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:
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.”
Above: Tanker 944’s flight over Israel November 27, 2016.
After being deployed November 24 to assist firefighters in Israel, the 747 Supertanker returned to Colorado Springs November 30. While overseas it dropped on two fires during two sorties, discharging the full 19,200-gallon load each time.
The Israelis were extremely aggressive in attacking emerging fires, according to Chief Pilot Cliff Hale and Sr. VP Program Manager Bob Soelberg of Global Supertanker Services. Talking with them on a speakerphone Friday they said there were more than 40 air tankers in the country while they were there, including the 14 privately owned Single Engine Air Tankers the country has under contract.
At all times surveillance aircraft were airborne, able to quickly detect new fires and track any vehicles leaving the scene. About 39 people were arrested for arson during the recent fire bust.
At times the crew was on hot standby, with orders to be wheels-up within 15 minutes if necessary.
Frequently there were multiple air tankers loitering off the coast out over the Mediterranean ready to drop within minutes on new fires. In flight planning the Supertanker crew was told to take off with enough fuel for three hours of loitering. They also carried another three hours of fuel for working over a fire.
As you can see in the screengrab from FightRadar24, they were flying a racetrack pattern as they waited for an assignment. Other air tankers loitering at the same time were, of course, flying at a different altitude.
The 747 Supertanker, Tanker 944, dropped on a wildfire in Israel today northwest of Jerusalem. This was the first drop on a fire this version of the Supertanker has made.
After a 12.5-hour non-stop flight from Colorado Springs the aircraft arrived in Tel Aviv at about 10:25 a.m. MST time on November 26, which was after dark at the Ben Gurion International Airport.
The drop made today occurred at around sunset.
Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, said it dropped the entire 19,200-gallon load of water. While sometimes air tankers in Israel drop fire retardant, he explained that the authorities often prefer water when the aircraft is working over populated areas.
Before the drop the 747 took off from Tel Aviv and loitered over the Mediterranean for a while before it apparently made a dry run over the fire and then dropped on the next pass. The entire flight lasted about two hours.
The huge aircraft departed from Colorado Springs, Colorado Thursday at 10 p.m. MST
Above: The 747 Supertanker takes off from McClellan Air Field in Sacramento, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
(Updated at 2:40 p.m. MST November 25, 2016)
The 747 Supertanker has been dispatched to Israel to help firefighters on the ground who are dealing with numerous wildfires.
Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, said that after sending their employees home for Thanksgiving he received a call from the Israeli government requesting the services of the 19,200-gallon air tanker. Scrambling to get the 12 personnel back to Colorado Springs who would be making the trip, the contingent departed at about 10 p.m. MST on Thursday, November 24. The flight to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv should take a planned 12.5 hours cruising at 550 mph. Mr. Wheeler said it flew non-stop with six hours to spare.
When we checked FlightRadar24 at 9:30 a.m. MST on November 25 it was over Turkey and must have had a tail wind as it flew at 615 mph at 37,000 feet. It should arrive at about 10:25 a.m. MST.
The company sent two complete flight crews, Mr. Wheeler said, each consisting of two pilots and a drop system operator who is responsible for the retardant delivery system. In addition there were four maintenance and ground personnel, one supervisor, and Bob Soelberg, Program Manager for Global Supertanker, who will liaise with the Israeli government.
The aircraft can drop retardant, foam, gel, or other fire suppressants.
This is not the first time a Supertanker has been mobilized to Israel. In December 2010 the first generation of the aircraft dropped on the Mt. Carmel Fire in which 44 people died. The aircraft was one of 30 that were dispatched at that time from countries all over the world, including six Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tankers from the U.S. military. The assistance from the MAFFS was approved and arranged late in the incident and they never took off or were turned around at a refueling stop in the Azores.
Mr. Wheeler said that even though there was no contract in place when he received the first call from the Prime Minister’s office late Wednesday night, they were able to negotiate the arrangements:
It went relatively quickly yesterday, we still have a few minor details to clean up but the Israelis were most cooperative and efficient.
