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Giant jet unlikely to attack California fire

The U.S. Forest Service probably will not use the Boeing 747 jetliner converted into a retardant carrier on the wildfire that killed four and charred more than 24,000 acres near Palm Springs, Calif.

The 747-200, capable of dousing a forest fire with 20,000 gallons of water or retardant on a single pass, was cleared for takeoff by the Federal Aviation Administration just before 4 p.m. Friday. It is based at Pinal Airpark, just north of Marana.

And it may stay there, said Jim Payne, regional spokesman for the Forest Service. The contract the Forest Service negotiated with Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation has expired, and the California fire is the only blaze using tankers right now, so the Forest Service will have to use the smaller carriers that already are under contract.

A conventional heavy tanker, usually a P-3 Orion, is capable of dropping 2,400 gallons per pass.

Still, Evergreen will be ready, said Bob McAndrew, head of the supertanker program. “We could be on the fire by Monday if the federal officials want it.

“I’ve called the (California Department of Forestry) and the Forest Service, and I’m waiting for a reply.”

The 747 uses a pressurized system that increases the flow of retardant, instead of relying on gravity like conventional tankers, he said. The plane works about 400 feet above the ground. The P-3 can descend to half that altitude.

McAndrew said he hopes the Forest Service will use the plane so officials will see how effective it can be.

“This is a fire that could be fought from the air,” McAndrew said. High winds whipping through canyons and across ridges make a raging wildfire difficult for ground-based suppression.

But even if the plane does not work on this fire, everyone involved in the program was happy to receive the FAA Supplemental Type Certificate on Friday. That was the culmination of three years of work and $40 million in cost to develop the supertanker. The plane in March was dispatched to 11 locations around the county to demonstrate to federal and state officials its firefighting ability.

Since then, it has been undergoing certification checks, McAndrew said. “It took a lot more documentation than we ever imagined.”



For more on conventional air tankers, go to www.airtanker.com.

- For more on the supertanker, go to www.evergreenaviation.com/supertanker.

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