Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Air Spray in Chico: Unusual 'crop duster' takes to north valley skies

CHICO >> Around this region, crop dusters are a common sight, but there will be one in local skies this week unlike the others.

It's white with red striping. It's an Air Tractor 802, manufactured in Texas, and it sounds like a jet aircraft. Instead of seed or ag sprays, this aircraft's belly is full of retardant for wildland fire control.

Newly purchased by Air Spray in Chico, the "AT" and its pilot will be going through training at the Municipal Airport this week, and then head to Oregon, where it's been leased to the state.

Air Spray USA general manager Ravi Saip greeted the arriving plane at the airport on Tuesday, and will likely head up with the team to LaGrande, Oregon, Monday.

At that time, it will bear the new Air Spray logo.

This is one of two AT 802s that Air Spray has acquired, with the other one arriving in about two weeks for the same rehearsal. While it has the bones of a crop duster, it's been manufactured to deliver retardant through a belly tank. The new planes have a carrying capacity of 800 gallons, compared to the former military air tankers that have been used, with 3,000-gallon capacity. The smaller capacity isn't a big deal, according to Saip. And the maneuverability lets the Air Tractor get lower and into tight spots.

Air Spray will also be sending to Oregon a truck and trailer combo that allows for remote fueling of the smaller tanker in rugged locations.

A contract for the second tanker is being sought.

On other local Air Spray projects, the two former passenger jets that are being modifying into air tankers will likely be leased by the U.S. Forest Service. Saip said Air Spray, which is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has had a long relationship with the Forest Service when it comes to firefighting contracts.

Saip said one jet will be ready for the 2015 fire season.

"They took longer to modify than we expected," said Saip.

The new design that Air Spray created for the retardant delivery system has taken two years to perfect and implement, but its installation is coming to completion. The project has gotten endorsement from British Aerospace, Saip said. He expects that will further help Air Spray get the certification and approval for the Forest Service by the end of the winter. The Forest Service has followed the shift from World War II air tankers to jet aircraft.

"Communication with the Forest Service has been very good," said Saip. A former Aero Union employee in Chico who dealt with the Forest Service previously, Saip knows the process and people.

Air Spray already has a "call as needed" agreement with Cal Fire this year for California wildfires, but that will apply to a full-size Lockheed Electra air tanker that will arrive in Chico by August and was here last year.

Calling it an "at need" firefighting craft, Saip said the plane will be based in Chico but will be sent around North America on an at-need basis, filling in gaps.

Saip noted that plane could be put into use for local firefighting needs as well.

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