity and their proven cruise speeds in the500-mph range.But officials emphasize they are uncertain whether any jets will work as fire bombers because of their size, speed and inability touse the shortrunways found at most air tanker reloading bases.The sheer size of jumbo jets may force them to fly too fastand too highabove a fire to be effective, officials say. Theirlumbering nature couldprevent them from safely operating in the forests ofSouthern California andother mountainous regions, where smaller and more agiletankers often attackfires in narrow canyons.Big local role Firefighting aircraft are playing a major role this year in the effort to avoid catastrophic timber fires, particularlynear Lake Arrowhead and Idyllwild in the San Bernardino Mountains where drought andbark beetle infestations have combined to kill more than a million pines and other trees.
Consideration of the supertanker concept coincides with plans to modernize the national air tanker fleet, which is entirelypropeller-driven andcomposed primarily of military surplus cargo planes and patrol aircraft. Last year, two large and aging air tankers — a LockheedC-130A Hercules and a Consolidated Vultee PB4Y-2 Privateer — broke apart in flight, killingfive crew members. The crashes triggered this year’s grounding of about 20 percent of the nation’s large air tankers, reducing thefleet from 44 planes to 35.The U.S. Forest Service prefers to stick to its custom ofcontracting withprivate companies that own, operate, and maintain the airtankers, saidKern.By contrast, California’s air tankers are owned by theCalifornia Departmentof Forestry and Fire Protection, but are flown andmaintained by privatecompanies that contract with CDF. Unlike the federal fleet,CDF’s tankersare relatively new S-2T Trackers, which are powered by morereliable — andmore expensive — jet engines.By 2008, the U.S. Forest Service’s modernization plan callsfor 50firefighting aircraft.”We’re looking at a combination of large helicopters andfewer, newer airtankers,” Kern said.According to the plan, 30 to 35 of the large air tankerswould be airplanes.The remaining 15 to 20 would come from the ranks of thenation’s largesthelicopters, such as the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane and thetwo-rotorBoeing-Vertol Chinook.”Those (helicopters) are invaluable when you’re putting afire out,” saidDennis Hulbert, the Forest Service’s top aviation officialin California.”You get more gallons (of water) per hour delivered.”Quick reloading Helicopters can reload from lakes orportable tanks near afire far faster than firefighting planes can fly back to anair tanker baseto reload, Hulbert said by phone from Sacramento.Another helicopter advantage: maneuverability. Planes tendto fly long,time-consuming approaches, while helicopters can speeddirectly to a targetand then make pinpoint drops because of their ability tomaneuver at slowspeeds.
The modernization plan also calls for command-and-controlaircraft to beequipped with infrared sensors, which enable pilots to seethrough smoke.All command planes, air tankers and large helicopters wouldreceiveautomated collision-avoidance alarms to warn pilots ofnearby aircraft.Infrared-equipped supertankers might even be able to makewater drops atnight, when weather conditions are most conducive tofirefighting.From a safety standpoint, the sheer size of a supertankersuggests it wouldbe better-suited to the flat expanses of Idaho or Alaska,rather than themountain forests of Southern California, said pilot BobWofford, captain ofAirtanker 11, a 2,450-gallon P2V Neptune based at SanBernardinoInternational Airport.”I’m sure there are areas up around Big Bear and LakeArrowhead where youcan fly (an 800,000-pound Boeing 747) at 500 feet,” saidWofford, whose23,000 hours of flight experience includes stints infour-engine DC-8 jetsand C-130 turbo-props. “But at some point, the pilot isgoing to have to getout of there. During the day, he could probably do it. ButI wouldn’t wantto do it at night.”As for what airplanes will become the next generation ofconventional airtankers, Kern said they conceivably could be a proposed newbreed of planesspecifically designed as air tankers, or modified civilianaircraft such ascommuter airliners.Other possibilities include old planes that might beremanufactured tovirtually new condition — or even a new crop ofmilitary-surplus aircraft.Reach Richard Brooks at (909) 806-3057 or firstname.lastname@example.org