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Photos: Smokey Bear's neutron tool

A plane swoops toward a wildfire to dump its payload of flame retardant. Dramatic, yes. But heroic pilots are only part of the story.

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1 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

C-130 drops its payload

We've probably all seen dramatic footage of a plane swooping over a wildfire to dump its payload of flame retardant and water on the blaze. What we may not have known about, though, are the high-tech, behind-the-scenes efforts that ensure there's water to drop when the time comes.

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2 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

Ground crew hoses corrosive flame retardant off a plane

The University of California at Davis' McClellan Nuclear Radiation Center has been using neutron radiography to help make certain the tanks that hold the retardant and water are in good shape--no cracks, holes or weak spots that could end up distributing the mix of retardant and water everywhere but where it's needed.

Here, a member of the ground crew at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in California hoses spent retardant off the tail of a specially equipped C-130 aircraft, as the plane awaits more retardant and another trip to the blaze. (Look closely and you'll see the pipes that release the retardant-water mixture, as well as streaks of orange on the tail's underside.)

The retardant is corrosive, hence the need to hose off the plane--and test the tanks.

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3 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

Tanks being unloaded from a C-130

Here we see the aforementioned tanks--and the overall MAFF (Modular Airborne Firefighting System) setup they're part of--being unloaded from a C-130.

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4 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

The tanks are placed on a robotic platform

"You can't get inside the tanks to inspect them, and a camera only gives a surface view," says U.C. Davis Radiography Supervisor Hal Egbert, who conducts the safety tests. At the McClellan Nuclear Radiation Center, the tanks are placed on a robotic platform in a special scanning bay and turned through a neutron beam (which comes out of the block to the left).

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5 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

A neutron radiograph pinpoints problems

The neutron radiograph is recorded on film similar to that used for X-rays. Unlike an X-ray, however, which can see through water but is stopped by metal, a neutron scan penetrates metal but is stopped by water and corrosion. That's enabled Egbert to find flaws that are invisible to the eye and to other systems. And, in some cases, it's allowed him to show that apparent weaknesses are, in fact, stronger than they look.

This image shows a neutron radiograph of an outlet tube from one of the retardant tanks. Pits of corrosion that have reduced the thickness of the metal are marked.

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6 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

A second radiograph showing flaws

A second radiograph showing the outlet tube. The radiographs are analyzed with software similar to that used for X-rays, and the files can be e-mailed to relevant parties.

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7 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

Tnaks loaded into a C-130

Once any repairs have been made and the tanks have been OK'd for service, they make their way back to the airstrip, where they're loaded onto a MAFF and into a C-130...

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8 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

Mixing a retardant cocktail and sending it through a straw

...and refilled with the concoction of retardant and water. Here we see the retardant cocktail being mixed (top) and pumped into a tank.

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9 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

C-130 heads out to fight fires

Then it's off to fight fires. With the landscape visible beyond the tail of the plane, a MAFF operator gets prepared (left--note the reverse angle on the pipes shown earlier). On the right, a U.S. Forest Service lead plane directs the C-130 to the drop site...

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10 of 10 Bill Detwiler/ZDNet

Bombs away

...and it's bombs away--in part thanks to the techies at U.C. Davis and their army of neutrons.

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