Commercial jet being converted to use for fire tanker duty
Nevada Appeal News Service
MINDEN-A British Aerospace 146 commercial jet is being converted to a fire tanker at Minden-Tahoe Airport. Owner Leonard Parker expects the plane to transport 25 percent more fire retardant and deliver it twice as fast as conventional fire tankers.
“Time is critical when fires are bearing down on homes in outlying areas,” he said. “When compared to the SEAT (single-engine air tanker) planes used around here, this plane will deliver five times the retardant load, three times faster.”
Parker spoke Tuesday from the hull of his four-engine jet, which is being converted from a passenger plane to one that will carry 3,500 pounds of firefighting retardant. Once the controls are set, pilots will be able to drop the retardant from the bottom of the fuselage.
The plane was built in Great Britain in 1986 and, Parker said, he is “very optimistic” about its potential as a fire tanker. In addition to short takeoff and landing capabilities, it has one of the best safety records around.
A series of fire tanker accidents, including those that took the lives of Minden pilots Steve Wass and Brian Bruns in recent years, have forced officials to reconsider the types of planes used in the air tanker business. Not only do older planes have inferior engineering, they are increasingly difficult to support because it’s hard to acquire the parts needed to maintain them, Parker said.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, since the early 1970s. Back then, we’d pay $25,000 for a plane,” he said. “The big thing with the newer planes is reliability.”
The change means Parker has about eight older planes stored in Arizona that he will never convert to fire tankers.
Parker would not say what he paid for the plane, which he purchased from a freight and regional air service named Air Wisconsin Corp. He has a working agreement with British Aerospace and is spending several million dollars for the conversion alone, he said.
“We think this the answer. We’re betting our company on it,” he recently told a group of local businessmen. “We expect to have this plane in the air in time for next fire season and a couple more by the end of that season.”
Right now, only three companies in the United States convert planes to fire tankers, which are ultimately leased to the Forest Service for about three to five years per lease. The planes aren’t assigned to a specific base, but moved around the country for 100 to 180 days per assignment, Parker said.
With the increase in wildfires across the nation, business is picking up, he said.
“When I started in this business, 100 hours of firefighting was considered a normal season,” he said. “Now, we’re fighting fires for 400 to 500 hours a season, and no one sees it getting better anytime soon.”
A native Nevadan, Parker has been in and around aviation all his life. He said this business is not dangerous, but it is unforgiving.
“Those of us who have made bad mistakes have paid for it. That’s why we’re all older,” he said. “Pilots have to be focused, know what they’re doing and stay within their own limitations as well as the limitations of their aircraft.”
• Contact reporter Susie Vasquez at email@example.com or 782-5121, ext. 211.
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