A Santa Maria-based business partnership is hoping a Russian-designed firefighting aircraft will land new jobs and spark a boom in the local aviation industry.
Santa Maria aviation transportation leaders plan to fly to Moscow next month to ink the deal that could lead to hundreds of aircraft support and construction jobs in the long term and many construction jobs in the short term.
David Baskett, of IES (International Emergency Services), and Jim Bagnard, with Seaplane Global Air Services, recently described the ambitious aviation plan.
IES and Seaplane Global are two thirds of a partnership that plans to start building, servicing and marketing the Russian-designed Beriev (Be) 200 in the U.S.
Large airplane builder Airbus completes the enterprise.
The Be-200 is a water scooping firefighting aircraft that has a wingspan of 108 feet, a flight range of 2,051 miles, a top speed of 435 miles per hour and weighs more than 60,000 pounds.
“The Be-200 is only the second aircraft to be designed and put into production that can scoop up liquid, wherever liquid is, and drop it wherever liquid needs to be put,” Baskett said. “Everything out there flying has been converted from something else. Converting from something else means it is not optimized for that.”
“It’s amphibious. It’s built for firefighting. It is the machine that really ought to be out there fighting fires,” Bagnard said.
Baskett and his IES first learned about the aircraft about a decade ago.
“A Russian engineer walked into my office here in Santa Maria and asked if I knew anything about the Beriev Be-200,” Baskett said.
Baskett was intrigued by the design and the plane’s capabilities and traveled to Russia multiple times to see the Be-200 in action.
“Russia has vast forests and not many people in the forests. When Siberia is burning they had to build something to get water there,” Baskett said.
The Be-200 has been in service fighting fires in Russia and Europe.
“The advantage of water scooping is that if the water is fairly close to the fire you can end up doing more operations per hour, putting more and more water on the fire than if you have to go to a fixed base and land and get pumped full of water or retardant,” Bagnard said. “Your turnaround time is much faster. Your per hour volume of water, on a gallon basis or a per pound basis, on a fire is higher.”
The Be-200 is also equipped with tanks to drop fire retardant chemicals or a mix of water and the chemicals.
“The more tools you have the better off you are going to be,” Bagnard said.
Bagnard has flown many different kinds of aircraft in his more than four-decade career in the air, including fire fighting missions.
“Historically, aerial firefighting aircraft have been mostly military aircraft or commercial aircraft. More and more commercial aircraft that have been repurposed, they were never designed to used for aerial firefighting in the first place. It is very stressful on airplanes,” Bagnard said.
He added that the Be-200 would be a good tool to fight wildfires.
“It only needs about a mile (of water). Cachuma, if it is full of water; Nacimiento, Lake Tahoe for sure. There are a few reservoirs in the Los Angeles area that will work. There are reservoirs in Colorado that are well suited, even further north. You can scoop a nice river; the ocean. You can scoop fresh water and ocean water,” Bagnard said.
Once the deals are done and the Be-200 receives U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification, Airbus, Seaplane Global and IES will set their plan in motion.
The group plans to build a new facility for the Be-200 at the Santa Maria Public Airport, big enough to service the large plane.
Bagnard said he hopes that work will begin in late 2017.
Once completed, the group will set to work on a plan to build and maintain up to 100 planes. Once production is up and running, Baskett aims to build eight to 10 new Be-200s a year.
“Based on estimates, for all of the stuff that goes into that; the guy with the drill press, the paint; we are looking at something like 300-500 people at a production rate at that level,” Baskett said.
Though the group is nearing the finish line, it has been a long race to come to an agreement to build Be-200s in America.
“We keep moving ahead,” Baskett said.
The Santa Maria firefighting aviators have invested a lot to get the project off the ground. To expedite the FAA licensing process, IES purchased a helicopter company that already has the necessary permissions to get the Be-200 off the ground here.
The group is committed, they said, because they think the timing is right.
“The United States is finally starting to embrace water scoopers on the federal level with the forest service. For the last two years, they’ve had scoopers fighting fires here in California and Nevada operating out of Lake Tahoe,” Bagnard said. “The door is opening. We hope that our timing in introducing the Be-200 is perfect. We are hoping that forest service may be interested in contracting a bigger, better water scooping operation.”