Fighting fire with 747s

PHOTO/Courtesy Evergreen International
For the last few summers everything surrounding wildland fires in the United States has been big. The tens of millions of acres burned and thousands of homes destroyed has meant big news and even bigger costs. As the scale of the burns’ devastation and price tags increase, Evergreen International is proposing to bring a bigger gun to the fire-fighting arsenal.

Representatives from Evergreen introduced that new weapon to the Anchorage Air Cargo Association Feb. 24 - Feb. 29 as they delivered a presentation on the company’s Supertaker, a Boeing 747 equipped to drop 24,000 gallons of retardant. According to Christina Wallace, director of sales for Evergreen, the largest tanker plane currently in use, the C-130, has a maximum capacity of 5,500 gallons and is limited to carrying 5,000 gallons. The state Division of Forestry’s planes, DC-6s, can drop a maximum of 3,000 gallons.

Evergreen has so far converted one 747 to a Supertanker which achieved its first flight on Feb. 19, according to Evergreen corporate writer Justin Marchand. Evergreen is hoping to have the Supertanker ready for use by this summer.

At first glance, the Supertanker seems to fly in the face of conventional aerial fire fighting. While the DC-6 drops at 150 feet, the Supertanker 747 would fly 400 to 800 feet over a fire. Although Evergreen officials say the Supertanker could fly lower, what’s inside the 747 will allow it remain at a safer altitude. Pressurized tanks in the Supertanker mean less reliance on gravity alone to get the retardant to the fire. With the ability to control droplet size and the rate it falls, Evergreen maintains that the Supertanker will be able to fly higher, increasing safety.

The Supertanker has a drop speed of 140 knots compared to the 120 knots at which the DC-6 drops.

The Supertanker will also allow on-board mixing of retardant or chemicals in flight. Evergreen touts its ability to cover large response distances and its loiter time over a drop site of over three hours. But it’s the obvious difference of the Supertanker that attracts the most attention - its size. With the ability to carry five to eight times the current maximum capacity of air tankers, the Supertanker’s drop would be able to cover almost five miles on the ground. The new tanker would also be able to disperse its load in segmented drops.

But for Joe Stam, fire program manager for the state Division of Forestry, bigger does not always equate to better. Even with a capacity that is eight times larger than the division’s current tankers, Stam said he is not sure if the Supertanker is the right size for his department.

"I don’t know if we would use it for an initial attack," Stam said. "On an initial attack, hopefully we’re dropping retardant on a fire when it’s a controllable size, one acre or two acres."

Stam said the division’s use of tankers is basically limited to an initial attack, and the DC-6 handles the job well. But Evergreen stresses that agencies should not scrap their current aerial fleet in favor of the Supertanker. Rather, the company is promoting its new technology as a fresh approach to fighting wildland fires.

"We’re not replacing anything in the market, we’re just adding another tool to the tool belt," Evergreen’s Wallace told the Air Cargo Association.

However, Stam said the runways currently used for the division’s tankers in locations such as Kenai, McGrath and near Tok are too short to handle a 747. The Supertanker needs 8,000 feet of runway. Stam also fears such new technology could come with a hefty price tag.

As of yet, Evergreen isn’t letting any numbers slip on either the cost of converting the 747 or of contracting out the use of the Supertanker. Marchand said that since the Supertanker is still in the concept phase, a final production cost has yet to be established. While Evergreen has Web pages, promotional brochures and CD-ROMs devoted to the Supertanker, the company has held off on a full unveiling of the program to the media until low-level test drops are under way, Marchand said.

Stam said he has been aware of the Supertanker for about a year, hearing about it first in relation to Homeland Security and then later as a tool for fighting fires. Though wary of its practicality for his department, Stam said is willing to give the Supertanker a closer inspection.

"The state’s always interested in new technology; we’ll take a look at it," he said.

If Evergreen is labeling the Supertanker as a tool, then they are marketing it as the Swiss Army knife of emergency response. From dropping retardant on fires and containing oil spills to responding to chemical attacks and hydro seeding, Evergreen sees its tanker as a revolutionary approach to a multitude of needs.

Evergreen marketing director Greg Thies highlighted the possibility of the Supertanker as a response tool for oil spills. With Alaska’s abundant coastline and busy oil industry, Thies sees a perfect match.

"We have 30,000 miles of unprotected coastline; where else are you going to find that needs (the Supertanker) more?" Thies asked.

John Bauer, an environmental specialist and manager of the preparedness section for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said his department has received and is reviewing information on the Supertanker.

"We’re taking a look at it to see what’s all offered. We’ll use the most effective resource available," Bauer said.

Bauer said as a general rule the department does not specify any certain aircraft to be used, but will use what is most effective in addressing spills. In relation to the Supertanker in particular, Bauer said he would be interested in seeing how low and slow the 747 could fly, as well as the droplet size and drop pattern it could provide.

"It might be worthwhile for (Evergreen) to put on a demo for us. We’re certainly open," Bauer said. "I’m certain if somebody has a better tool ... we’re going to be interested in using it."

The Supertanker partly owes its creation to tragedy. The 2002 fire season saw the fatal crashes of two airtankers. The accidents, involving a Lockheed C-130A Hercules and a Consolidated Vultee PB4Y-2, prompted the U.S. Department of Interior to issue an official Request for Information in regard to replacing or modernizing airtankers.

Evergreen responded with the creation of the Supertanker, designed as an answer to an aging fleet of military surplus planes, representing a new approach to fighting wildland fires, as well as other emergency response needs.

03/14/2004 - 8:00pm