N.C. takes a bath on Super Scooper

N.C. takes a bath on Super Scooper

18 March 2012

published by www.charlotteobserver.com

USA — Wildfire-fighting plane sells for 10% of what state paid. Fourteen years ago, a giant yellow airplane with distinctive red trim made a big splash in North Carolina – a coveted wildfire-fighting machine that could scoop 1,400 gallons of water from a lake in 10 seconds and then dash hard-to-reach flames nearby.

At $4 million, it was considered a steal. But last year the state sold it for $445,009 – about 10 percent of the original purchase price. Now the buyer has it back on the market for $3.5 million.
The story of how North Carolina seems to have gotten soaked on the Canadair CL-215 “Super Scooper” deal is partly another example of how the bad economy has stopped many ambitious state government programs. And it raises questions about how the state has managed its fleet of aircraft.
But it’s also the story of a battle-hardened plane flown by daredevil pilots with enough drama and heroism for a reality TV show. And, as a matter of fact, it has done that, too.
“It was a workhorse and we miss that resource, to tell you the truth,” said State Forester Wib Owen with the N.C. Forest Service. “It did some wonderful things in North Carolina.”
The CL-215 was built in 1969, created when Canadair Ltd. redesigned a military submarine patrol plane into the first aircraft specifically built to dump water on fires. In 1997, several used planes went on the market when a Canadian province got newer models, which were said to go for $20 million each.
In that light, $4 million was indeed a good deal, and Canadair hoped to sell North Carolina on a package deal of two or three. State forestry officials had been fans of the aircraft for years, after leasing them from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Not only would it be cheaper to own a plane, but money could be made by leasing it out, the argument went at the time. North Carolina decided on just the one plane, and became the only state in the country to own one.

After delays – such as finding two trained pilots to fly it and a hangar big enough to house it – the Super Scooper, based in Hickory, began fighting fires here in 1998, proving its worth, Owen said.
“They have the unique ability to put a lot of water on a fire,” he said. “They can make the difference in that fire staying small or turning into a large project. Ours did that several times over its life here in North Carolina.”

But there came a time when the plane was due for a required major inspection and it needed an engine rebuilt. Owen said there were long discussions about whether to spend an estimated $1.5 million that would be required.

Forestry officials even hired an aviation consulting firm to help them decide. The consultants advised the state it would be cheaper to replace the plane with a newer, smaller aircraft that also dumps water.
Then the first wave of budget cuts hit, Owen said, and the state didn’t have the money to repair the plane or buy a new one. So the Super Scooper had to go.

Featured on ‘Ice Pilots’

It was put up for sale on eBay and sold last March to an eccentric, rough-and-tumble aviation company in the rugged Northwest Territories of Canada called Buffalo Airways.
Founded by “Buffalo” Joe McBryan in 1970, the company has a large fleet of passenger, cargo and firefighting operations. Its pilots have a reputation as adventurous – prime material for the reality show that made them popular on Canadian television in recent years. Now filming its fourth season, “Ice Pilots” has been picked up by The Weather Channel, which is showing the second season in this country.
“‘Ice Pilots’ follows the last of the true Arctic aviators as they fly vintage war planes to haul people, fuel, and supplies to far flung outposts in the Canadian North, chronicling the struggles and triumphs of the pilots and their planes in harsh and often perilous conditions,” reads a Weather Channel description of the show.

Buffalo Airways knew about the plane because one of its pilots also flew it in North Carolina for the Forest Service. Still, general manager Mikey McBryan – one of the founder’s sons – said he couldn’t believe what a great deal it was. And it wasn’t just the price of the plane, he said. About $1 million worth of parts and tools were thrown in for a song, highly valued in the booming second-hand market.
“It will keep the heaters on all winter,” McBryan said. “I go all around the world. To see it on eBay – I never thought that would happen. It’s one of my favorite airplanes.”
About that time, “Ice Pilots” was filming its third season and ended up following the story of McBryan checking out the plane in Hickory, bidding for it on eBay against a mysterious competitor and eventually acquiring the Super Scooper for what is described as the fast-paced season finale.

McBryan’s fortune doesn’t mean North Carolina blew it, he said.
“That’s how all airplanes are,” McBryan said. “Their airplane was timed out. … There are not many companies in the world that can bring it up to flying standards.”
McBryan said Buffalo has done some work on the CL-215 with the intention of selling it or operating it for another company. But another million and a half dollars might need to be put into it. “It will become a $3 million airplane, but it needs at least a million and a half to go into it,” he said.
The plane was recently put back on the market at $3.5 million.

State’s air fleet cut

Meanwhile, this year North Carolina will contract for newer, single-engine water-scooping planes as it did last year, which will give forestry officials a chance to evaluate them. Last year, the state spent $1.3 million contracting for firefighting planes, Owen said.
“We desperately need to get one back when the budget allows that,” he said.
But the state has methodically cut back its air fleet, and the Forest Service has been hit hard, losing 13 planes since 2008, bringing its total to 25. And a report on state aviation issued last week by the legislature’s fiscal watchdog faulted the Forest Service for not tracking maintenance costs, making it impossible to determine whether it makes more sense to keep or replace aircraft.
Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican from Mocksville who is co-chairwoman of the General Assembly oversight committee that reviewed last week’s report, said Friday that selling the Super Scooper at such a low price was appropriate because it would cost so much to fix it and pay for specially trained pilots every year.
As for its current asking price?
“The buyer can ask whatever he wants,” Howard said. “Whether or not he gets it is the question.”

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