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Mon, Apr 18, 2005

Evergreen's 747 Firefighter Not Ready For Prime Time

FAA Certification Delayed -- Firefighters Worried

As fire season approaches, firefighters in the Western US are increasingly worried about their lack of aerial tankers. Now, one massive firefighting tanker has been put on hold. The Supertanker isn't certified yet.

Arizona fire officials say the delay in certifying Evergreen International Aviation's 747 couldn't come at a worse time. Twenty-four of the 33 firefighting tankers available for duty in Arizona have been grounded by the Forest Service -- they were deemed unsafe for aircrews after three major mishaps between 1994 and 2002. Seven crewmembers were killed in those accidents.

Now, while nine of the warbird tankers are available, some 70 single-engine aircraft and about 700 helicopters are ready for duty. But in big blazes, they're the equivalent of spitting on a house fire.

So, on the surface, the Evergreen 747 tanker would seem to be an elegant solution. While most of the grounded aircraft could only carry 3,000 gallons of retardant, the Supertanker can carry 24,000 gallons. Proponents say that can put a major dent in even the worst forest fires -- the kind that are expected this fire season.

But critics say the Supertanker has its warts. Specifically, they don't think it can fly low or slow enough to be effective fighting fires at the base of tall mountains. It's cost is staggering -- estimated at $20,000 an hour. Then there are those who believe such a tremendous deluge of water or retardant could hurt or even kill firefighters on the ground.

"We don't know how much it drops and how accurate it is. They've done their testing, but it's like trying to figure out which hammer to use - you have to know what it's going to do," said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center. She was quoted by the Airzona Republic. "Until we can figure out what it can do and what it can't do, we won't know how we can use it."

The Supertanker is due for certification testing in June. Already, one major fire is burning on Indian land in Arizona. Officials in the West expect it will be a long, hot summer.

FMI: www.fs.fed.us


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