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Tue, Jul 17, 2007

Planemaker, Tree Grower Partner To Make Aerial Firefighting Safer

Additional Testing Planned, But Initial Results Promising

Sometimes, good ideas do grow on trees... so to speak. Boeing recently partnered with Weyerhaeuser Co. to test a new technology that will, hopefully, make aerial firefighting more effective and much safer.

It's called a Precision Container Air Delivery System (PCADS), and works aerial firefighting like a humanitarian aid airdrop, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal. Flame retardant or even water is placed into cardboard containers and dropped from a cargo plane. In midair, the containers break apart, releasing their payload.

The companies say such technology, if successful, would significantly increase the number of aircraft that could participate in aerial firefighting. It would be safer, because the aircraft could fly at higher altitudes.

The idea was devised three years ago by a Boeing advanced systems project manager and it came to him, literally, right out of the sky. William Cleary said his son dropped a water balloon on him from a deck and the accuracy was so impressive, he wondered about similar applications for aerial firefighting.

Cleary teamed with Weyerhaeuser's sales director for packaging, Rick Goddard, to develop a cardboard container able to contain liquid.

PCADS puts flame retardant or water in biodegradable bags then straps them into large biodegradable cardboard boxes. The containers are capable of holding up to 2,000 pounds of liquid.

The containers are then dropped from cargo aircraft. The wind rips off the lids when they hit the air. The lid is attached to straps wrapped around the bag and as the lid is buffeted by the wind, it tugs at the straps and bursts the bag with friction to release the liquid.

The companies conducted the latest test of the system July 9 and 10 in the desert near the town of Kingman in western Arizona. A C-123 was used at 500 feet dropping 10 containers over the dry lake bed target area. The containers burst at about 200 feet into a "a nice pattern" on the ground, Cleary said.

More testing is planned, but it is unknown when it will become commercially available.

PCADS is compatible with any type of military-style cargo plane and doesn't require modifications to the aircraft which could be significant as much of the aerial firefighting today is done with decommissioned military planes, according to the Journal.

If the system catches on, it could mean a new market for cargo planes for Boeing, and a new market for the containers for Weyerhaeuser (which, of course, also has a vested interest in keeping its supply forests safe.)

There are still a few questions to be answered -- such as, do the falling containers pose any hazards to people or animals on the ground?

"If you find Bambi konked out by a big box, we're going to have people upset about that," said Carl Bambarger, aviation program leader at the US Forest Service technology and development center. "There are some very good points to their system, but some very big drawbacks as well."

As of July 11, there were more than 50,000 fires burning in six states, according to National Incident Information Center, and more than 2.3 million acres have been burned already this year.

FMI: www.weyerhaeuser.com, www.boeing.com

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