Be-200: Worthy Contender In Aerial Firefighting
California is once again on fire. Not an unusual sight around this time of the year. At the time of this writing, the wildfires plaguing the Ventura and Los Angeles counties endanger some 30,000 homes. In 2017 Texas had nearly 10,000 wildfires, California 9,560, North Carolina 5,125 and Georgia 3,929.
But that is only part of the story – terrible wildfires have also been experienced in Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming among many other states. In reality, millions of wildfires occur every year, all over the world.
Aerial Firefighters have proven their value time and time again and nobody really knows how many lives and homes have been saved. Aside from chemical fire retardants, water is the medium of choice when it comes to extinguishing wildfires. Lots of water. Non amphibious aircraft spend time flying to the fire before dropping their load within a matter of seconds. They then return to base for refilling which is known as the load and return principle. Approach a base, hook up the hoses, re-fill the tanks and get back to the fire. Quite a time consuming act.
The alternative we obviously are biased for, are amphibious aircraft that can scoop up water from nearby lakes or bays and rivers, and dump the water on the fire, returning for another scoop. This saves a lot of time – and time is of the essence when fighting a blaze. Aside from the Canadian built CL-415, which gets a lot of attention on Seaplanemagazine.com, there are other interesting firefighters available. Looking at the larger multi-engine platforms currently offered, the market is wide open.
The Competition Ain’t Sleeping
Shinmaywa in Japan produces a larger multipurpose aircraft that can operate as a “Scooper”, called the US-2. It is a four-engine aircraft (the same engines that are used in the US C-130) and is operated by the Japan Self-Defense Force’s (JSDF) 31st Fleet Air Wing at Iwakuni and Atsugi airbases. Four of those are currently in service, but these aircraft perform other roles including Search and Rescue and Surveillance missions, as well. The US-2 participated in Keen Sword 2017, an important joint US-Japan military exercise. The US-2 has impressed the JSDF’s American counterparts as an important military platform; as such its firefighting- role has become a bit of an added benefit.
Price of acquisition and cost of operation are a big issue in this industry. One downside of the US-2 is it is a very expensive platform when compared with others. When it was offered to India, the price was cut to US$113 million each. By way of comparison, the CL-415’s costs around $30 million and Russia’s Beriev around $40 million.
China’s AG-600 seems to be a blown up copy of the US-2. The four-engine turboprop behemoth which is somewhat larger than the US-2 supposedly carries 12 tons of water or 11,350 liters, while the US-2 is capable of carrying 7,570 liters. But China has many other plans for the AG-600, especially for protection missions for its aggressive islands program in the South China Sea, and whether it will ever serve a firefighting role is uncertain.
Russia’s Beriev Be-200 is a multipurpose amphibious aircraft designed by the Beriev Aircraft Company and manufactured in Russia by Irkut. Built for firefighting, search and rescue, maritime patrol, cargo, and passenger transport, it carries 12 tons (12,000 liters) of water in eight separate tanks – just a tiny bit more than China’s AG-600. It also has six separate tanks for chemicals which can be mixed with water. In September 2018, Seaplane Global Air Services of the USA announced having placed a ‘firm’ order with Beriev Aircraft Company (part of UAC, United Aircraft Corporation), for four Be-200ES twin-engine amphibian aircraft, plus options for six more.
The Be-200 has seen fire in Europe and Asia including Italy, Portugal, Greece, Azerbaijan, Israel and (in a search and rescue operation) in Indonesia. The plane flies at about 700km/h whereas the US-2 flies at a maximum speed of 580km/h and the CL-415 at 359km/h. The higher speed of the Be-200 (which is turbofan-powered, while the others are turboprop) shortens the time to station significantly, an important variable in a fire emergency.
Operational success spells increased acceptance of the Be-200 in the United States. Beriev is represented in the US by International Emergency Services housed at the Santa Maria airport in California. The company has been working with California authorities and the Federal Aviation Administration to get the plane certified in the United States. The aircraft already has EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) certification, which should make the path to FAA approval fairly simple.
In the United States the responsibilities for firefighting are primarily in the hands of state and local authorities and the Federal Government through the US Forest Service and its Office of Wildland Fire. The US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management owns, leases, or contracts for nearly 1,000 aircraft each fire season, with annual expenditures in excess of $250 million in recent years.
Seaplanemagazine.com is working hard to attend the 2019 Aerial Firefighting Europe exhibition from March 19-20 in Nîmes, France next year. The cost of attendance for our small team would easily exceed € 2,800 Euros. We are actively looking for sponsors to feature this event. The goal here is to keep the very popular topic of Aerial Firefighting with amphibious aircraft as part of our future editorial coverage.