Since first taking off in 1969, Boeing 747s have carried 3.6 billion people and flown the equivalent of 74,000 round trips to the moon. The familiar jumbo jets serve the president...

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Since first taking off in 1969, Boeing 747s have carried 3.6 billion people and flown the equivalent of 74,000 round trips to the moon.

The familiar jumbo jets serve the president as Air Force One and piggyback the space shuttle on cross-country flights. The military is even outfitting one with a laser to track and destroy enemy missiles.

Now, federal officials are exploring whether the venerable humpbacked jet should perform still another task: putting out really big fires.

McMinnville, Ore.-based Evergreen International Aviation has spent an estimated $10 million to convert one of its 747s into a giant airborne water tank. Using a system of nozzles under the plane’s belly, the craft can spray a stream of water or chemical retardant up to five miles long.

“This plane can create its own rainstorm. It could be a major tool for fighting wildfires,” said Penn Stohr, director of flight operations for the aviation-services company, which in March and April conducted demonstrations for federal and state firefighting officials in the Arizona desert.

Company officials say the aerial supertanker has other possible uses, including dispersing major oil spills and decontaminating areas hit by biochemical attacks. (A somewhat jarring photo simulation on the company’s Web site depicts four of the supertankers spraying decontaminants over mid-Manhattan.)

Supertanker stats

$10 million
Estimated cost of converting Evergreen’s 747 into an airborne firefighter

24,000 gallons
Amount of water the supertanker can hold (compared with other firefighting planes’ 1,200 to 3,000 gallons)

$20,000 an hour
What federal officials estimate it would cost to operate the supertanker. Evergreen, which wouldn’t supply an estimate, says that figure is too high (other firefighting planes, with a tenth of the capacity, cost about $3,000 an hour to operate)

No matter how the converted 747s might be used, they wouldn’t come cheap — costing on the order of $20,000 an hour or more to operate, some federal officials estimate. That’s one reason, they say, firefighting and Homeland Security officials have not raced to sign contracts with the company.

Another consideration is whether the giant planes could fly low and slow enough to be effective against the kinds of fires that have raged across the West in recent years — charring 60 million acres in the last decade, an area the size of Oregon, according to the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center.

Firefighting buzz

Visionary or crackpot, the idea has sparked interest in the firefighting world. And Evergreen’s bid comes at a time when federal agencies are reviewing their aerial-firefighting strategies, with an eye toward modernizing fleets.

Citing safety concerns, the U.S. Forest Service in May grounded the 33 largest tankers in its fleet, some of which were former military craft built in the late 1940s. Two of the planes crashed in 2002 when their wings fell off due to metal fatigue; five crew members were killed.

After safety checks, officials rescinded the grounding of 11 of the planes, nine of which were former Navy P-3 Orions capable of holding 3,000 gallons of water or chemical retardant.

Those planes are used with state fleets, such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s 23 air tankers — S-2T turboprop planes, which can hold about 1,200 gallons each.

Evergreen’s 747 can hold up to 24,000 gallons, a major selling point in the eyes of its proponents, who include Rep. Rick Renzi , R-Ariz., a member of the House Resources Committee.

Renzi said the jumbo tanker represented “the most advanced firefighting technology in the world today.”

Renzi’s district includes the airfield where Evergreen, a 44-year-old company with a history of military and other federal contracts, did the conversion work on its 747-200. The plane was built in 1979 and purchased by Evergreen 10 years ago.

Evergreen has designed the plane to be converted from a freighter to a tanker and back again, with the switchover taking about a day to complete.

Now a freighter

Right now, the plane is in use as a freighter, ferrying military supplies from the United States to bases in Europe and the Middle East. It then heads to Hong Kong, where it picks up Asian-made products for export to the United States.

But company officials said the plane would be back in Arizona in February for another demonstration round. In the tests last spring, the plane used about half its tank capacity and hit targets (not actual fires) from elevations of 300 to 800 feet.

Federal officials have remained noncommittal on whether the plane fits into the nation’s firefighting strategy.

“It’s too early to say,” said Dan Jiron, a Forest Service spokesman. “We want to know a lot more about the plane.”

Several firefighting officials said that from a technical standpoint, they were impressed with the work Evergreen had done on the plane. Among other things, the pressurized nozzle system allows flight operators to calibrate the force of a release, enabling them to create everything from a torrential downpour on a relatively small spot to a fine mist across a broad area.

“Potentially viable”

“They have what appears to be a potentially viable product,” said Pat Norbury, national aviation-operations officer for the fire center in Boise. “As far as the money end of it goes, it looks to be extremely expensive.”

Company officials declined to offer their own estimate of what they would charge for use of the plane. But they said the $20,000 figure cited by some federal officials was too high.

The planes now in use, with about a tenth of the capacity of a 747, cost around $3,000 an hour to operate.

Even if the plane were in use and available across the West, another concern would be how quickly it could be deployed.

Dan Lang, chief of fleet administration for the California Department of Forestry, said, “With this airplane, there’s a question of how quickly you could ever get it to the right location. Where I could see it being most effective is with really large fires, with miles and miles of open fire line. But even then, cost is definitely the main issue.”

Lang, who watched the demonstration of the supertanker in Arizona, said: “It’s a very impressive airplane, no question about it. The real limitations are the fact that it can land at a relatively few airfields and it takes a while to fill it back up.”

Some critics say the 747 is not the right plane for the job and point to a Russian model, with a 12,000-gallon capacity, in use abroad. That plane lacks a safety certification in the United States.

“With convection plumes rising from a fire, that’s a pretty abusive environment down there,” said C. William Kauffman, a professor at the University of Michigan. “From a technical standpoint, you want a plane that can fly low and slow and also survive sharp and evasive turns. That’s not what a 747’s designed for. It’s more of a gentle giant.”

Critics see politics

Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Oregon-based Western Fire Ecology Center, a nonprofit group that monitors fire-ecology issues, said the firefighting 747 would be a gross misuse of taxpayer money.

“One of the main functions of this would simply be, ‘Oh, film at 11!’ ” said Ingalsbee. “It’s a political show.”

Some officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Evergreen, with its history of securing federal contracts, does have some pull in Congress.

“The fact that they are investing this amount of money — that certainly tells you something,” one official said.

Stohr, Evergreen’s flight-operations director, said the plane was being designed “100 percent on speculation. We have no commitments from the Forest Service or any other users. … But we have a lot of belief in this airplane.”