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Water Wings

Firefighter-pilot John Wells says his WWII aircraft can beat newer seaplanes and helicopters by putting out blazes faster and cheaper. But officials have yet to get on board.

June 25, 1996|LESLEY WRIGHT and LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — The vintage airplane looked a little clunky next to the sleek corporate jets and tiny private planes tied down at Martin Aviation's tarmac.

But John Wells, a 36-year-old San Marino firefighter, is betting $500,000 that this Orange County-based amphibious World War II aircraft with its huge red belly and extended silver wings can beat helicopters and newer seaplanes at putting out fires faster and cheaper.

So, Wells expects to look on in frustration today as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors considers a five-year contract to lease two firefighting "Superscooper" airplanes from Quebec for $7 million.

Wells is concerned that Airborne Fire Attack, his five-employee enterprise, could go bust before a government agency gives his old plane a chance to show what he believes it can do.

He hopes Orange County will be more receptive than Los Angeles County when it considers his proposal to lease his Canso PBY-5A, the "California Bomber," as part of the county's firefighting arsenal.

"We'll be stationed here, ready to be airborne in two minutes," he said Monday.

For Wells, this quest to put his rebuilt 52-year-old, wide-winged airplane back in the sky is just as much about risk-taking as fire suppression.

"My wife and I don't have a lot of money," said the Aliso Viejo resident. "We had to take a gamble and buy the plane and hope we can get a contract."

He argues economics are on his side.

According to a Los Angeles County staff report, the Canadian Superscoopers, which cost $17 million apiece to build, will cost the county $1.2 million the first year to lease and $1.5 million annually the next four years.

The way Wells figures it, that comes to $20,000 per day for the two aircraft during the 60-day fire season. He hastens to add that his plane would cost $1,983 a day on a six-month contract or $3,300 a day for a year-round contract.

The idea for the company came from Wells' childhood on Santa Catalina Island, where his pilot father coached him to earn his own pilot's license by the time he was 16 and he began ferrying tourists to and from Long Beach.

Later, Wells became a firefighter and paramedic and decided to merge all three roles into the private enterprise. He formed Airborne Fire Attack a year ago and bought the amphibious plane last month.

Now he just has to convince somebody that his equipment and personal know-how can best the Canadian Superscoopers and the helicopters that many fire departments often rely on.

"We need more firefighting aircraft in Southern California," Wells said, just days after ferrying the "California Bomber" from its last home in Canada.

His plane, with its 104-foot wingspan, can skim a body of water, sucking up 1,000 gallons of water within seconds. From there, it can fly to a fire within minutes, drop the load and return for another run--as many as 125 trips in a day, he estimates.

The "California Bomber" could have dropped 10,000 gallons of water per hour on Laguna Beach's 1993 firestorm, had it been on the scene, he maintains.

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But Wells appears to have some more selling ahead of him.

Los Angeles County supervisors politely said they would like to see how the big-bellied bomber does before considering whether to sign on.

Joel Bellman, press deputy for Los Angeles Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said the supervisor's office referred Wells' company's proposal to the county fire chief.

"The Superscooper has been tested for several fire seasons," Bellman said.

And Capt. Brian Stephens of the Orange County Fire Authority said that helicopters are favored over other aircraft.

"All [the seaplane] is going to be capable of doing is dropping water on a fire," said Stephens. "[The helicopter's] just a more valuable resource for the fire department than a fixed-wing aircraft."

A helicopter, he added, also can be used to transport ground crews to remote areas and perform medical evacuations.

Scott Brown, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority, said the authority's Air Operations Bureau already has two helicopters and contracts with state and federal agencies to provide more aircraft when needed.

Wells counters that the "California Bomber" carries more water (1,000 gallons at a time) and goes faster (135 knots cruising speed) than helicopters. And he's optimistic and sooner or later, fire officials will see it his way.

"We're out there, we're taking a gamble and my gut feeling is it will work out," he said.

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