Canadian-made plane used to fight forest fires scouts for new uses

Canadair, the Montreal-based aircraft manufacturer, is trying to dress up an old warhorse and find new uses and new markets for it. The plane is the CL-215 water bomber, one of the few amphibious aircraft still made. Like the old flying boat, it can land and take off on water, but it also comes with wheels for the runway. It is the largest such plane built outside the Soviet Union. The water bomber has been in production since 1961, and 109 of them have been sold since then.

They are designed to put out forest fires. The plane can taxi on a lake and in 10 seconds scoop up 1,200 gallons (the actual specifications are 1,176 imperial gallons -- 1,410 US gallons or 5,347 liters) of water into its internal tanks, make a drop on the fire, and return to reload. A firefighting crew from Manitoba set a record for 31 water drops on one fire in one hour; a CL-215 in Yugoslavia made 225 water bombings in one day.

The plane has been used for low-level drops on city fires and has been refitted for crop spraying.

Canadair has in many ways saturated the market. The largest fleet is in Canada, where the federal and provincial governments own 21. They have ordered 29 more water bombers to be delivered over the next three years.

With the production line working on domestic orders, Canadair is eager to find new export markets.

But Canadair has never sold one in the United States, complaining that it can't get past the lobby of aerial firefighters who bomb fires with converted World War II bombers, DC-4s and DC-6s. ``These people have successfully prevented us from selling these bombers,'' says Anthony Guerin, Canadair vice-president in charge of water bomber sales.

So while waiting for the American market to open up, Canadair is coming up with new uses for the plane.

Venezuela uses two converted water bombers as a kind of aerial jungle truck along the Orinoco River. It carries passengers and cargo and can still be used to fight fires.

The two water tanks in the middle of the planes don't take up much space. Pilots say the unpressurized plane is not comfortable, but it does the job.

The company has designed a number of seating plans, from all-cargo to 33 shuttle seats. There is a paratrooper version, and Greece has used its water bombers to land troops on Cyprus.

But it is the jungle market the water bomber is after. Canadair has designed an amphiport to appeal to more third-world buyers. The plane lands on the water, then, using its wheels, powers up a ramp at the shoreline to a small (66-by-66-foot) platform where it can take on passengers or cargo -- cheaper and easier than building an airport in the jungle.

The Royal Thai Navy uses a converted water bomber as a naval patrol craft. Spain has eight water bombers all equipped with radar in the nose so they can double as search and rescue planes. The amphibian can land in six-foot waves and pick up survivors.

The company even has a drawing showing the water bomber launching four Exocet missiles. This slow, lumbering plane with a top speed of 190 m.p.h. would be easy pickings in the air, but the sales staff counters that it can land on the water and hide in a cove.

According to a former test pilot, the biggest problem with the CL-215 is its twin piston engines. The radial engines are an old design and need more servicing than a turboprop.

Canadair has plans to fit Pratt & Whitney turboprops on the CL-215 and hopes that will make it more salable. The turboprops are more reliable and provide more instant power, which is rather handy if you are 30 feet above a forest fire.

And the CL-215 isn't cheap. It costs between US$6.5 million and US$7.5 million, depending on the options. Its ability to use both water and runways makes it at least 20 percent more expensive than a comparable plane.

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