747 SuperTanker protects a village and later 5 firefighters

This article originally appeared on Wildfire Today.

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Above: A fire is approaching Llico, a small village near the Pacific Ocean about 130 air miles southwest of Santiago, Chile.

The 747 Supertanker had a productive day Friday in Chile. They completed four missions and were taxiing to take off on another when the lead plane pilot called saying smoke had degraded visibility making another drop impossible.

Elena Carretero, who has been associated with the flight crew, said one of the drops in the morning helped protect the lives of five firefighters who were in imminent threat of being overrun by a fire.

747 Supertanker Chile
At middle-left is Laguna de Torca. Beyond it is the village of Llico, and just beyond the village is the fire. This is looking southwest toward the Pacific Ocean.

All of these photos were taken from the 747 by the drop system operator, Don Paulsen. The images of the fire were shot just before 6 p.m. local time on Friday near Llico, a small village near the Pacific coast about 130 air miles (209 km) southwest of Santiago, Chile (map). Elena told us the village was in danger, like the five firefighters, of being overrun by the fire until the SuperTanker used all 19,200 gallons of water to make one long drop between the fire and the village, saving it.

747 Supertanker Chile Llico
The village of Llico being threatened by the fire.
747 Supertanker Chile
Structures in Llico can be seen at the bottom of the photo.

Continue reading “747 SuperTanker protects a village and later 5 firefighters”

Jim Wheeler of Global SuperTanker, interview

Mr. Wheeler is the President and CEO of Global SuperTanker. The interview was conducted at the Santiago, Chile Airport January 25, 2017 just after the 747 air tanker was flown down to Chile to assist the firefighters on the ground who were dealing with many, many wildfires.

How to refill a SuperTanker

When the 747 SuperTanker that was mobilized to help fight the wildfires in Chile pulls into the ramp at the Santiago Airport a series of tasks begin that, if everything goes perfectly, can be accomplished about half an hour. The aircraft arrived on January 25 and since then some of the procedures have been refined in order to speed up the process.

Stairs

Stairs mounted on a truck, sometimes called “air stairs”, are positioned at the forward door on the left side. These are necessary because that door is quite a distance above the ground; a wild guess: 25 feet. On Thursday one of the 747’s maintenance personnel drove the stair-truck. When he was finished he moved on to other tasks. Usually one of the three crewmembers exits the plane and does a walk around inspection of the aircraft. He might be looking for tree branches stuck to the wings. (Kidding !!!!)

Internal connections

The water system firefighters set up at the airport was fairly massive in scope. In addition to two large water bladders, they had seven portable water tanks linked by large diameter hard suction hoses that automatically siphoned water from one tank to the next as the levels in the tanks being emptied decreased. There are few fire hydrants at the airport near the 747's ramp so up to 14 large capacity fire trucks, large Type 1 engines and water tenders, shuttled water to keep the portable water tanks full. An airport crash-rescue truck pumped from the tanks through two hoses to the 747 SuperTanker.
Preparing to deploy the refill hoses.

There is a small door on the belly of the aircraft that when opened allows access to the hoses used to refill the 19,200-gallon tank. The operator pushes a button and four of them magically descend. Two are approximately 2.5″ or larger and are the ones being used this week. There are two others about 1.5″ or 1.75″ that I have not seen being used.

Monitoring system

The water system firefighters set up at the airport was fairly massive in scope. In addition to two large water bladders, they had seven portable water tanks linked by large diameter hard suction hoses that automatically siphoned water from one tank to the next as the levels in the tanks being emptied decreased. There are few fire hydrants at the airport near the 747's ramp so up to 14 large capacity fire trucks, large Type 1 engines and water tenders, shuttled water to keep the portable water tanks full. An airport crash-rescue truck pumped from the tanks through two hoses to the 747 SuperTanker.
Setting up the monitoring system.

Also behind that door are electronic plugs to which a cable is connected. A small folding table and a ladder are carried out by maintenance personnel and are set up below the door. The other end of the cable is attached to a suitcase-sized box of electronics placed on the table with displays for monitoring the compressed air and water (or retardant) being loaded onboard.

Water (or retardant)

747 Supertanker
Early in the morning firefighters begin to configure the water supply system before most of the 14 trucks arrive.

