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Forest Service resurrects firefighting air-tanker from museum

May 8, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The U.S. Forest Service is getting a big boost as California enters what's expected to be a very busy fire season. The Forest Service is getting more tools for aerial firefighting. A museum piece is getting retrofitted to become an air-tanker.

In recent years the number of air-tankers in the U.S. Forest Service fleet has dwindled from more than 40 planes across the nation a decade ago to about half that last year.

But this week the Forest Service announced a number of contracts to retrofit seven old planes for duty.

One of those planes is currently being worked on in San Bernardino.

"The current fleet is dwindling and it's aging aircraft, so this is a really big move to get to a modern fleet. I think it's the Forest Service's intention to continue to add to that fleet over the next several years as well," said Jim Messer, the Coulson Group. The Coulson Group is in charge of this retrofit.

Messer says the C-130 Hercules was built in 1981, and was most recently used by NASA. But they've had it sitting in a museum for the past decade, so they have a big job ahead of them to make sure the plane is safe to fight fire from the sky.

"Between the regulations federal and the contract, this aircraft, there's not a bolt or a rivet in it that won't have been looked at before it's back in the air again," said Messer.

It can be a painstakingly slow process.

"We use X-rays, magnetic particle, electromagnetics, ultrasound inspections to find cracks in metal parts," said James McKinney, General Electric Inspection Services.

One of the main changes they're making to get this aircraft fire-ready will be to install a 3,500-gallon tank in the bay.

"It's a 200-inch gash through the belly of the aircraft, so there's a lot of structural work to put the permanent provision in the aircraft," said Messer.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a statement: "We are moving ahead to modernize our fleet as part of our overall strategy to secure the best, safest airtankers available for fighting wildfires across the country in the years to come."

The current plane should be ready by July. It's expected to first serve in the skies over California.


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