Could Russian ‘waterbomber’ save California?

Congressmen say feds resisting massive jet that will douse wildfires
Posted: October 31, 2003
1:00 a.m. Eastern

© 2003

A massive Russian jet capable of releasing more than 10,000 gallons of water in a single dump could help solve California’s wildfire crisis, but the federal government continues to resist it, asserts two U.S. congressmen.

Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Curt Weldon, R-Pa., said at a news conference yesterday the Russian government repeatedly has offered the Ilyushin-76 ‘Waterbomber’ – reportedly capable of dousing a fire the size of 10 football fields – to the U.S. Forest Service for its use but has been rebuffed each time.

A Soviet Ilyushin 76 (Courtesy Global Emergency Response, photo by Keith Smith)

Rohrabacher spokesman Aaron Lewis told WorldNetDaily the federal government’s response amid wildfires that have killed 20, consumed more than 750,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,800 homes is the same as it has been for the past decade.

As WorldNetDaily reported, Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said last year at the height of devastating fires in Oregon the “plane would not meet our firefighting needs.” It is too costly, he told the Colorado Springs Gazette, “and lacks ability to make downhill drops, a necessary maneuver in fighting fires in the mountains. It actually drops too much water.”

Ed Stone, a Forest Service aviation official said in an August 2000 interview, his agency had been aware of the aircraft since 1994 when fires prompted intense political pressure to use it.

“We looked, and we didn’t care for the product,” he said.

But the lawmakers are convinced it will work, pointing to its success in other parts of the world.

“The bureaucratic logjam on this has to be broken and the jet needs to be given a chance to perform in the U.S.,” said Lewis. “But the government has not been willing to even let it come in the country for a demonstration, let along to fight fires.”

The Russian government is willing to loan the Ilyushin-76 to the United States, the congressmen say, provided the U.S. picks up the operating costs.

Another model, the BE 200, which is smaller but still carries two to three times the capacity of American planes, “has been dismissed out of hand by the government,” Lewis said.

He noted Rohrabacher brought up use of the Russian equipment to Arnold Schwarzenegger during the governor-elect’s recent visit to Washington. Schwarzenegger just nodded, Lewis said, as Rohrabacher then moved on to the next subject in his laundry list of California issues.

Tom Robinson, a fire administrator and instructor of fire prevention with the Virginia Offices of Fire Programs and Emergency Services in Richmond, Va., said in a WND interview last year he has been waging a campaign to build public support for deployment of the Russian-made air tanker, which has nearly four times the carrying capacity of the C-130 Hercules, the largest tanker used by the Forest Service.

Robinson sees the IL-76 as a much-needed strategic weapon for the nation’s firefighting arsenal. He is convinced that had it been called in when massive fires in Oregon began raging out of control last year, they would have been squelched before they became mega-blazes.

“Frankly, I’m outraged,” says Robinson. “This has been going on over six years. The Forest Service has refused to allow this plane into this country for fire fighting. It’s a modern aircraft, a four-engine jet. It covers an area the size of 12 football fields with one 10-second drop. It puts a fireline down 300 feet wide and 3,900 feet long in 10 seconds. It would have saved every community in Colorado and Arizona [last] year. It would have saved those 300 homes in Los Alamos [three] years ago.”

Robinson admits to being a “crusader” and even a “zealot.”

“That’s because I’ve flown on missions on this plane – I know how good it is,” he says.

Designed in the early 1970s for military transport, since the end of the Cold War the IL-76 has been used extensively throughout the world by different countries as a cargo carrier. To fly firefighting missions, it is retrofitted with two aluminum tubes, each one 90-feet long, four-feet in diameter and capable of holding 5,500 gallons of water – a total of 11,000 gallons.

Unlike American tankers that have a pressurized system to dispense the retardant, the Ilyushin has a simple, virtually “bug-free” gravity-flow system. However, this system requires the aircraft to fly straight and horizontal.

“The plane will be flying, say, 150 feet above the ground, at 151 knots [173 mph],” Robinson explained. “The water comes out at the same speed as the plane, as one big sheet of water. But when it gets about a hundred feet above the ground, it slows and comes down as a drenching rain. It’s a big blanket of water that comes down vertically in much larger drops [than in the American pressure system]. It’s so effective the Russians don’t even use fire retardant in it.”

The Russian Federation has offered on several occasions to send the plane – or a pair of them – to the U.S., where it could demonstrate its effectiveness on one of the larger wildfires. They ask only for the cost of fuel and food and lodging for the crew. But officials in the USFS have consistently said thanks, but no thanks.

Robinson pointed to an experience in 1999 that changed him from being an enthusiastic supporter of the plane into a “zealot.”

Greece at that time was enduring its worst wildfires in over a century. Infernos were raging in the mountainous terrain, and winds were so fierce the air tankers of the Greek Air Force were grounded.

As he tells it, “There were two 3,000-foot-wide fires that were going unabated because of windy conditions through the mountains, burning all their monuments and forests. CNN was there and said it was unstoppable. But we filled up at the Greek Air Force base then went to the first fire. We flew by on an observation run, came back around, lined up on the fire, judged the wind direction, opened the doors on the tanks – and whoosh – 10 seconds later we looked back and that 3,000 feet of fire was gone, absolutely gone.”

That took care of the first fire. The pilot returned to the base, the tanks were refilled, and they went to the second fire and put that one out just as quickly.

“These fires had burned for a week, with hundreds of firefighters and all kinds of equipment brought in from Germany and other countries,” said Robinson. “The Greek media called it a miracle.”

Though it convinced Robinson and the Greek public, the Greek government decided against future use of the Waterbomber, preferring instead to invest in a fleet of planes at $25 million each. 


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