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Ex-jetliner passes first, fast trial by fire(fight)


The MD-87 was created to fly passengers. But the one standing by on the tarmac of Redmond Airport is fighting fires — and was ready for its new role just in time to battle a big blaze that threatened Bend last weekend.

The Erickson Aero Tankers plane, based at Madras Airport, was given the nod by the FAA for use to drop retardant on wildfires a month ago. And they had their first big test with the Two Bulls Fire.

“I never would have dreamed that I would have been flying an airline plane,” tanker pilot Brent Conner said Wednesday from its current standby spot at the Redmond Airport.

“I mean, I always wanted to be flying propeller planes, so this is new for me, and for most of us in this business,” he said.

Erickson Aerospace started converting the MD-87 passenger jets into air tankers back in 2011. What followed was a three-year conversion and permission process.

“It’s been a three-year project to get these built, converted, tank systems built, certified with the FAA, certified with the forest service, and to get it on and operational,” Conner said.

And for residents of Bend, it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Last weekend, the jetliner-turned-air tanker made 19 drops of flame retardant on the Two Bulls Fire.

The plane can carry up to 4,000 gallons of retardant per flight.

Conner said it’s a common service that planes like his provide from above.

“We can hold it in check, as we did with this fire, for about two days with retardant,” he said. “That gave them enough time to get the other flank taken care of.”

While it’s a job he’s done countless times before, it was Conner’s first weekend in real wildfire action with the Aero Tanker.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, actually,” he said. “We hadn’t been on a fire yet, the fire’s only 15 miles away. We barely had time to get the airplane cleaned up and we were already putting the flaps down, slowing down and getting ready to go.”

The plane is still standing by at Redmond Airport, but won’t be making another flight over the fading Two Bulls Fire. It will be sent to bases where it can do a similar assist on other wildfires during the long, hot summer.

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