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Mon, May 24, 2004

Jumbo Jet As Firefighting Tanker?

Could Be In Service By End Of July

At the onset of a wildfire season billed as perhaps worse than 2000, some big help could be on the way. Very big help.

For more than a year, Evergreen International has been converting a 747 for use as an aerial firefighting tanker. Already, the aircraft has made some 20 test drops over Arizona.

"It represents one of the most advanced pieces of firefighting equipment that's come along in a long time," said Mike Padilla. He runs aviation at the California Department of Firefighting Protection. He hopes to have the 747 in service before the end of what promises to be a long, hot summer. But the conversion still must pass inspection by the FAA.

The Evergreen conversion can carry loads of up to 20,000 gallons. Evergreen hopes it will be approved and on the fire line in time to help with the huge blazes expected this summer. But there are questions about whether a 747, built to fly high, can accurately drop fire retardant from as low as 200 feet AGL.

Further, the aircraft won't be able to fly deep into narrow canyons where fires can be most stubborn. But at a time when the Forest Service has abruptly cancelled the contracts of 33 aging tankers because of safety concerns. Although the FAA has agreed to conduct emergency inspections of the decades-old aircraft, there's still no timetable, nor definite path to getting them back into the air.

FMI: www.evergreenaviation.com

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