Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Can a 747 be reborn into a wildfire-fighting supertanker?

In the summer of 2000, Cliff Hale, a Boeing 747 pilot, was on vacation visiting his family in Albuquerque, N.M., when a drama suddenly appeared on local television. There was a big forest fire raging out of control near Los Alamos, and a World War II-era aircraft that had been converted to a tanker was being loaded with fire retardant at the Albuquerque airport. A few minutes later, Hale heard the plane flying over his house. Forty minutes later, television crews picked up the propeller-driven Douglas DC-4, a plane first launched in 1942, lumbering over Los Alamos, preparing to drop about 2,000 gallons of the gooey, red liquid over the fire. The fire was eventually put out, but this was just the beginning of the drama that soon took over Hale's career. Hale recalled in a recent interview that he was thinking that if the 747 he had just parked in New York could be converted into what pilots call a "fire bomber" -- a passenger jet converted into a tanker -- the big, wide-bodied jet could have gotten to the fire in half the time and dropped almost 10 times the amount of retardant. Old jet airliners are like old generals: They almost never die, but gently fade away into the air freight business, where their capacity, strength and speed were making the airline Hale was working for -- Evergreen International Aviation -- rich. Hale, who specialized in training its new pilots, recalled that a temporary lull in the air freight business had left a lot of used 747s sitting on the ground...more

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