Above: the 747 Supertanker prepares to take off at Santiago, Chile.
Like other air tankers, the 747 SuperTanker does not work alone. It takes a village. On the ground it depends on personnel and infrastructure to service it, provide fuel, and refill its retardant tanks.
There are two other aircraft working with the 747 while it is in Chile. One is a lead plane, in this case a borrowed military CASA, a twin engine turboprop that can carry a couple of dozen passengers. A lead plane scouts ahead of the air tanker and evaluates the wind, visibility, fire behavior, and topography and determines the path the much larger air tanker will take to make a drop. After that decision is made it will fly that path with the air tanker following.
In North America there is usually only one person, a pilot, in a lead plane, but the one being used in Chile comes with two military pilots new to the lead plane role. Global Supertanker brought with them a highly experienced smokejumper and lead plane pilot, Jamie Tackman, who is sitting behind the pilots directing them where to go — such as height above ground, speed, direction, which drainage or slope to fly over, and how to enter and exit the drop run. The CASA is painted in Air Superiority Gray and it’s the first time the SuperTanker pilots have followed a lead plane that is intentionally difficult to see.
The other aircraft is a pimped out passenger jet, a Gulfstream G-4 usually used for hauling VIPs. It was brought on a day or two ago to improve intelligence gathering about the status of the dozens of active wildfires that are scattered across 400 miles, north to south, in Chile. Flying at 10,000 feet it can relatively quickly scout far ahead and help determine where the greatest need exists for air support and also evaluate the smoke conditions that often make it impossible to use an air tanker. This can reduce the number of times the 747 has to abort a mission due to visibility. The aircraft can also assist with communications.