Using the 747 Supertanker to drop on fires at night

747 Supertanker

Above: The 747 Supertanker at McClellan Air Field March 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

While the 747 Supertanker was in Israel November 24 to 30, a Jordanian web site wrote that the aircraft was capable of dropping at night. This was a surprise to us, since no large fixed wing air tanker owned or operated by a government agency or private company has ever, to our knowledge, established or approved a policy of dropping water or retardant on a wildfire at night. As far as we can tell it has never been done, other than, perhaps, by a cowboy pilot who bent the rules.

We checked with Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of Global Supertanker Services, who told us, “Under certain circumstances we will drop at night”. The final decision, he said, was up to the pilot in command.

He went on to say:

In Israel the conditions would be different than what you would find in the United States. The Israelis were looking at a potential for night flight in certain areas that they felt might need it. Fortunately none of those came up while we were over there.

The Supertanker flight crews do not have Night Vision Goggles (NVG), have not trained with the aircraft for night flights, and before they use NVG the lights in the cockpit would have to be modified to be compatible. Conventional panel lights are far too bright for NVG.

At the Night Aerial Firefighting Operations Summit held last January in Rifle, Colorado, Bill Moody and Cliff Hale of Global Supertanker put on a presentation about the use of the 747 for night drops. It was recorded and can still be seen HERE. Their presentation begins at 78:20 and they begin talking about night drops at 84:10.

One of their key points was the drops might have to be done at 400 to 800 feet above the ground, but that is still unknown. One feature of the Supertanker that would help to make higher altitude drops more feasible is the pressurized system that pumps the water or retardant straight down, reducing the side drift and the footprint.

They said in the presentation that there would be a requirement for an infrared equipped air attack aircraft, ATGS, to be at a higher altitude than the air tanker. This is the inverse of having a lead plane flying in front of the tanker. The ATGS would identify the targets and the start and end points for the drop, then relay those to the tanker where it would be displayed on a map.

When the U.S. Forest Service restored the night flying helicopter program on the Angeles National Forest in 2013, they had a similar requirement, a fixed wing air attack ship orbiting overhead in the darkness. In this case it was a Turbo Commander 690 equipped with technology to support ground and air firefighting operations at night, including an infrared camera and command and control avionics equipment.

The January presentation included this:

Can it be done safely? That’s what we need to evaluate. We think it can at the altitudes we would be operating at and with the drop system we have but this is something that would have to be further evaluated during an R&D project.

Below is a screenshot from their presentation, outlining the Research and Development project if they were going to consider dropping at night:

R&D proposal for night drops
Global Supertanker R&D proposal for night drops.

Mr. Wheeler said wildland fire personnel in Israel and Australia are very interested in using fixed wing air tankers at night.

“We’re not ready for night flight in the U.S., period”, he said. “And whether or not the Forest Service ever allows it is a monumental question. There are a lot of things that will happen offshore long before they ever happen over here.”

10 thoughts on “Using the 747 Supertanker to drop on fires at night”

  1. If you have been a wildland fire fight for a few years you probably have heard the comments “if we could have worked the aircraft at night”. In my five decades of fire and fire aviation there has been several fires that the outcome would probably have been different if VLAT aircraft rule the sky at night. Two of many examples King Fire Cal Fire/ El Dorado N.F. and the Darby Fire Cal Fire/Stanislaus N.F. In the late 1970 NASA started development of flying at night in mountainous terrain at 400 m.p.h. at 250 a.g.l. 1970, the use of night goggles was the ticket which would defiantly not work for wildfire use. Then came along synthetic vision systems (SVS) where the pilot looks at the terrain as if flying in daylight. The technology is out there. No reason to drop retardant higher than 200 feet above the target. G.P.S. SVS and Highway In The Sky (HITS) don’t know if I like that acronym, are here TODAY.

  2. Coming from a person with over 50 years in the industry and saying that during that period only a few fires probably would have benefited from night drops. Pushing human and aircraft limits with modern technology isn’t the smartest thing to do in this industry. The cost is going to be insane for the operators, or will the government pay for it – HA HA HA. With some serious testing it could be a future tool for the industry, but currently one has to ask – WHAT’s THE POINT?

    I still don’t understand why tankers don’t fly early morning missions 6:oo ish – right at sunrise. Some of the best flying weather is before the winds pick up. It would seem to be a lot safer then at night and more productive. More Politics?

    Not totally related but I flew a military test program of low level air refueling missions, both in KC135 and KC10 tankers. We flew most missions over the ocean and desert areas as primary locations and we did have 2 sorties in / over mountains, which turned out to be none productive and very unsafe. I might add scary as HELL! Airspeeds were 250 – 275 knots at 200 to 500 AGL, depending on the type receiver aircraft under the tanker. We didn’t use NVG’s (at the time) and flew totally blacked out, nature of the mission. YES – it is different except one thing – big aircraft at slow airspeeds don’t function well at low altitudes, and when you add the mountains, is it really worth a flight crew and tanker? The military said, NO!

  3. It is all about the technology. Scary or spooky doesn’t fit into aerial delivery of a liquid after sundown. I was hoping that someone would enlighten me on synthetic visual systems or similar technology. Mission ready at sixish (0600)? Smoke inversion in canyon, shadow effect, flying into the sun low on the horizon. Double crewed helicopter operators can sometime (want to) start as soon as safe to see. If a fire doesn’t lay down at night and the wind and slope continue to drive it containment would be working against the odds. But the air will probably be clear. Cost, at plus 50 million dollars for just the suppression cost for numerous fires just this fire season it isn’t going to get any less expensive. Correct about the night flying, cooler air, less turbulence (except for Santa Ana’s) work the fire on your terms, don’t let the fire work you.

    1. Johnny you are the first person to mention reasons not to fly on my 06:00 operations question. I thank you for your knowledge and experience, there priceless!

      Every mission has variables that have to be adapted to, but one needs that knowledge on which tool to use to make things happen under current conditions. The new or current night vision equipment is way past what I had limited use with years ago. It is expensive and crews need to maintain currency with the said objects. Humans have proven that anything is possible when we want it to happen. Time will tell if and when night air tanker operations will happen.

    2. With most synthetic visual systems you do not have any depth perception [lose binocular vision] and you lose peripheral vision [sensor field of view is much less than the human eye]. You need both to do a good job at low altitude flying in unfamiliar terrain.

      1. Thanks, back to the drawing board. Suggestion?? Remember don’t fly under the power lines at night (ag spraying). previous comment

  4. Once again… same comment that I wrote previously.

    Let’s start air ops at sunrise before we consider dropping at night!
    The 6hr window 6am-noon is usually wasted and rarely considered which is a shame.

    Earth is still cold, winds are down. Best time to hit hard.

  5. I need the 747 Supertankers airplane to go to Chile and stop the fires, there are too many fires right now, and the government is not doing much and I have friends with their farms getting burned.

  6. I watched Global Super Tanker’s presentation. I gleaned a lot from it. A question I would have asked, maybe not in the round, is how do NVIS goggles work with the CRT displays on their new 747-400? Analog/Mechanical instruments are more easily adapted to work with NVIS, but CRT’s tend to just look like a glowing ball. Here’s a video of what CRT’s look like through NVIS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63iBW3r3qGc

    I am going to lobby for night time operations with VLATs. However, I am in the camp that heavy aircraft need a forward-looking CFIT system (like the one I invented) along with a guidance system even during daytime operations, let alone at night.

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