Above: Firefighters in Santiago, Chile pose with the 747 Supertanker January 27, 2017.
(Originally published at 4 p.m. MDT July 25, 2017)
Today the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) bestowed “interim” approval status on the 747 Supertanker so that it can help suppress wildfires. This means the operator of the aircraft, Global SuperTanker (GST), can compete for federal air tanker contracts, if any become available, and can drop on fires for the duration of the 17-month interim period.
States and countries that will only contract for air tankers that have IAB approval may now consider signing the aircraft. California has not been hesitant to use very large air tankers like the DC-10 when they first became available. The U.S. Forest Service is much more conservative about making significant changes to their fire aviation program, and only used the DC-10 after it had been proven successful by California. The agency is also very hesitant, for example, to use water-scooping air tankers that have been in service worldwide for decades.
The 747 received interim approval from the IAB in January of this year but it expired six months later on June 15 even though most new air tanker designs are given 18 months of interim status, the objective of which is to provide a period for real world use on actual fires so that bugs, if any, could be worked out and the users of the service could evaluate the effectiveness. During the winter and spring there was little opportunity for an additional very large air tanker to be called up to fight wildfires. However during that period it was used for several weeks in Chile, dropping on dozens of fires.
The video below, filmed in Chile, shows the 747 dropping water because retardant was not available. But it was mixing into the water an enhancer that increased the effectiveness.
Jim Wheeler, the President and CEO of GST, said that during retardant drop tests in June the aircraft passed every one except for the last one on the last day, and that was because it was done during strong winds. The maximum wind speed allowed for the tests, Mr. Wheeler said, is 10 mph, but at the time of that last drop the wind was gusting at 17 to 25 mph. The test was suspended, and since it was the last day there was no opportunity to repeat it during allowable wind conditions.
We asked the USFS about the results of the test and they declined to answer our question, saying to check with GST.
Today the USFS released a statement confirming the interim approval for the 747:
The interim approval is for 17 months during which time GST must take steps to ensure its 747 aircraft delivers retardant in a manner that is effective and efficient and aids firefighting efforts on the ground.
Under certain circumstances, limited contractual options for VLATs are also available to the Forest Service and various states that maintain agreements with the agency. These certain circumstances could potentially include the severe wildfire situations in California and Colorado.
GST filed a protest with the USFS when they were not allowed to bid on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract for air tankers that had specifications making very large air tankers ineligible to apply. The USFS denied the protest, and Mr. Wheeler said he will be deciding soon if their company will carry the protest further to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Last week the USFS posted a notice that it intends, sometime in the future, to accept bids for CWN very large air tankers, such as the 747 and DC-10 that can carry at least 8,000 gallons. The 747 carries 19,200 gallons while the DC-10 can hold 11,600. Most “large” air tankers can carry 2,000 to 4,000 gallons.
The initial version of the Supertanker built by Evergreen in a 747-100 made its first ever drop on a fire eight years ago at the Railbelt complex in Alaska in 2009. It last received Call When Needed contracts from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service in 2013. When Evergreen went bankrupt Global Supertanker bought the hardware and the rights to the retardant system and installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.