The water system that firefighters set up at the airport was fairly massive in scope. In addition to two large water bladders, they had eight portable water tanks linked by large diameter hard suction hoses that automatically siphoned water from one tank to the next as the levels in the tanks lowered. There are few fire hydrants at the airport near the 747’s ramp so up to 14 large capacity fire trucks, large Type 1 engines and water tenders, shuttled water to keep the portable water tanks full. An airport crash-rescue truck pumped from the tanks through two hoses to the 747 SuperTanker.

Deploying hose to refill the 747
Deploying hose to refill the 747

Compressed air

Compressed air is needed on this air tanker to disperse the liquid out of the tank, unlike others that use the force of gravity. When the pilot wants to drop the liquid, valves are opened that allow compressed air to push the liquid through the four large nozzles on the belly. The crew can select how much of the 19,200-gallon load to be dispersed on each drop. They can make multiple drops on one load.

747 supertanker
Refilling with compressed air

The crew brought a rented air compressor with them. They preferred a larger one that could refill the air tanks more quickly, but it would not fit through the door in the cargo hold. After arriving they sought to rent a large one locally but the vendor, Atlas Copco, refused. Instead he donated the use of the large machine since it was going to be used to battle wildfires. The larger one arrived just as the other began to break down. It’s a bad sign when you see jumper cables being carried out to an air tanker.

The water system firefighters set up at the airport was fairly massive in scope. In addition to two large water bladders, they had seven portable water tanks linked by large diameter hard suction hoses that automatically siphoned water from one tank to the next as the levels in the tanks being emptied decreased. There are few fire hydrants at the airport near the 747's ramp so up to 14 large capacity fire trucks, large Type 1 engines and water tenders, shuttled water to keep the portable water tanks full. An airport crash-rescue truck pumped from the tanks through two hoses to the 747 SuperTanker.
The larger air compressor.

Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker, said they intend to purchase a large-capacity compressor that they will modify to fit into the airplane.

Refuel

Sometimes they need to refuel. It depends on the distance to the fire or if they had to loiter, carving circles in the sky (or flying a “racetrack pattern”) waiting for an assignment. This can be one of the most time consuming tasks, and may be adversely affected by the availability of the fuel truck.

Push back

At this airport the aircraft must be connected to a small vehicle, a “tug”, that pushes the aircraft back and turns it 90 degrees so that it can exit the dead end ramp.

In the video below, Chief Paulo Gomez talks about the system at the airport to refill the aircraft.

Air tanker briefing 

This photo was taken this morning during the daily air tanker briefing on board the 747 Supertanker in Santiago, Chile.

Smoke from the wildfires has reduced the visibility in the city to about one mile. 


Above: looking out one of the 747’s doors at the local firefighters setting up the water system for reloading the aircraft. 

747 Supertanker in the Chilean media

Above: The front page of the El Mercurio newspaper in Chile, January 26, 2017, shows one of the two drops the aircraft made on Wednesday. 

The arrival of the 747 Supertanker in Chile is generating a great deal of media interest, as well as capturing the attention of the Chilean people. A press conference at the airport the morning it arrived in Santiago drew a large number of reporters who shouted their questions at the government officials who were speaking.

747 Supertanker
Some of the camera operators at the press conference the morning the 747 Supertanker arrived in Santiago, Chile.

The largest air tanker in the world combined with the busiest fire season in years and five firefighters killed (one pilot and four on the ground) would be big news anywhere.

The expectations of the aircraft may be a little high. Air tankers do not put out fires. Under ideal weather and vegetation conditions they can slow the spread of a fire, allowing firefighters on the ground to move in and construct a line around the fire and actually put it out.

Chile fires
The morning the 747 arrived, Alfredo Mascareno of CONAF is mobbed at the Santiago Airport during a press conference about the aircraft and the wildfires in Chile.

747 Supertanker drops on its first fire in Chile

On its first day in Chile the 747 SuperTanker made two drops on a wildfire but had to abort working on two other targets due to dense smoke over the fires.

After arriving in Santiago at sunrise on Wednesday the pilots went to a hotel to get the required rest before they were allowed to get back in the cockpit.

