SACRAMENTO — The Russians are coming!

Maybe.

But this time, it would be for a "hot war" and they'd be on our side.

Officials say the federal air tanker fleet will likely be groun-ded this year with the crash last week of one of its remaining seven supposedly "safe" planes out of a big but worn-out firefighting force that once numbered 33.

Some congressmen, governors and state government emergency officials are calling for the U.S. to accept Russia's offer to loan the biggest and only jet firefighting tankers in the world so they can prove themselves.

Russia only now is unwrapping the last mysteries surrounding the Ilyushin-76 Waterbomber because it wants to — you guessed it — sell the planes to America.

In photographs taken by NATO and others, it's a behemoth when you're standing close. It's as huge as a 747 U.S. commercial airliner or a U.S.military C-5 cargo plane with a belly meant to carry full-sized battle tanks.

From far away, when dropping water on a fire, the Waterbomber looks merely big.

It's so big, enthusiasts say, the 11,000-gallon torrent of water it drops is breathtaking, even from a distance.

It covers an area the size of 21 football fields with one 10-second drop, said Tom Robinson of the Virginia Offices of Fire Programs and Emergency Services in Richmond, Va. "It puts a fireline down 300 feet wide and 3,900 feet long."

By comparison, the largest military-surplus air tankers ever operated by the U.S. Forest Service disgorge about a fourth that amount — 3,000 gallons of retardant. The Russian plane's speed and range also exceed U.S. air tankers.

The major hitch, however, has been the U.S. Forest Service, which has traditionally contracted with a small group of private firms in America for big military-surplus planes converted to tankers.

But the system falls apart every few decades when there is a gap in the availability of appropriate surplus aircraft, according to independent government reports. The nation is in one of those gaps currently, with the crash last week of one of the remaining seven supposedly safe P-3 Orions in a remote part of Northern California.

If federal investigators find the cause was structural failure — as has occurred in other U.S. tankers recently — the remainder of the fleet that can fly safely over populated areas would be grounded.

Forest Service officials say they can make up the tanker shortfall largely with helicopters — an assertion discounted by line firefighters and experts.

The major disadvantages of the Russian tanker include the cost of the multimillion-dollar plane, whose pricetag in the U.S. has yet to be set; the long length of the airstrips it requires; and the need for the plane to drop rather horizontally.

A crack in the Forest Service resistance to foreign aircraft developed this year with federal officials moving to use, for the first time, two of the Canadian SuperScoopers that have long been employed by Los Angeles County.

Moreover, due to recent Oakland Tribune reports on the safety of the fleet this year, before the latest crash, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to probe the situation. She plans to query officials during a congressional hearing this week.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach and one of the Russian planes' leading advocates in Congress, called for U.S. acquisition of the aircraft in a Saturday news conference. Joined in his efforts by Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., he said that its importation is being blocked by a "bureaucratic logjam."

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is a fan of the aircraft if it could fill the current U.S. fleet gaps. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been briefed on the plane but an aide said he had no comment at this time.

Rohrabacher aide Don Ernsberger said "the need for the plane is even more pressing in light of the latest crash."

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.