Fire-fighting DC10 takes off

Fire-fighting DC10 takes off

20 January 2010

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Australia — More over Elvis and Elsie skycranes, Australia’s biggest fire-fighting aircraft has landed in Victoria.

Avalon Airport is home to a massive DC10 aircraft, dubbed “Vicki” which is capable of dumping more than four times the amount of water or retardant than the Elvis and Elsie skycranes currently used to fight Victorian Bushfires.

The aerial tanker is part of a $10 millionVictorian Government trial which could see it leased every summer to be used in conjunction with the two skycranes which are capable of dumping up to 9000 litres each.

The new water bomber has the potential to revolutionise fire fighting in Victoria.

It is able to drop 45,000 litres of water or retardant in a matter of seconds – at the push of a single red button.

Vicki was converted from a 350-seater DC10 passenger plane two years ago by a privately owned company in Victorville, California.

The middle of the aircraft was completely gutted in a bid to reduce its weight as part of the conversion.

All that remains in the body of the plane is a makeshift wardrobe which houses the five crew members’ uniforms, emblazoned with both the US and Australian flags.

Avalon Airport has been home to the DC10 since late last year and is the sole place the aircraft can be fuelled and loaded with water.

One of Vicki’s pilots, Kevin Hopf, from Arizona, said water or retardant was loaded into the aircraft via two nearby tanks.

The tanks were then refilled from large water bladders beside the runway.

“It takes roughly 15 minutes to refill with fuel and water … they can refuel and load the water at the same time.

“From the time we stop to the time we move again, it’s about 20 minutes,” Mr Hopf said.

“We normally have anywhere from 40,000-60,000 pounds (18-27 tonnes) of fuel on board. … that will take us pretty much anywhere in Victoria and back.”

Three external water tanks attached to the underbelly of the plane can open to different extents, depending on the nature of the fire.

“When we arrive on the scene there’s people there with an aeroplane and on the ground with fire-fighting experience that know where they want it to go,” he said.

“It’s all computerised, the people on the fire tell us how they want it dispensed and what quantity they want and we dial all of it up and it is just a matter of pushing a button and the computer operates the doors (to the water tanks) accordingly.

“When we release it we really don’t feel a whole lot. The best way to describe it is like being in an elevator. It gets lighter every second and wants to rise.”

Vicki travels at an average speed of 550km/h, which means the plane can fly to anywhere in Victoria in under an hour.

Mr Hopf said flying the aircraft was a great passion. “I absolutely love it. I have the best job. If I never have to haul another passenger again I’ll be happy,” he said.

“I guess it’s safe to say there’s a bit of an adrenaline rush going on when you’re doing the drop and the concentration level is much higher than was ever required at a passenger airline. But at the end of the day there is a fair amount of satisfaction in knowing you’ve played a part.”

Vicki has worked on more than 300 operations since being converted to a water bomber including most recently the Californian bush fires.

Although the aircraft has not been used for fighting fires since landing in Victoria, the crew are ready for take off should the state’s top fire chiefs request Vicki’s service.

Department of Sustainability and Environment chief officer Ewan Waller said the DSE andCFA would work together to assess the success of the aircraft in Victoria.

He said it was hoped the trials would prove Vicki could help fight fires across the state.

The aircraft will be in Victoria until mid-March, after which the DSE and CFA will report to the government on it’s effectiveness in the state.

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