Santa Maria City firefighter Shane Gidlund takes a photo of the Be-200. The Russian air tanker, known as the Altair, landed Wednesday at the Santa Maria Public Airport for a week-long visit. Below, Russian crew members unload their luggage.

An amphibious aircraft being touted as possibly the future of aerial firefighting in America landed Wednesday at Santa Maria Public Airport.  The week-long visit from the Russian-made Be-200 air tanker, also known as Altair, marks the first display on U.S. soil of the aircraft’s capabilities.

Arranged by a Santa Maria businessman with an aviation background, the visit is meant to familiarize prospective air tanker contractors with the plane.  “It’s no longer a story, it’s here,” said David Baskett, president of Santa Maria-based TTE International Inc.

Initially, the Be-200 was scheduled to arrive in September 2009 for a month-long visit.  Baskett cited months battling bureaucracy as one of the delays as the aircraft needed U.S. government clearance — Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration — before its arrival.

The Be-200 and a delegation of about 20 people will be based at Santa Maria Public Airport — also known as SMX — until next Wednesday.

A demonstration flight is in the works for Monday or Tuesday at Lake Cachuma, Baskett said. Static display of the plane, open to the public, is scheduled from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Radisson Hotel.

Chris Hastert, airport general manager, said SMX is fortunate to host the Be-200, and the aircraft is being treated like any other that flies into Santa Maria.  “It’s exciting to be a part of it,” Hastert said.

Over the past two weeks, the Be-200 appeared at an international air show in Santiago, Chile, and made stops is Brazil and Venezuela.  The Venezuelan government reportedly has agreed to buy one of the aircraft.

Built by aircraft maker Irkut, the Be-200 is a twin-jet engine “flying boat” designed specifically in the 1990s for air tanker operations. The Be-200 first flew in 2003, and is in service with Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Emergencies.

Piloted by a two-person flight crew, the Be-200 has eight tanks, located under the cabin floor, capable of dropping 12 tons of water or retardant in about a second at a minimum speed of 135 mph. Its turbofan engines are located above the wing and to the rear to avoid water spray into the engines.

The plane can drop 270 tons — one ton is 2,000 pounds — of water into a fire area without refueling, according to the Beriev Aircraft Company Web site. Its four water scoops can pick up 12 tons of water in 14 seconds while gliding on the water surface. 

Baskett sees the Be-200 as a replacement for America’s aging air-tanker fleet.  Most U.S. air tankers are converted military aircraft designed in the 1940s and 1950s, he said.

Baskett envisions a fleet of 10 Be-200s based at the airport and  the creation of high-end aviation jobs in Santa Maria.  The planes would be owned by his firm and rented or leased to operators, he said.

The Santa Maria airport is an ideal location for the plane because the weather is optimal most of the year, it is low cost, and it is already home to an air-tanker base, Baskett said.

SMX has been the aerial reload headquarters for fighting fires from Ventura County to San Luis Obispo County for the past few fire seasons. Tankers have used the base to refuel and to fill up with red-colored fire-retardant material.

The Central Coast Jet Center at SMX developed an air tanker base in 2007, and leases the facility to the U.S. Forest Service, which also contracts for air tankers and fire retardant.

Baskett is also the president of Santa Maria-based American Ethanol, Inc.  He also founded the now-defunct Pacific Skyway, a Santa Maria-based airline.  Baskett’s interest in aviation dates back to the late 1950s as the son of missionary parents in the Philippines, where he was a student pilot. He spent 20 years in the Army flying helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

TTE International, Inc. specializes in civil and military aviation from the former Soviet Union, according to the company Web site.

Posted: Thursday, April 8, 2010