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All Fired Up Over Water

As aging planes are grounded, the makers of converted jumbo jets fitted with huge tanks compete for lucrative contracts to fight blazes.

April 06, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

An aerial dogfight is shaping up over Southern California as rival millionaires duel to see who will be first to get his jumbo jet water tanker aloft to fight wildfires.

One has his hopes pegged on a converted 747 cargo aircraft. The other is banking on a retrofitted DC-10 passenger plane.

At stake are potentially lucrative government contracts to help fight brush and forest fires. The rush to get the planes in the air comes as authorities continue grounding the World War II propeller planes that for half a century have dropped water and retardant on burning hillsides and forests.

So far, Sanford Burnstein of Tulsa, Okla., has a slim lead over Delford Smith of McMinnville, Ore.

Burnstein, owner of charter aviation company Omni Air International, has sunk $15 million into converting a DC-10 into a tanker. Last week in Victorville, his plane received Federal Aviation Administration certification for water-dropping operations and is awaiting approval for firefighting use by the Interagency Airtanker Board, a federal group based in Boise, Idaho.

But Smith is close on his tail. His company, Evergreen International Aviation, has yet to receive FAA approval for the Boeing 747 he has spent $40 million modifying. But he has strong government connections: Evergreen has been known as "the CIA airline" because of its work with the federal intelligence agency.

Evergreen had been scheduled to show off the 747's water-dropping capabilities Wednesday in San Bernardino, but the demonstration was scrubbed because of problems with the high-tech water tank and pump system.

It is the water-dropping methodology that sets the two jumbo jet tankers apart.

Burnstein's DC-10 relies on gravity when it drops its water from external tanks bolted to the bottom of the plane.

Smith's 747 uses a pressurized system to shoot water from tanks nestled inside the fuselage. That allows the 747 to carry 24,000 gallons, while the DC-10 can handle 12,000 gallons.

Each is a vast improvement over the 3,000-gallon capacity of the largest aerial tankers now used by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies fighting wildfires.

The fleet of modified military aircraft is dwindling as the aging planes are grounded for safety reasons.

"There will be nine or 11 conventional tankers available this year, down from 44 that were in use a few years ago," said Dennis Lamun, aviation program manager for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Lamun, representing the Interagency's Air Tanker Board, was on hand for the DC-10 test run at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. FAA inspector Roger Brownlow, who was also present, promptly issued the plane an aerial-discharge permit similar to those required of crop dusters.

"This airplane is as maneuverable as a conventional tanker," Lamun said. "It's more nimble than it looks."

The DC-10's gravity-fed tank system released a spectacular, quarter-mile-long shower of water as the jumbo jet swooped 150-feet above the airport's runway at 167 mph.

Rick Hatton, 63, a former Marine combat fighter pilot from Redwood City who runs a cargo plane conversion company, is a partner with Burnstein in the tanker project. He said they envision placing five tankers across the country so that one is within an hour's flying time of any large wildfire. During the winter months in Southern California, the planes could be stationed in Australia for that country's brush fire season.

Burnstein, 72, contributed the 31-year-old former American Airlines passenger jet. It carried 285 passengers for American and later 380 for mainland-to-Hawaii charter flights flown by Omni.

The three-compartment tank bolted to the plane's underbelly is about 15 inches above the tarmac when the DC-10 is fully loaded with 50 tons of water. Three fire hoses can fill the tanks in about eight minutes. The plane's crew controls the release of water to give firefighters on the ground one drenching deluge or a rain-like shower.

"The maneuverability of this airplane is very good, and there's a sufficient supply of DC-10s that can be converted," Hatton said.

But used DC-10s sell for millions of dollars. And flying them is expensive, Hatton acknowledged. The Victorville demonstration -- which consisted of two 10-mile loops around the airport in addition to its lone water-drop run -- cost more than $10,000, he said.

Evergreen officials said the 747 demonstration would be rescheduled when "the one little system issue" is fixed. They were unaware of the DC-10 system's FAA approval.

The 747 is one of 15 jumbo jets owned by Evergreen Aviation. Spokeswoman Jordan Shultz said the tank system is designed to be removable so the plane can be returned to carrying cargo during winter months.

The pressurized tanks can drop fire retardant as well as water from between 400 and 800 feet at a speed of 161 mph. They can also spray chemicals for oil-spill containment and "biochemical decontamination" in the event of a terrorist attack, the company said.

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