The back story: How the deployment of U.S. air tankers to Chile happened

747 Supertanker Santiago, Chile
(Last Updated On: March 23, 2017)

Above: The 747 Supertanker being reloaded at Santiago, Chile, January 28, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In January and February two large air tankers traveled from the United States to South America to assist firefighters in Chile that were dealing with an unprecedented number of wildfires. Global SuperTanker’s 747 left Colorado Springs on January 24 and returned on February 13. A BAe-146 operated by Neptune Aviation was down there from about February 4 to March 5.

As far as I know this is the first time that any large air tankers from North America have assisted with wildfires in South America. One limiting factor is that up until recently most of the U.S. air tankers were former military aircraft which were not allowed to be used outside the country. With the industry converting to used civilian airliners and cargo aircraft that restriction does not apply to the newer privately owned aircraft.

In January, 2017 I had been following the increased wildfire activity in Chile and had written about it several times on Wildfire Today. Here is an excerpt from an article published on January 3, 2017:

Wildfire burns 100 homes in Chile

On Monday a wildfire burned approximately 100 homes in Valparaiso, Chile. There are reports that 19 people were injured and hundreds were forced to evacuate. The fire was fought by firefighters on the ground assisted by [single engine] air tankers and helicopters dropping water.

Pushed by strong winds it burned about 120 acres of vegetation 75 miles northwest of Santiago.

An air tanker pilot was killed December 28 while working on a fire in the Bío Bío region.

And later, three wildland firefighters were killed January 15 while battling a fire in the commune of Vichuquén, Maule Region of Chile.

But the fires in Chile were receiving very little notice in the mainstream media in the U.S.

Eduardo Frugone, who is kind of a mysterious person in Chile with many connections, read the articles on Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation about the fires in his country and the fatal air tanker crash. I had never heard of him, but on January 18 he sent me an email message through the Contact Us page on Fire Aviation that read, in its entirety:

“We need fire figthing [sic] planes to fly to Chile, need to know if your company can establish contacts right away.

Stand by.”

I, of course, do not have any air tankers, but I forwarded his message to air tanker companies that I thought might have some available. Selecting the companies was a pretty quick decision that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on. I figured the chances of the person that contacted me having any influence in deploying North American air tankers to South America was very, very slim. As far as I knew the paradigm of contracting for air tankers was limited to federal, state, or provincial governments, not a random person who only had links to private companies in his automatic email signature. So I didn’t want to waste the time of every air tanker company in the world.

I did not contact any company that I knew had 100 percent of their tankers committed to Australia. And I limited the short list to companies that had deployed air tankers on fires in 2016, or that I knew had recently received certification from the Interagency Air Tanker Board, and that I knew how to reliably contact. Not all air tanker companies will return my phone calls or respond consistently to my emails.

I forwarded the email to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Neptune Aviation, and Global Supertanker. I wrote to them, “I don’t know if this is legit or not, but it might be an opportunity to use your aircraft in Chile.” Two of those companies, Global Supertanker and Neptune, followed up.

So, Eduardo got the ball rolling, through Wildfire Today.

What followed, in the case of Global Supertanker, were eight days of phone calls, email messages, and negotiations.

During the week of January 22 an heir to the Walmart fortune in Denver, Ben Walton with his wife Lucy Ana, got involved. She grew up in Chile and still maintains very strong ties to the people and the country. They have used their foundation in recent years to help the residents in her homeland. In 2016 the foundation helped arrange for $1.5 million worth of medical supplies to be sent to hospitals and rural clinics in Chile. And they also rebuilt a school after it was destroyed by the earthquake and resulting Tsunami in Chile a few years ago.

747 Supertanker
Lucy Ana Walton and Ben Walton, (left) receive a briefing on the 747 Supertanker, January 23, 2017. Jim Wheeler is on the right. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The Waltons had been following the escalating fire situation in Chile and were familiar with my web sites, Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation, after I had written about wildfires in Colorado. They knew the 747 Supertanker was based in Colorado Springs just an hour south of their Denver home.

In discussions with Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global Supertanker, they offered to have their foundation, Foundación Viento Sur, provide the funds for the 747 to ferry to Chile and back, and for five days of firefighting in Chile. They hoped that after they saw the effectiveness of the aircraft, the government would retain the services of the air tanker for as long as it was needed .

Working out the details with the foundation, the Chilean government, and Global Supertanker was a complex procedure that took a while. Ben and Lucy Ana visited Global SuperTanker’s Colorado Springs facilities on June 23 and received a briefing on the use and capabilities of the aircraft. Ben has some pilot training and both of them, but especially Lucy Ana, were very enthusiastic about its 19,200-gallon capacity and its potential to assist the residents of Chile.

Lucy Ana Walton 747 Supertanker
Lucy Ana Walton in front of one of the 747’s engines at Colorado Springs, January 23, 2017. Photo By Bill Gabbert.

Attorneys in the U.S. and Chile got involved, and finally late Tuesday morning, January 24, the flight crew received the GO order and departed for South America at about 1:40 p.m. MST.

Mr. Wheeler offered me one of the 12 seats on the 747 for the trip south, and I accepted and became embedded with the crew. I returned on my own February 5 and the aircraft flew back to Colorado Springs nine days later.

Eduardo Frugone, who initially came up with the concept for the deployment of North American air tankers to Chile, helped to facilitate the missions before and during the assignment in exchange for a salary.

The Chilean government was very reluctant to bring in aircraft from outside the country, possibly because they had existing contracts with European companies for single engine air tankers. Questions have been raised about irregularities related to the activities of those companies in Europe and an investigation is underway now in Chile about procedures, before this year, about the acquisition of firefighting aircraft.

Chile is also considering the creation, for the first time, of a “Forest Service”-type agency that would assume the role of coordinating wildfire suppression, a task that presently is done by CONAF, a private, non-profit organization funded by the government and responsible for initiating air tanker contracts.

4 thoughts on “The back story: How the deployment of U.S. air tankers to Chile happened”

  1. Bill, how did you determine which airtanker operators may have had available aircraft at the time and select the three companies you emailed?

    1. Good question, “Commander”. I just added this to the article:

      It was a pretty quick decision that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on. I figured the chances of the person that contacted me having any influence in deploying North American air tankers to South America was very, very slim. As far as I knew the paradigm of contracting for air tankers was limited to federal, state, or provincial governments, not a random person who only had links to private companies in his automatic email signature. So I didn’t want to waste the time of every air tanker company in the world.

      And I did not contact any company that I knew had 100 percent of their tankers committed to Australia. And I limited the short list to companies that had deployed air tankers on fires in 2016, or that I knew had recently received certification from the IAB, and that I knew how to reliably contact. Not all air tanker companies will return my phone calls or respond consistently to my emails.

  2. You must be proud of your site and the good that has come from it. I imagine that when you started this endeavor that it would be a simple wild land fire blog. The influence that your site now has, is exemplified by this story. It has resulted in an inestimable saving of lives, property, and fire fighter’s safety and workload during the massive Chile fires. It is resulting in a paradigm shift in Chile’s (a country 2,700 miles long and a population less than that of Florida) wild land fire fighting strategy.
    Thank you for sharing. (I wondered how it came to be that you were in Chile for this.) Keep up the good work.

  3. From Tony G. Somewhere in my files I have shots of one of Hemet Valleys Boxcars with “SARH’ and “Incendios Forestales” stenciled on it. Poss it was early 80s. So maybe not first time that an American contractor Tanker went ‘south” Will have to look for those.

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