Air tankers in all shapes and sizes are invaluable in dousing blazes around the globe – but their niche role is increasingly being usurped by multipurpose aircraft

There is a long list of airframes in use somewhere in the world for aerial firefighting duties. They range from the 1940s vintage Martin Mars flying boat, operating with Flying Tankers in British Colombia in western Canada, to Irkut's jet-powered Beriev Be-200 amphibian, which is only just beginning its first full firefighting season in Russia.

The Be-200 is one of a handful of new-build airframes competing for new orders in this niche market. There are a further handful of modern airframes set for possible conversion to firefighters, some with a reasonable chance of making the transition, and yet another list of no-hopers where a conversion scheme is fanciful.

The world's primary firefighter manufacturers – long-established Bombardier with its 215/415 range and new entrant Irkut and its Be-200 – have conservative sales forecasts for their products. The Russian manufacturer's strategy is to develop its baseline twinjet amphibian so that it can be adapted for cargo, search and rescue (SAR), passenger and VIP transport, in addition to firefighting, says Be-200 programme director Alexander Kuleshov. Across these sectors, over the next 20 years, Irkut estimates the total market at 300 aircraft.

Bombardier sees a similar picture. "There is still a market for firefighting aircraft, but we see it getting folded into the broader area of multipurpose aircraft," says Stephane Leroy, marketing director, amphibious aircraft at Bombardier. Over the next five years, the Canadian manufacturer estimates 40-45 new firefighter sales worldwide.

Fixed-wing aerial firefighters are predominantly active in France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Russia in Europe, while there are also large fleets in the USA and Canada. Rotary firefighting fleets are busy in Australia and the USA (see box stories). While many are convinced that fixed-wing aircraft play an effective role in tackling remote blazes faster than conventional land-based methods, funding is a constant problem. These specially adapted aircraft are expensive to build, costly to operate and have relatively low annual utilisation. For its part, Irkut is developing some relatively minor modifications to the Be-200, such as sensor and observation blisters for the SAR mission and a cargo loading system, to make the airframe more useful.

By the end of May, there will be three Be-200s operating with Russia's ministry of emergencies ready for the country's firefighting season, says Kuleshov. One will be based in Khabarovsk in the far east of the country, with two based near Moscow. The Be-200 can carry 12t of water drawn through four retractable scoops while performing a touch-and-go landing on a lake or the sea. It drops the water in around 1s at speeds in excess of 120kt (220km/h).

The first two aircraft were delivered to the ministry in May 2004 and underwent an intensive trials and training programme to be ready for this year's fire season. Irkut will deliver up to seven Be-200s to the ministry. "The agreement is to deliver not less than one aircraft a year," says Kuleshov, with the rate dependent on state funding and crew availability. But the real prize will be overseas orders. To further its case, Irkut has been sending the Be-200 on several trials outside Russia, and has requests from South-East Asian countries and the USA for the aircraft to perform more, he says.

Last summer the Be-200 demonstrated its capabilities on the Italian island of Sardinia, as well as in Croatia. In Italy the aircraft was operated by Sorem, the official firefighting operator for the country's civil protection department. During the 40-day evaluation it flew for nearly 90h, performed 255 scoops from lakes and the sea and dropped 1,820t of water with 100% dispatch reliability, says Kuleshov. The Be-200 took part in suppressing three fires in September, working alongside Sorem's Bombardier 415s and Erickson Air-Crane helicopters, with each one put out in less than 2h. "Sorem pilots highlighted aircraft manoeuvrability and controllability achieved due to the fly-by-wire system – we even managed to scoop water from small-area lakes," says Andrea Golfera, Sorem's Be-200 flight-test programme manager.

Trial lease

After the trials, Sorem and Irkut signed a letter of intent for the Italian operator to lease a Be-200 – most likely one of the prototypes – for a 90-day or more trial this summer, says Kuleshov. It will operate with a mixed Italian and Russian crew, as in 2004, and under its Russian type certificate. Irkut hopes that these trials will lead to firm orders from the civil protection department. The book price for the Be-200 is $25 million.

Alongside the trials, Irkut is planning to obtain European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and US Federal Aviation Administration certification for the Be-200. Irkut and EADS have been co-operating on its development for four years and are negotiating a formal joint venture on the aircraft. This would see the European giant helping to market the Be-200 internationally, managing the EASA certification process and developing a product support system. The aim is for European certification by 2007, says Kuleshov.

Breaking into the North American market would be major coup for Irkut, but it has no illusions over how tough this will be. "We have to convince customers that a jet amphibian is what they are looking for," says Kuleshov. "The US market is mostly using land-based firefighting aircraft and it is not so easy to change minds and habits." Irkut is exploring the possibilities of the US market with EADS and considering a trial lease with a US operator.

More ambitiously, Irkut and EADS have been talking about re-engining the Motor Sich D-436TP-powered Be-200 with Rolls-Royce BR715s. Although this programme is not cancelled, the cost of this approach means that the partners have decided to obtain Western certification with the Russian engines first, while continuing to study the BR715 idea, says Kuleshov.

As Irkut seeks to establish a market presence for the Be-200, Bombardier's 215/415 family has built an in-service fleet of 141 aircraft since it entered operation in 1969. The original family member, the piston-engined 215, was produced until 1990. In 1986 Bombardier developed a turboprop-powered version of the aircraft, the 215T, and in the early 1990s brought out the 415 as its production firefighter. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW100 engines, the aircraft is outwardly almost identical to the 215, but does feature a modern EFIS flightdeck and a larger fire-bombing system capable of scooping 6t of water.

