By Julian J. Ramos/Staff Writer jramos@santamariatimes.com | Wednesday, April 14, 2010 

A Russian-made firefighting tanker drops water Tuesday during a test over the Santa Maria Public Airport.  A Russian air tanker made its first water drop on American soil Tuesday in a demonstration flight at the Santa Maria Public Airport.

Carrying 3,000 gallons of water, the aircraft dropped its load on a field at the airport near the Central Coast Jet Center and performed a series of maneuvers over the airfield.

The exhibition for invited guests was meant to familiarize aviation and fire officials with the aircraft’s capabilities, said David Baskett, president of Santa Maria-based TTE International Inc., the firm behind the Be-200 visit.

Also known as Altair, the Be-200, arrived April 7 in Santa Maria for its inaugural display in America as part of a tour that has included stops in Brazil, Chile and Venezuela.

The theme of the visit, which ended Tuesday, was “save lives and land,” according to organizers promoting the aircraft as the future of aerial firefighting in America and a replacement for the nation’s aging air-tanker fleet.

Although Baskett pictures a fleet of 10 Be-200s — based in Santa Maria, owned by his firm and rented or leased to operators — the aircraft faces a long certification process to be used an air tanker for U.S. fires.

Joe Walsh, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said all air tankers used to douse wildland fires on federal land must have Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness certification and must meet several interagency standards.  At the moment, the Be-200 does not meet any of the requirements, Walsh said. Also, there is no bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia to recognize each others aviation certification standards, he said.  The Forest Service is always appreciative of those who develop, manufacture and operate aerial firefighting platforms, he added.

For the past few fire seasons, SMX has served as a base for tankers involved in fighting fires between Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. Tankers have used the airport to refuel and to fill up with red-colored fire-retardant material at the Central Coast Jet Center.

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 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.