US takes a pass on a Soviet-era firefighting plane


When it first thundered into the sky in March 1971, the massive Ilyushin-76 cargo jet gave the Soviet Union the chance to rapidly deploy great numbers of men and munitions against the enemy, namely the United States and its allies.

Now, with the cold war over, Russia has offered its workhorse IL-76 to America to fight a growing common threat: forest fires. In the late 1980s, the plane's designers developed a system of huge removable tanks that allow the IL-76 to deluge wildfires with much more water than can any other aircraft used anywhere in the world.

A deal with the US would seem a perfect fit. American authorities spend millions battling wildfires. The Russians, for their part, could earn badly needed hard currency through US government contracts and could help the West rather than merely receive its charity.

But so far, the Russian plane remains in Russia, its potential use in the US stymied by controversy. The US Forest Service has declined to test the plane, calling it ineffective. That has frustrated the big plane's backers.

"All we ask of the Forest Service is that they test it for a year. What do they have to lose?" says Tom Robinson, a firefighter and the volunteer international liaison for EMERCOM, the Russian emergency situations ministry. "It would be just one more weapon in their arsenal against fires."

In fiscal 1998, the US Forest Service spent $262 million fighting fires. In Brazil, an area the size of Belgium was destroyed by flames. In Mexico, more than 1 million acres burned. Russia's Far East lost 2.9 million acres to wildfires.

The Russian IL-76 was used with some success in the Far East fires, though the situation was out of control by the time the plane arrived. The jet can drop about 11,000 gallons of water or retardant over a length of more than a half-mile in about nine seconds. The largest air tankers the US Forest Service uses can drop up to 3,000 gallons. But the agency maintains that the issue is not simply volume.

"A 10,000-gallon plane is just too big," insists Pat Kelly, the assistant director of fire and aviation management at the US Forest Service.

The Forest Service evaluated the IL-76 in late 1994, observing it at an air show and talking to its crew. It determined "that it has so many significant detriments that we've never gotten to the point of getting a serious technical assessment of the aircraft," Mr. Kelly says.

The size of the plane, Kelly says, prevents it from diving into canyons or doing downhill drops without risking a crash, and many of America's wildland fires occur in mountainous areas. The Forest Service also says there aren't enough airports near traditionally fire-prone areas that could handle such a large plane.

The IL-76 isn't ideal for all fires, its backers agree. But they point out it could have made a sizable difference in the Florida fires this year, where the terrain is flat, or in rolling hills.

When wildfires first break out, the small craft the Forest Service uses are often enough to do the job. The problem is when fires reach a vast scale, or when grass and timber are especially dry, as they have been in recent summers. Then, smaller planes and helicopters can't halt the damage, firefighters say.

This summer, Greece endured some of the world's worst wildfires in a century. In August, the government asked Russia for help. Gen. Demetrios Lavrentakis, the head of the Interior Ministry's Civil Protection arm, concurred that the mammoth plane isn't at its best in steep mountainous areas. But he noted that Greece was satisfied with the IL-76's work. "Wherever there was an emergency situation, it went," he says, "and wherever it went, it was very effective."

Many US firefighters wish the Forest Service would consider aircraft other than the planes it now uses. Most date from World War II or the Korean War. The small planes are vulnerable to the swirling winds above fires.

"I spent a lot of time talking to the EMERCOM crew about the [IL-76] when they were here," said Jim Harrison, Santa Barbara County, Calif., fire battalion chief, after hosting a visit by the Russians earlier this year. "Even if the plane's [only] half as good as they say it is, I'd have it here this year."

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