by Stephen Bryen
(Originally published in Asia Times)
America is still the world’s aviation leader, but one type of aircraft that America never made is a purpose built aircraft fire fighter, even though big fires plague many areas of the United States.
Right now California is once again on fire. As this is written a fast moving wild fire is surging in Ventura and Los Angeles counties endangering some 30,000 homes.
In 2017 Texas had 9,827 wild fires, California 9,560, North Caroline 5,125 and Georgia 3,929. But that is only part of the story, terrible wild fires have been experienced in Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming among others.
It turns out that the world leaders in firefighting roughly in this order are: Canada, Russia and Japan.
Aside from aircraft that are loaded with chemical fire retardants, most fire fighting is done with water. Aircraft that are converted to carry water or chemicals need to be refilled after every dump of chemicals or water, a time consuming process. The alternative is aircraft that can scoop up water from nearby lakes or bays, even large rivers, and dump the water on the fire, returning for another scoop. This saves a lot of time, which is really important when fighting a blaze.
Canada makes the CL-415, known as the Bombardier Water Bomber which can scoop up 1,620 gallons of water and it can, if desired mix the water with a chemical retardant. It is a turboprop aircraft that was built for the single mission of firefighting and was the successor to the older and smaller CL-215. California uses both. The Canadian aircraft have been used worldwide and have been effective.
Shinmaywa in Japan produces a larger multi-purpose aircraft that can operate as a scooper, called the US-2. It is a four engine aircraft (the same engines that are used in the US C-130) and is operated by Japan’s Defense Force’s 31st Fleet Air Wing (71st Air Force, 71st Flight Squadron) at Iwakuni air base and Atsugi air base. Four are currently in service, but these aircraft perform other roles including search and rescue and surveillance missions. The US-2 participated in Keen Sword 2017, an important joint US-Japan military exercise. The US-2 has impressed its American counterparts as an important military platform; as such its firefighting role is now secondary.
One downside of the US-2 is it is a very expensive platform when compared to others. In offering the US-2 to India, the price was cut to $113 million each. By way of comparison, the CL-415 cost is $26 million and the Beriev around $20 million.
China has appeared to have copied the US-2 and carried out its maiden flight of its amphibious multi-role aircraft, the AG-600 Kunlong (Honored Dragon), a four engine turboprop which is somewhat larger than the US-2. China claims it can carry 12 tons of water or 3,000 gallons compared to the US-2 which is capable of carrying 2,000 gallons. But China has many other plans for the AG-600, especially for protection missions for its aggressive islands program in the South China Sea and whether it will ever serve a firefighting role is uncertain. In any case, it is still at the prototype stage.
Russia’s Beriev Be-200 Altair is a multipurpose amphibious aircraft designed by the Beriev Aircraft Company and manufactured in Russia by Irkut. Built for fire fighting, search and rescue, maritime patrol, cargo, and for passenger transport, it carries 12 tons (3,170 gallons) of water in eight separate tanks –more than China’s AG-600. It also has six separate tanks for chemicals that can be mixed with water. It has been used in Europe and Asia including Italy, Portugal, Greece, Azerbaijan, Israel and (in a search and rescue operation) in Indonesia. The plane flies at about 700 km an hour (435 mph) whereas the US-2 flies at a max speed of 580 km/h (360 mph) and the CL-415 at 359 km/h (223 mph). The higher speed of the Be-200 (which is turbofan powered, the others are turboprop) shortens the time to station significantly, an important variable in a fire emergency.
Despite its considerable operational success, acceptance of the BE-200 in the United States has yet to be achieved. Beriev is represented in the United States by International Emergency Services housed at the Santa Maria airport in California. The company has been working with California authorities and the FAA to get the plane certified in the United States. But as a loaner from Russia to the United States, FAA certification would not be needed initially. The aircraft already has EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) certification, clearing the path for FAA approval.
In the United States responsibilities for fire fighting are in the hands of state and local authorities and the Federal government through the US Forest Service and its office of Wildland Fire. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management own, lease, or contract for nearly 1,000 aircraft each fire season, with annual expenditures in excess of US$250 million in recent years. Many of the planes are commercial or former military aircraft that can be employed for fire fighting if they are not otherwise in use. The Forest Service also has some large aircraft including one DC-10 under exclusive use contracts but, because of budget constraints, the number is being cut from 20 aircraft to 13. In earlier years the US Forest Service had 44 large air tankers under exclusive use contracts, but after two former military aircraft crashed killing five aviators, many older aircraft were eliminated for safety reasons. Most of the leased planes are converted for firefighting and were originally passenger aircraft (except for the C-130).
Older converted planes are expensive to maintain and operate and often not in the best operating condition leading to delays, lack of availability and accidents. C-130’s have condition issues, particularly wing box cracks that can lead to catastrophic failure unless wing boxes are replaced (an expensive and time consuming enterprise). There is a famous video showing a C-130 losing its wings in a fire fighting tragedy.
Would the United States lease a Russian plane? There are two reasons for thinking it is a good idea. The first is that the Russian planes have proven to be effective operationally and the Russians are willing to lease them as a business proposition. Leasing aircraft should be permissible even under current US sanctions on Russia which are related to the Ukraine situation, Crimea annexation by Russia, U.S. election meddling by Russia and the poisoning by a nerve agent of the Skripal’s in the UK.
Leasing aircraft to deal with emergencies is certainly not an endorsement of Russia or its policies.
The second reason for considering Russian planes is practical. Saving lives and property is a goal of all fire fighting. Given the major challenges in safeguarding forest land and wild life, access to top rated fire fighting equipment is an urgent matter, more so when the price is right. As things currently stand, the Russian Beriev is one of the most cost effective alternatives out there and will help stretch both Federal and state budgets.
The Trump administration may be looking for places where some positive cooperation with Russia is possible. President Trump will be meeting President Putin of Russia at the upcoming G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires (30 November to 1 December). Here is an item that could be on the table.