The other Global Supertanker personnel spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon unloading cargo, configuring the aircraft, meeting with local officials, and confirming logistics and operational procedures.

After all of that was accomplished it took off for its first mission, but while en route was diverted to drop on a different location where people were in imminent danger of being overrun by a fire. The huge aircraft works with a lead plane that scouts ahead of the air tanker and helps to determine where and how it can attack the fire safely and provide the best assistance for firefighters, and in some cases, residents, on the ground. In this case the pilot of the lead plane and the pilots in the air tanker found that the smoke and the visibility made it unsafe to attempt to drop on the fire.

After that decision was made the lead plane and the 747 reverted to the original target. The flight crew watched from a distance as the lead plane flew a “show me” run over the specific target area, indicating exactly what track to take and where to drop the water. Next, the air tanker made a dry run over the target, that is, without dropping water. This is frequently flown a little higher than the eventual water or retardant drop, to evaluate the effects of wind, convection over the fire, and terrain. Then after doing a large 360 it came around with the lead plane and made the actual drop — in this case, half of the 19,200-gallon load. A little later it made another pass and dropped the rest.

After those drops it returned to Santiago to reload with water. Due to the confined space and scattered parked airplanes on the military side of the airport that has been designated as the reload site, or “pit”, the 747 can’t simply taxi in, reload, and taxi out. A tug has to help it maneuver during either the in or out trip. This is a very unusual, almost unheard of, situation for an air tanker that is fighting forest fires. If a few of those parked aircraft were moved it would significantly reduce the turnaround time for the air tanker. It could come in to the dead end ramp, do a U-turn, park, reload, and taxi out.

After reloading it flew to another designated target, but again smoke was a serious issue. Both the 747 and the lead plane explored and examined several potential tracks to the intended target, but it was deemed unsafe to attempt to fly through the smoke, so the SuperTanker returned to Santiago and landed with its tanks full, without having to jettison the load before landing like most other air tankers are required to do.

Like all air tankers, the 747 can drop either water or long term fire retardant, the red slightly viscous liquid that is seen being dropped from most air tankers in North America, Australia, and Europe. Retardant is more effective than plain water. It actually chemically interferes with the combustion process, while the thickened nature of it allows the wet, ketchup-like substance to stick to surfaces rather than running off onto the ground. But long term fire retardant is not available in Santiago.

There are a number of products that can be mixed with plain water to enhance its effectiveness, usually at less than one percent concentration. The one being used by the SuperTanker is Pyrocool which is stored on the aircraft and added to the tanks as needed. Pyrocool has not been approved for use by the U.S. Forest Service, but has been used on marine fires and on the World Trade Center fire.

We corrected the article to reflect that Pyrocool has not been approved for use on wildland fires by the U.S. Forest Service, but has been used on some other types of fires within the United States including marine fires and the World Trade Center.

 

Photos of the SuperTanker the day it arrived in Santiago

Above: Portable tanks storing water that will be pumped into the 747 Supertanker. 

These photos were taken today, January 25, 2016 the day the 747 SuperTanker arrived in Chile to assist firefighters on the ground who are battling the numerous wildfires in Chile.

The air tanker was expected to conduct its first mission Wednesday, dropping water on a fire about 200 miles south of Santiago. The crew planned to mix Pyrocool, a fire suppressant agent, into the water to enhance its effectiveness.

747 SuperTanker
747 SuperTanker at Santiago.
747 SuperTanker
Officials confer before the first mission after the 747 SuperTanker arrived in Chile.
Local firefighters fill some of the portable water tanks used to reload the 747 SuperTanker.
747 SuperTanker
Part of the hose “spaghetti” used to refill the 747 SuperTanker.
 747 SuperTanker
The 12 passenger seats in the 747 SuperTanker. Most if not all of these are usually empty when the aircraft is performing a mission over a wildfire.
747 SuperTanker
The Global SuperTanker crew brought an air compressor (left) which is used to fill the air tanks in the aircraft that provide the energy to pump the water or retardant out of the four nozzles. On the right are containers of Pyrocool which is designed to enhance the effectiveness of water to suppress a fire. The crew also brought a high-volume water pump in case it was needed to refill the aircraft with water or retardant.

All photos were taken by Bill Gabbert.