Today, there are 59 415s in service. The production line was halted in 2001 as orders dried up. However, Bombardier can still deliver new aircraft from a limited number of completed airframes it has in stock, and is optimistic that it may even be able to resume production soon, says Leroy. "We hope to be in a position to actually complete some aircraft and restart production in the next 12 months."

European focus

Bombardier is looking to Europe, easily its strongest market with 117 215/415s delivered over the years, and even the USA, for potential orders. Countries with large fleets, like France, Greece, Italy and Spain, may require extra aircraft or replacements for their older airframes, while Portugal is studying the purchase of three to six firefighting aircraft for the 2006 fire season. In Canada, the opportunity for Bombardier is the potential conversion of 42 piston-powered 215s to turboprops. The company has proposed a scheme where it delivers the conversion kits to the various Canadian provinces and assists them in the installation process, says Leroy.

The greatest question for the firefighting world is what happens next in the USA. A fleet of large air tankers hired by the US Forest Service for firefighting missions has been devastated by a series of crashes. Pressed by the US National Transportation Safety Board last year to certificate the airworthiness of the large air tanker fleet, the forest service instead opted to effectively ground all 33 aircraft by cancelling their contracts. By last autumn, seven aircraft were re-signed to forest service contracts after meeting airworthiness standards. Prospects for re-signing many of the remaining 26 aircraft were never high, but eroded further after a crash last month involving an air tanker crew seeking to return to active status for the forest service.

Replacing about four-fifths of the former large air tanker fleet has fallen mainly on the Bureau of Land Management, which has the federal responsibility for leasing single-engined air tankers and helitankers. State governments also have been forced to increase their share of spending on aircraft leases, with some states hiring Canadian-based airtanker companies as wildland fire season approaches.

Moving target

A long-term replacement strategy for the large air tanker fleet remains a moving target. The forest service has published a strategic plan to modernise to an all-turbine-powered airtanker fleet within a few years, but there appears to be no extra funding in the Bush adminstration's fiscal 2006 budget request to make this possible.

That has not stopped a stampede of unsolicited proposals from coming forward, ranging widely from converting retired Lockheed Electras, to converting retired Fairchild A-10s and Lockheed S-3Bs. Evergreen Aviation has been working for a year on flight tests of a converted Boeing 747, fitted with a 75,800 litre (20,000USgal) tank and a nozzle. A final series of operational assessment tests before observers from the forest service is scheduled to start at the end of May. Evergreen must not only demonstrate the aircraft's ability to accurately dispense retardant, but also satisfy financial and operational questions about the massive air tanker.

Bombardier and Irkut are cautious about the prospects of their aircraft in the USA. The price tag of $25 million for either a 415 or a Be-200 has made it a difficult market to penetrate. However, two 215s have been operated by Arizona's Aero Flite in Alaska for the past couple of years, increasing the visibility of the aircraft in the USA, says Bombardier's Leroy. A 415 is under evaluation by the US National Guard as a SAR and multipurpose aircraft.

BAe 146 examined

Another airframe being touted for a firefighting role is the BAe 146 four-engined regional jet. US firefighting operator Minden Air has evaluated the suitability of the 146 for firefighting and has the backing of BAE Systems to convert its first aircraft. The US Forest Service reviewed the aircraft during test flights in Nevada in late 2004 when a passenger version flew simulated firefighting flight profiles and performed well, says Mark Taylor, BAE Systems Regional Aircraft strategy and business development director.

Minden Air will perform the first conversion, on an ex-Air Wisconsin 146-200, by next year in time to enter revenue service during the 2006 fire season if the green light is given by the Forest Service. The US company will hold the supplemental type certificate for the conversion, but will be supported by BAE, says Taylor. It will have a water-carrying capacity of around 3t.

There could be a market for 10-12 146s in a firefighting role in the USA, believes Taylor. Although it would have to be apron-loaded, as with most firefighting aircraft in service in the USA, its faster transit speed is an advantage, he adds. The hope is that three or four 146s could be in firefighting service by the end of 2006.

Japan's ShinMaywa Industries believes market and political conditions are ripe for its long-standing goal of becoming a firefighting aircraft manufacturer. The company has been producing seaplanes since the 1960s and has been studying firefighting variants for the past 20 years.

But restrictions on the export of military aircraft and a lack of demand for firefighting aircraft within Japan have prevented ShinMaywa from entering the market. In 1976-9 ShinMaywa test flew a firefighting variant of its PS-1 anti-submarine warfare amphibian, but could not convince Japan's firefighting department to acquire it and was unable to market the aircraft overseas. In 1985 the manufacturer tested two water tanks intended for the US-1A search and rescue amphibian, but was unable to launch a proposed firefighting variant, despite interest from European customers, because of a military export ban.

Late last year, however, this ban was waived for ballistic missile defence systems and ShinMaywa is confident the government will also approve the export of the newly developed US-1A Kai once it lines up a launch customer for a proposed firefighting variant. Engineers at its Kobe plant are now working on a design for the new variant, which will feature the same two water tanks tested in 1985, offering a combined 15t of capacity. A market study completed last year determined there is global market for 200 aircraft, but ShinMaywa acknowledges convincing operators to go with a manufacturer with no experience in selling and supporting aircraft overseas will be challenge. "We have not secured a launch commitment. We're just doing advanced research. It's hard to say when it will be launched," says general manager of defence programmes Yasuo Kawanishi.



Source: Flight International