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Company wants to test Russian wildfire plane in Idaho

Company wants to test Russian wildfire plane in Idaho
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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A private company aims to test an amphibious Russian firefighting jet in Idaho this summer, hoping an up-close comparison with the U.S. government's existing fleet of tankers helps it eventually win lucrative federal contracts to fight wildfires.

David Baskett, president of California-based International Emergency Services, secured a letter from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter inviting him to bring a twin jet Beriev Be-200 from Russia to Boise for a trial run.

But Baskett faces steep hurdles, including winning Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly American skies as well as acceptance from agencies like the U.S. Forest Service who say the Russian plane so far has passed none of the requisite safety tests to allow it to be used in the United States. Among other things, it lacks an FAA airworthiness certificate and has no certified maintenance program to ensure the planes can handle structural loads encountered while fighting a wildfire.

"The Be-200 currently does not meet any of these requirements," said Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which oversees U.S. wildfire fighting efforts.

By bringing one of the Russian Be-200s to Idaho, however, Baskett hopes a demonstration in front of Otter in Boise helps convince Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management leaders to take a closer look at a faster, modern aircraft designed specifically to attack wildfires that now cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion annually to suppress.

The Be-200 can fly about 400 mph and suck 3,500 gallons of water from a lake within seconds, potentially allowing it to respond more quickly to fires than planes that drop water or retardant but then must land and be re-filled, he said.

"My personal belief, this is the best airplane known to do the job," Baskett said Monday. "I look forward to seeing a fleet of aircraft here, working for the various fire agencies and doing a better job."

In a letter last month, Otter told Baskett he wants to watch the Be-200 in action.

"This sounds like a special aircraft, and I would welcome your visit to Idaho," Otter wrote Baskett on June 10. "Firefighting in Idaho is a significant and ongoing priority, and we need to examine all options for addressing this challenge.

Otter added any visit should be preceded by FAA sign-off and coordinated with the National Interagency Fire Center.

In April 2012, Forest Service aviation specialists from California's San Dimas Technology and Development Center did travel to Russia, on a company-financed trip to evaluate the Be-200 planes that have been used to fight fires in Italy, Portugal, Greece and Indonesia.

Still, the jet wasn't among the winners this past May when Forest Service announced plans to spend $160 million over the next five years to help modernize its contract fleet with faster, bigger tankers, including a DC-10 jumbo jet that carries about five times as much flame-resistant liquid as any aircraft in regular use.

The agency has so far been reluctant to employ more scoopers, despite a Forest Service-commissioned study from the RAND Corp. think tank released last year that recommended switching to water-scooping planes like those commonly used by Canadian firefighting agencies.

Last July, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell rejected RAND's recommendation, questioning its conclusion such a change could save millions of dollars annually.

At the time, Tidwell said his agency would consider substituting a few water scoopers for water-dropping helicopters, but that retardant-dropping air tankers would remain the mainstay because they were effective and potentially safer for pilots because they fly at higher altitudes above the burning trees.

The Forest Service said it does have three water-scooping aircraft available for the 2013 fire season, though their tank capacity is less than half that of the Be-200 and they fly at roughly half the speed.

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