Calif. Procures Air Supertanker to Fight Fires

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Faced with huge wildfires, California officials are using big tools to fight them, including a DC-10 jet airliner. The big plane that once carried passengers now hauls four times as much retardant as the largest air tanker. But some say flying heavily loaded jumbo jets at low altitudes is too risky.


Here in California, the driest year on record has officials on high alert for wild fires. A DC-10 airliner has been converted into a firefighting supertanker. But last week, it had an accident that raised concerns about using jumbo jets for this kind of work.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: A retardant drop from an ordinary air tanker is a pretty amazing thing to see. A flood of red liquid pours out of the plane as it flies over a flaming forest. The DC-10 is all the more extraordinary because it dumps four times as much retardant as the largest air tanker now.

Unidentified Man: Want to start just prior to the deepest part of the terrain, and near 4,400.

BRADY: This video of YouTube is all you'll see of the DC-10 supertanker right now because it's grounded. That after an incident late last month, when the jet was dropping retardant on the white fire in Southern California.

Rick Hatton is with 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that owns the plane. He says it was just about to clear a ridge when some sort of air disturbance caused the left wing to drop.

Mr. RICK HATTON (Managing Partner, 10 Tanker Air Carrier): We'll probably never know exactly why, but that's what happens in mountain flying. And so rather than clearing the ridge by a couple of hundred feet, which is the plan, the airplane had sort of slid in to its left wing a bit.

BRADY: And it clipped the top of several trees. The pilot straightened the jet and powered up in time to recover, but there was damage to the wing, and now it'll take a few weeks to repair. The state agency that has the plane under contract is called Cal Fire. Mike Padilla is the chief of aviation.

Mr. MIKE PADILLA (Chief of Aviation, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection): You know, we've had air tankers hit trees before. And it's not an unusual occurrence. But when you have an aircraft this large and this visible, and it's new to the industry, we want to know everything about it and not, you know, obviously, have it happen again.

BRADY: While California has embraced the supertanker, the federal government has not, even though it owns much of the wild lands in the West. Red tape has been part of the delay. Also, there's been a series of crashes in recent years involving smaller, older air tankers. The National Transportation Safety Board directed the Forest Service to take a more active role in making sure air tankers are safe. Before, that responsibility was left up to the contractor. Rose Davis is with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Ms. ROSE DAVIS (Public Affairs Officer, National Interagency Fire Center): The issue is the safety of these aircraft and the fact that the NTSB has told the Forest Service that we're responsible for their airworthiness. We are not an aeronautical engineering company.

BRADY: The Forest Service is working with such a company now, but developing the policies for certifying the supertankers is taking longer than potential contractors would like.

10 Tanker Air Carrier says it's continuing to gather data about its DC-10. Another company, Evergreen Aviation, has a 747 that can carry even more fire retardant, but it's not under contract and the company has taken it off fire duty and put it back into cargo service.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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