U.S. Firefighters Reject Big Russian Jet

Aug. 12, 2000 -- Every few years, with the regularity of a wildfire season, the controversy flares up.

A small but vocal company tries to get a giant Russian-made airplane into the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting arsenal. The Forest Service rejects the plane. And, with the tenacity of crusaders, the plane’s advocates persist.

“If I sound like I’m fanatical, it’s because this has been a very frustrating almost five years for me,” says Tom Robinson, whose company, a Canadian-Russian-American joint venture called Global Emergency Response, has been offering the Ilyushin-76 to the U.S. government since 1994. “You meet with the various Senators and Congressmen and they think it’s a wonderful idea, and then they call the Forest Service … and that’s the end of it. We never can get to first base.”

Is Bigger Always Better?

Robinson’s company bills the Ilyushin plane, a 180-ton airborne behemoth that dumps more than three times the amount of water carried by the largest U.S. air tankers, as the largest firefighting aircraft in the world. Designed in the 1970s as a military transport jet, it has been retrofitted with two huge tanks that hold up to 10,000 gallons of water, which it can deliver in either one or two large drops.

“We’ve had contact with this aircraft since 1994,” says Ed Stone, who handles aviation for the Forest Service. “In the fires in 1994 there was intense political pressure to use it and bring it in, when we were actually holding [our own] planes down. We looked, and we didn’t care for the product.”

Stone says the pressure came from a senator, now retired, who was convinced that the retrofitted Russian plane’s size and speed would help fight fires. But no such luck, he says.

“It’s about the same size as a C-141 aircraft. If it was such a good idea, we would have tanked that puppy,” Stone says, referring to the C-141. That plane, part of the U.S. Air Force fleet, has not been called on for firefighting.

Drops Water, Not Retardant

Ilyushin-76 planes have been used to fight wildfires in Greece, and they have flown in United Nations relief and de-mining missions in the former Yugoslavia. They have also been used on wildfires in the Russian Far East, where distances are long and the terrain is relatively even.

But in the case of the American West, the Forest Service says, bigger may not be better.

“It’s a good plane, a large one, a heavy capacity plane,” says Wayne Bushnell, the Forest Service’s acting international fire specialist. “But it does have some limitations. It’s a jet, so it flies at very high speed. The tanking system which allows it to carry the water and dispense it is not a real sophisticated type system.”

The Ilyushin-76 also flies too high and too fast, Bushnell says. It requires a long runway, demands extra ground crew, and lacks the precision of a helicopter or smaller plane. And it is designed to drop foam-treated water, not the longer-term retardant that the Forest Service usually uses.

The World War II-era American prop planes in use now are actually more flexible because they can fly lower and slower than a huge jet, Forest Service officials say. Helicopters, which can fly in and drop many small layers of long-term retardant, are better still.

“We have told them repeatedly that we’re really not interested,” says Bushnell, who has fought fires in Alaska, Wyoming, and the Russian Far East. “It’s not completely useless, but the biggest problem we have as far as shortages right now is fire managers, and in particular aircraft managers. … Even if it was free, I’m relatively sure we wouldn’t consider it, at least at this time.”

Greeks Also Unimpressed

Bushnell’s objections mirrored many of the reasons why Greece has stopped using the Ilyushin plane for firefighting.

“It rarely proved useful under our conditions,” Gavriil Xanthopoulos, a fire consultant to the Greek Ministry of Public Order, wrote in an e-mail.

The plane cannot scoop sea or lake water, cannot drop retardant, and cannot land at many airports, Xanthopoulos explained.

And “when the IL-76TD drops its load from a significant height — as it cannot maneuver in the topography — and under high winds, [which are]common during large wildfires, the wind carries the droplets away.”

American Group Insists

Rebuffed so categorically, even the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, which owns 500 of the planes, seems to have given up.

“We offered the planes, but no one responded,” says Sergei Staroverov, of the agency’s international desk, which has offered to demonstrate the IL-76 at cost. “Maybe for some technical characteristics it doesn’t fit their requirements. Maybe for elevated noise? I don’t know the technical things.”

Minus the removable water tank units, which take about four hours to install, Ilyushin-76 jets are in wide commercial and military use in more than a dozen former Soviet client states. The Ministry of Emergency Situations also leases a few out for humanitarian relief missions, primarily to U.N. agencies.

But Global Emergency Response, the U.S.-based joint venture, will not leave the Forest Service alone, pursuing an aggressive campaign in Washington and in the press.

The company is still offering to bring the plane over for a free demonstration — free except for crew members’ salaries and an estimated $10,000-per-hour operating cost. (A typical Forest Service plane, which can dump about 3,000 gallons of water, costs about $3,000 per hour.)

“The Forest Service has been so arrogant in protecting its private tanker fleet,” says Robinson, a fireman’s son and former fireman who is directing the company on a volunteer basis. “I’m trying to save firefighters’ lives. That’s my angle on this. I don’t want to see firefighters getting hurt unnecessarily.”

Adds Richard Wilkens, vice president of Air Routing International and for many years part of the Ilyushin-76 promotion effort: “We just wanted a demonstration. If it didn’t do what it needed to do, then everybody would go back home and go about their business. But meanwhile they’re using pitifully small aircraft. In a lot of cases it looks like they’re pouring a glass of water on a bonfire.”

A Question of Politics?

The Forest Service now contracts with eight American companies to provide air support for its firefighting efforts, says William R. Broadwell, director of the Aerial Firefighting Industry Association.

Contractors bid against tight specifications; their planes or helicopters must be able to drop a specified amount of retardant on a specific area exactly when the ground officer tells it to.

Keeping the planes and their software up to date costs his association’s members “tens of thousands of dollars” a year, Broadwell says. “If the government can spend the money for a foreign enterprise, then they should spend that money on the U.S. industry and make us stronger.”

But Forest Service officials say they are considering several smaller Russian planes for firefighting contracts — just not, under any circumstances, the Ilyushin-76.