Supertanker officials: We could have doused flames sooner

Supertanker officials: We could have doused flames sooner

05 Dezember 2010

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Israel —  “Too late” was how most officials described the arrival on Sunday of the world’s largest fire-fighting aircraft to help put out the Carmel forest blaze.

Owned by McMinnville, Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation, the supertanker is a modified 747-200, making it look on the outside like any other jumbo cargo plane.

On Sunday, The Jerusalem Post received a rare and exclusive tour of the plane, revealing its eight massive water tanks that provide it with the ability to carry about 94,000 liters of water and fire retardant material, almost 20 times more than an average fire truck.

Its first sortie over the fire was at 11 a.m. and it made a second flyover around 3:30 p.m.

Two Israel Air Force pilots, including Nevatim Air Base commander Brig.-Gen. Eden Atias, joined the US crew for the flight.

“This plane is crucial in our efforts to extinguish the fire,” Atias told the Post after the first sortie. “You can certainly see that the areas [in the Carmel] are full of smoke, and with cautious optimism, that there are fewer fires.”

Using its uniquely designed pressurized system, the supertanker delivers its contents from altitudes of about 300 feet and at speeds of approximately 260 kph down a 5- km. path the width of a football field.

“This aircraft was designed for the type of mega fires like the one here,” said Steven Daniels, an Evergreen official who accompanied the plane on its maiden voyage to Israel. The US-based plane has been to only one other country – Spain – in its four years of operations.

Daniels added that based on the aircraft’s previous record combatting massive forest fires, it would have been capable of extinguishing the Carmel inferno earlier had it arrived in time.

“Based on previous experience we could have stopped it,” he said.

The plane was parked on Sunday in a corner of Ben- Gurion Airport outside Terminal 1 and was the source of great fanfare for employees and passengers who were being transported by bus to planes waiting to take them to Eilat. Senior government officials and IDF officers, including the new deputy chief of General Staff, Maj.- Gen. Yair Naveh, came to see the plane.

While the aircraft looks like a regular Boeing 747 from the outside, on the inside – instead of rows of passenger seats – are massive steel tanks and pipes. The plane is run by a fairly small crew of just two pilots and one flight engineer.

Around the green-and-red plane with a large American flag taped to its side were trucks filling it with water and fire retardant materials.

The government contacted Evergreen late on Friday and within 12 hours the aircraft was en route to Israel.

“The plane was in Arizona and the pilot and rest of the crew were scattered,” Daniel said. “But we were excited to get the mission and to be able to help out Israel.”

Some reports have indicated that the government learned of the plane’s existence only from a random search on the Internet. One Israeli Fire and Rescue Service source said, however, that the plane was well known to firefighters, although they never imagined the government would pay the steep fee to bring it here. According to some reports, it costs $100,000-$200,000 per hour of operation.

The aircraft’s captain, Cliff Hale, said it was an honor to be in Israel. He has flown the plane in Alaska, southern California and Spain.

“What makes our plane different is that its pressurized systems allow it to fly higher and faster,” he said. “This way we can get to scenes of fire faster.”

By Sunday afternoon, even though it was clear that the fire was mostly out, members of the plane’s crew said they intended to stay as long as they were asked.

“We are an insurance policy if the fire flares up again,” one of the crewmen said.

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