Service Aerien Gouvernemental, Quebec's helping hand to the world

Using water bombers, Challenger jets, Bell helos and a Dash 8 TP, SAG suppresses forest fires, combats crime and saves lives.

Supersized tankers

Since fires occur in a wide range of environments, no aircraft can be considered the perfect match for every conceivable firefighting scenario. For this reason a number of companies are producing firefighting aircraft for niche applications.

In this arena, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the quantity of retardant available per sortie has a quality all its own-a reality that has given rise to a new generation of large firefighting aircraft.

Of the most recent arrivals, the big daddy of them all is undoubtedly the Supertanker, a converted Boeing 747 offered by Evergreen Aviation of McMinnville OR.

Supertanker is able to carry up to 24,000 gal of fire retardant-the equivalent of 7 times the drop capacity of the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in use today-the Lockheed P3.

Unlike most air tankers, which must fly at 200 ft or below to best employ their gravity drop systems, Supertanker launches its payload under high pressure, allowing operation at 400-800 ft.

At these higher altitudes, drops may be performed at night, when wildland fires enter a level of dormancy and are easier to fight.

The aircraft's entire tank capacity may be dispensed in one pass-what Evergreen calls "overwhelming response"-or it may be parceled out in a series of segmented drops spread over multiple sorties.

Even with 24,000 gal of water, slurry, foam or gel aboard, Supertanker is still 150,000 lbs below MTOW, and all firefighting missions are conducted well within the aircraft's normal flight envelope, according to Evergreen.

Retardant drops are conducted in wheels-up landing configuration at around 140 kts, providing a 30% cushion over the 747's stall speed.

To keep the aircraft within its prescribed G-load limitations, its retardant delivery system is calibrated to prevent a sudden surge of destructive forces against the airframe-a problem facing the current generation of air tankers.

And, like all 747s, Supertanker is pressurized, allowing it to fly at a jet airliner's altitudes and airspeeds to reach fires around the US-and overseas-quickly.

In operation, though, Supertanker would likely forward deploy to the 8000-ft runway nearest to the fire. Loading of the pressurized tank system can be performed in as little as 20 minutes, assuming the required ground support infrastructure is in place.

While Supertanker is unlikely to fall into the low-cost category, Evergreen is adamant that the fire threat justifies a significant investment.

According to the company, had the aircraft been available to fight 7 catastrophic wildland fires that destroyed more than 6.9 million acres in 2002, it might have saved the US government more than $100 million in suppression and rehabilitation costs alone.

Supertanker isn't for sale-rather, Evergreen plans to offer a turnkey service, most likely to the US federal government. "Our next phase is to go operational and collect the data we need in order to gain full approval," says Dir of Sales and Marketing Jim Baynes.

Hot choppers If the Supertanker spirit exists in the rotary-winged world, it's probably in the form of the Erickson Aircrane, a development of the Sikorsky S64/CH54 Skycrane-one of the largest and most powerful helicopters ever produced.

Erickson owns the type certificate for the Skycrane and its current production model incorporates more than 300 design changes and improvements.

Powered by twin P&W turboshafts producing 9600 shp, Aircrane has a 25,000-lb load capacity and features an aft-facing pilot station, allowing an unobstructed view of the load during delicate hover and placement operations.

The latest firefighting variant of Aircrane features a 2650-gal tank that gives it a retardant capacity similar to that of fixed-wing air tankers. In operation, the pilot may select among 8 coverage levels, which may employ water, foam/water mix or chemical retardant.

The tank can be refilled in just 40 sec using a flexible snorkel, from lakes as shallow as 18 inches. Erickson recently debuted a new water cannon for Aircrane, seeing it as a precise way to attack fires in high-rise buildings.

The cannon shoots more than 160 ft, drawing 300 gpm for a constant stream lasting up to 8 min. The cannon can also be used to dispense foam on structures near a fire to prevent ignition.

Once the smoke clears, Aircrane can then be used to dispense Hydro-mulch, an application that prevents erosion and jumpstarts forest regrowth.

In addition to building and operating its own fleet of Aircranes, the company is marketing them to other customers, including foreign firefighting services.

Its biggest deal to date has been with Italy's State Forestry Corps, which signed a $92-million sales agreement for 4 Aircranes (with options on 2 more), fully outfitted with the latest firefighting gear, electronic flight information systems and upgraded automatic flight control (autopilot) systems.

For operators not needing the Air_crane's massive load-carrying ability, Connecticut-based helicopter manufacturer Kaman is marketing a helitanker version of its nonetheless huge K-Max utility helicopter, a slingload specialist in wide use in logging industry support.

Equipped with a new 700-gal fixed tank system developed by KAWAK Aviation Technologies, the FireMax is aimed squarely at big-budget urban firefighting agencies needing "high and hot" performance and rapid response.

Kaman plans to develop its own specialized water cannon for FireMax, designed to shoot water directly from the front of the helicopter into high-rises, other tall structures or private homes. -Paul Richfield

Philippe Cauchi is a freelance writer, media relations specialist and analyst based in Montreal QC, Canada. He is also in charge of developing media contacts on behalf of Paris-based charter operator VallJet.



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