Air Spray’s Honduran L-188 Electra awaits work on the Red Deer Regional Airport’s tarmac Monday.

Idle aircraft roars back to life

If FAH-555 could talk, it would have plenty of stories to tell — and probably a colourful comment or two about Central Alberta’s weather.

If FAH-555 could talk, it would have plenty of stories to tell — and probably a colourful comment or two about Central Alberta’s weather.

A month ago, the L-188 Electra airplane was parked in the Honduran sun. Now it’s sitting in the frigid temperatures at the Red Deer Airport.

A crew from Air Spray Aviation Services flew the aircraft north after the forest fire suppression company bought it from the government of Honduras. Its journey began Dec. 15 and concluded last Thursday, with stopovers in Brownsville, Tex.; Casper, Wyo.; and Lethbridge in between.

“It was actually in pretty good condition,” said Paul Lane, Air Spray’s vice-president and chief financial officer.

FAH-555 began its operating life in 1959, as a passenger plane in the American Airlines’ fleet. It was sold to the Honduras air force two decades later, where it likely was used to transport equipment and people, said Lane.

Prior to Air Spray buying it, the aircraft is believed to have sat idle for more than a dozen years. Regulatory exemptions had to be obtained for time-expired parts and a thorough review conducted, said Lane.

“You literally have to jack up the aircraft and make sure the hydraulics on the landing gear work properly.”

Air Spray, which is based in Edmonton but maintains its operating facilities at the Red Deer Airport, sent a maintenance crew to Central America in early October. It also hired a number of Honduran technicians.

Getting parts to Honduras and through customs were among the challenges, but by mid-December the Electra was ready to go. Propeller problems stalled its journey in Casper, where it remained over Christmas.

The problems and delays were worth it, said Lane, explaining that the L-188 Electra is a sought-after plane for water-bombing duties. Air Spray now has 14, including three that it purchased in Detroit last year.

“It’s really a very powerful aircraft,” said Lane, noting that the Electra’s acceleration and manoeuvrability make it ideal for negotiating the mountainous terrain where forest fires are often fought.

“It was the last of the major turbo-props.”

The company, which has fire-fighting contracts in Alberta, British Columbia and Yukon, will have eight Electra’s available for the 2012 season. Two more could be quickly converted for service, said Lane, with the remainder to serve as spares and/or a source of parts.

Honduras isn’t the farthest that Air Spray has gone to grab an airplane for its operations.

“We’ve picked them up from Indonesia, we’ve picked them up from South America, we even picked one up from South Africa,” said Lane.

Converting a plane into a water bomber entails stripping away much of its weight and adding complex equipment and systems.

“It’s quite a considerable process,” said Lane. “It does take between six and eight months to convert a tanker.”

Air Spray does the work itself, including fabricating the water tanks. It previously sourced this component from a California company, but a few months ago bought the technology and process, which it may relocate to the Red Deer Airport.

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