NASA evaluates "supertankers"

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The evaluation that the U.S. Forest Service commissioned NASA to do of the suitability of large jet-powered airliners to serve as air tankers concluded that they can do the job in flat or rolling terrain but not in the mountains.

Here is a excerpt from an AP article by Jeff Barnard.


Two aviation companies are trying to convince the U.S. Forest Service that converted jumbo jet airliners are a great new tool for dropping super-size plumes of pink fire retardant on wildfires, whether they are on flat ground surrounding Los Angeles or in rugged mountains.

After an initial flicker of interest, the Forest Service is being more cautious about using DC-10s and 747s to do the job now done by smaller, propeller-driven planes. Although California is using a DC-10, federal officials want to know more about both safety and cost before making any commitments.

A NASA evaluation has concluded that the jumbo jets can do the job in flat or rolling terrain, but they do not have the maneuverability to handle rugged mountains.

And a study will be done to see if the bigger bang is worth the extra bucks, or as Forest Service official Pat Norbury puts it: “Are they producing value for us besides just a great CNN shot?”

NASA will brief Forest Service officials April 7 in Boise, Idaho, on its report.

“It basically says, yes, these aircraft can be operated within the fire environment within certain restrictions,” said Norbury, national aviation operations officer for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “You can’t put them in steep, rugged terrain. They can’t turn fast enough.”


NASA spent nine months on the report of nearly 400 pages, interviewing personnel, flying the aircraft with tanker pilots, and using flight simulators.

“It was a very legitimate science-based approach,” Norbury said.

The Forest Service withdrew an earlier call for bids on a super-size air tanker, and Norbury said it has no immediate plans to issue another. It can, though, call on 10 Tanker because of the California contract.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service continues to work with 10 Tanker and Evergreen International Aviation, Inc. of McMinnville, Ore., which has a Boeing 747 Supertanker, Norbury said.

Photo: 747, by Evergreen Aviation

“We’ve put five years and $50 million dollars into this program,” said Jim Baynes, Evergreen sales manager. “Let’s get the thing out there and see what it can do.”

Evergreen is eager to use the 747 for other projects, as well, such as dispersing oil spills.

Cal Fire is in the third year of a $15 million contract with 10 Tanker to provide exclusive use of its airplane, which also gets $5,500 for each hour it flies. A second plane is on call.

Cal Fire uses helicopters and smaller air tankers, the S-2T, for initial attack, which catches more than 90 percent of fires when they are still small.

But the DC-10 has been used in big fires, particularly when a long, heavy line of retardant is needed along a ridge line, said Jim Winder, battalion chief in charge of air operations on the Riverside Unit.

“Overall, it’s been positive,” he said. “It’s another tool in the toolbox.”

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One thought on “NASA evaluates "supertankers"”

  1. NASA (Forest Service) should have watched You Tube. Maybe they would have come to the correct decision.


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