Bob Soelberg, formerly of Evergreen International Airlines, is now vice president of the company that bought the rights to operate a Boeing 747-400 reconfigured as a flying tanker after Evergreen went bankrupt. Soelberg was sitting at the booth of the new company, Global SuperTanker Services, at a firefighting convention in Zadar, Croatia, in late April 2015.
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An Israeli in the aerial-firefighting business approached the booth. Soelberg, who was glad to see the man, gave him his business card, which identified him as senior vice president and program manager. He soon began to reminisce with the Israeli about December 2010 and the flight of a previous-generation supertanker to Mount Carmel. It was at the personal invitation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Soelberg, amused by an experience he didn’t expect would repeat, described how dozens of tons of fire retardant were dumped from the air before Netanyahu arrived for a well-photographed visit to the cockpit. That was the end the mission, which cost $275,000 a day when considering the entire round-trip from the home airport and back.
But then the Americans were told that Netanyahu also had to have his picture taken looking up from the ground as the plane dropped its payload. At an unnecessary additional expense, the supertanker was reloaded and the material was dropped for the photo op, documenting the leader as a link in generations of Hebrew heroes from the Maccabees to the firefighters.
A year and a half after that convention in Croatia, it turned out that Netanyahu’s photo album needed updating. The president of Global SuperTanker, James Wheeler, said that after the company’s employees had left on Wednesday night for Thanksgiving, the phone rang. It was the Israeli government asking for more urgent business.
The dozen crew members – a double shift of pilots, a drop-system operator, four ground crew members, a supervisor, and above them all Bob Soelberg to coordinate with the Israeli authorities – gathered at their Colorado Springs base and took off at dawn Friday, Israel time. Not all the contract’s details had been finalized, Wheeler said, but he trusted the Israelis.
Why not? The plane with the prominent tail number 944 had never before made an operational drop. Its registration had been completed only a few weeks before. The American authorities – the forest service and local government – had not used the previous aircraft very often, the one that had been brought to Israel six years ago. It’s hard to make a living based on contracts that state “we’ll call you when we need you.”
The 747 belongs to a very high class known as Very Large Air Tankers. Its competitor, the DC-10, has been somewhat more successful.
The supertanker is a brand name mainly in Netanyahu’s Israel, and satisfaction is mutual. For the supertanker’s small contribution to putting out the fires, Israel will pay some 5 million to 6 million shekels ($1,550,000).
This is small change for Netanyahu, but big change for the Israeli people. The main thing, of course, was the photo op.
Netanyahu got in trouble the other day, as he usually does, with contradictions in logic in trying to excuse his failures. On the one hand, the fire was a sudden force of nature. On the other hand, Netanyahu had overseen the best preparations. On the third hand, Israel is vulnerable to arson when dryness and wind converge, and what such a combustible combination would do could not be predicted.
The Shin Bet, which reports to Netanyahu, missed the devious young Arabs’ match-collecting and bottle-filling as they pulled the wool over the eyes of the world’s best intelligence service. They spotted the chance and struck at the superpower’s weakness with its F-35s, submarines and Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries. They ignited a gasolintifada.
According to Netanyahu’s system, the average is always all right. Sometimes there’s too much of something, or too little, but the average is the thing. The aerial firefighting team is usually larger than needed, and once every six years isn’t often, so outside help is called in. But in terms of time and space, the help from abroad isn’t enough; until it gets here, the fire spreads and burns.
That’s a little like the intelligence in 1973. In the spring they feared an Egyptian attack too much and in the fall too little. On average, the warning was so precise that Israel needed an airlift – the Galaxy transport aircraft; the uncle of the supertanker.
At the Hazor Air Force Base, Netanyahu granted himself the title of firefighting strategist. The brilliant decision occurred: Defeat the fire from the air; this hadn’t been discussed in any report (not true!). Defeat means a firefighting squadron in a battle and a supertanker in a war.
In fact, there is no squadron, not in the air force and not in the police. There is only one coordination-and-control official in uniform, who orders the flights from a chief subcontractor (Elbit), which works with an implementation contractor (Chim-Nir).
Because of competition over agricultural flights between Chim-Nir and Telem, the latter company’s crop-dusting pilots aren’t allowed to put out fires. Following criticism of this fact, on Friday and Saturday Telem pilots were put on an imaginary alert of an hour and half and were never called in.
When you really want pilots like that, their alert time at the Megiddo airstrip is a few minutes. But Chim-Nir was relieved of the threat that Telem’s pilots would have the chance to leave a good impression: The strong winds required them to serve their clients and dust their orchards.
At the sight of the fire, Netanyahu’s inner Churchill emerged. He’s in charge – in Haifa, in the Galilee, in the Judean Hills. This time he was the head of RAF Bomber Command, Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris, who brought down a giant hammer on Germany.
That’s an old-fashioned, empty approach. The various kinds of supertankers can’t operate at night in populated areas; they might kill the firefighters and the people and ruin the homes struck by their tons of material.
Netanyahu is misleading us. Ground firefighting, which at any hour can reach any home and any person even if not every tree, remains the key element. Aerial firefighting is efficient with wildfires in forests, where it conserves ground personnel and gets to every remote spot if put into actibulon quickly and properly. All the tricks in the world that have been tried – by Russia, for example – couldn’t overcome fire’s three components – fuel, oxygen and air in general.
As someone who devours the latest research, presentations and lecture transcripts on aerial firefighting, Netanyahu is certainly familiar with the article by the Australian Roger Underwood, “Water Bombing and Magic Bullets,” which makes short shrift of the inefficient supertanker’s fans. Underwood, who laments the waste of costly freshwater (sea water damages agriculture), writes that trees stop the water from penetrating. Also, the water bombers have to fly high because of air pockets, the smoke and the heat, and then the water evaporates long before it reaches its target.
The old bombers of the 1940s, which flattened Dresden and Tokyo in carpet-bombing or firebombing, have given way to the sophisticated and technology-rich aircraft of the 21st century, which precisely strike numerous targets at the same time.
That’s the future of aerial firefighting as well. Entrepreneurs are developing it in Israel, protecting their commercial secrets and planning to unveil their products in about a year. The supertanker will have a hard time surviving in the new era, except in productions by Netanyahu.
When Bibi meets Bob, Soelberg and his colleagues aren’t to blame for the prime minister’s whims. To borrow from an old Hebrew saying, he who doesn’t work hard on the Sabbath eve will spend millions on Thanksgiving and hope that television viewers and voters continue to cheer the illusion.