Saturday, September 2, 2017

Cal Fire’s new firefighting aircraft is pricey — but worth it, officials say

Bigger. Better. Faster.

Those three words describe Cal Fire’s newest air tanker – which is big enough to carry a space shuttle on its back.

The fire agency signed an agreement with Global SuperTanker for the Boeing 747 Very Large Air Tanker, Cal Fire Deputy Director Janet Upton said Monday, Aug. 28, and by Wednesday, Aug. 30, Cal Fire had already tested it at the Ponderosa fire in Butte County in Northern California.

“We will begin our evaluation period over the next year and a half with this aircraft,” Upton said. “We’ve recently completed aircraft inspections and pilot proficiency evaluations.”

The new tanker has a capacity of 19,600 gallons of retardant, but Cal Fire only allows it to carry 18,500 gallons. The tanker with the next-largest capacity, a DC-10, carries 11,600 gallons.

“It’s larger than any of the other airtankers out there,” said Jim Wheeler, president and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, based in Colorado Springs. “It has the capability to fly for long distances.”

Cal Fire isn’t the only agency that’s signed a contract for the aircraft; three other agencies, all in Colorado, have signed “Call When Needed” contracts – meaning the aircraft might not be immediately available to Cal Fire.

The 747, stationed at McClelland Air Force Base near Sacramento, is a pricey tool – and isn’t fit for every situation.

The Cost

The need for air tankers isn’t in dispute.

According to InciWeb — the website run by the U.S. Forest Service listing all wildfires by each state — there are more than 30 active wildfires burning in California.

Cal Fire hopes their latest acquisition pays off.

“Whether they fly or not, if we call them, it’s going to cost a minimum of $165,000 for three days,” Upton said. “Once they fly it will cost $16,500 per flight hour.”

That’s not including fuel and retardant costs.

Phoschek, the red fire retardant used during wildfires, brings a cost of $2.50 to $3.50 per gallon, Upton said.

The value, though, comes in how much retardant the new airtanker can drop.

The Cal Fire firefighting module would likely not want it all dropped at once, but rather in six or more portions – meaning it could be dropped in several places.

“Hopefully it will be cost-effective and a benefit to us,” said Dennis Brown, Cal Fire’s Chief of Flight Operations. “It can bring a little more retardant to a fire than what we have currently.”

On top of that, the new aircraft can also be used to fight ecological disasters over water.

“The plane can also lay down oil dispersant at oil spills and fight offshore platform fires,” Wheeler said.

The new 747’s history

Wheeler said the new 747 — marked by No. 944 on its tail — was originally converted from a Japan Airlines passenger plane to a cargo plane for Evergreen International Airlines in 2013.

Evergreen went out of business later that year and the airplane was taken back by the leaseholder.

It remained parked until 2015, when Wheeler got a call from the private equity group that owns the plane.

He had to provide 80,000 pages of documents to the FAA to convert it.

The plane was converted in May 2016, flying its first fire mission in November that year in Israel and then January and February 2017 in Chile.

“I never once dreamed of fighting fires,” he said.

Limitations

The new Boeing 747 isn’t without drawbacks.

“It has a place and a time when it might be beneficial for us to use it,” Brown said.

For example, some have said the new tanker could take the place of 10 S-2 planes, which have a capacity 1,200 gallons, but the 747 would be used differently.

“S-2s are initial-attack planes that can get off the ground in five minutes to meet the objective of getting on a fire within 20 minutes,” Brown said.

A 747, he said, because of its wingspan, would not be used in canyons, he said. It would be better used on ridgelines where it can lay down a long line of retardant.

No matter what the cost for the aircraft, which is capable of laying down a line of retardant for more than a mile, it could save lives, property and woodlands.

The 747 can fly nearly 600 mph allowing it to be anywhere in the United States in just under three hours, according to Global Super Tanker’s website.

“If your house were on fire, would you call the fire department and ask them to send me the slowest, smallest fire truck you’ve got? Probably not,” Wheeler said. “This is a force multiplier for the fire departments because there’s nothing else out there like it.”

Original article can be found here ➤ http://www.sbsun.com

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