Over the last three days numerous fires, some suspected of being arson related, have plagued the country. On Thursday tens of thousands of residents were forced to flee the city of Haifa.
Since the deadly Mt. Carmel fire Israel has substantially beefed up their fire aviation resources and now have 14 Single Engine Air Tankers under contract supplied by Elbit Systems and Chim Nir Flight Services. The SEATs have their place in the firefighter’s tool box, but the 747 carries far more than all of their SEATs combined.
In June Israel loaned three of their SEATs to Cyprus to help suppress large fires near Paphos and Evrychou. Now they are on the receiving end as firefighting aircraft are arriving from the U.S., Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Italy, and Turkey. In addition, Russia sent two water scooping Be-200 air tankers. One can be seen scooping in the video at the top of the page.
In spite of a report in a major east coast newspaper, the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center has not received any orders for firefighting resources. But, according to BLM spokesperson Randall Eardley, there have been some discussions about crew availability. Jessica Gardetto of the BLM said the Pentagon has inquired about the process for sending assistance internationally.
The company hopes to obtain approval from the Interagency Air Tanker Board.
Global Supertanker took another step toward obtaining every certification necessary for their 747 to be fully qualified as an air tanker for the federal land management agencies in the United States. A month or two ago they received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA but just recently got the agency’s Federal Aviation Regulations Part 137 certificate. At this point many state organizations and other countries would be comfortable employing the air tanker that can carry 19,200 gallons of water or fire retardant, especially since the delivery system is basically the same that was used in version 1.0 of the air tanker when it was developed and operated for several years by Evergreen.
The company’s next step is to obtain approval from the Interagency Air Tanker Board for the aircraft designated as Tanker 944, which would qualify it to be used on federal fires in the United States.
“Global SuperTanker has completed the requested USFS testing and we are now awaiting the outcome from the Interagency Air Tanker Board (IAB),” said Harry Toll, Managing Partner of Alterna Capital Partners LLC, whose portfolio company, Cyterna Air, LLC, owns Global SuperTanker. “This is a busy time of year for the IAB members, but we are confident they will review the test materials in the very near future. We are volunteering to do all that we can to receive their final approval.”
In the last few weeks the U.S. Forest Service has brought on ten additional air tankers on a temporary basis. This includes CL-415 water-scoopers, CV-580’s, and Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130’s. Two of the aircraft were acquired through Call When Needed (CWN) agreements; four via agreements with Alaska and Canada; two MAFFS through an agreement with the Department of Defense; and two water scoopers through other contracts.
The U.S. Forest Service expects to have two HC-130H aircraft at McClellan Air Field in September. These are part of the seven aircraft fleet of HC-130H’s that the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard.
Last year one of the HC-130H’s worked out of McClellan using a MAFFS, a slip-in 3,000-gallon pressurized retardant system that pumps the liquid out the left side troop door. That was aircraft #1721 designated as Tanker 118, still painted in military colors. T-118 is now undergoing scheduled depot-level maintenance and should be replaced in September of this year by #1708 designated as Tanker 116. It will also use a slip-in MAFFS unit, one of the eight owned by the USFS, but should be sporting a new USFS air tanker paint job. After T-118 left, another former Coast Guard aircraft took its place, #1706. It is being used for training the contracted pilots and will not serve as an air tanker.
Eventually the USFS hopes to have all seven converted to air tankers with removable retardant tanks. A contract for the installation of the retardant delivery systems was awarded to the Coulson Group in May. There is also much other work that has to be completed on the aircraft including programmed depot maintenance, painting, and wing box replacement on most of them. The work is being done or coordinated by the U.S. Air Force. They were directed by Congressional legislation to use their own funds, up to $130 million, so it is no surprise that the schedule keeps slipping as delays continue to occur in awarding contracts and scheduling the maintenance.
The USFS has two water-scooping CL-415 air tankers on exclusive use contract. As noted above they recently temporarily brought on two more on a call when needed basis. All four are operated by AeroFlite and as seen in the photo above were together at Cody last week.
There was some discussion in the comment section of another article on Fire Aviation about the status of the BAe-146 aircraft being converted to air tankers by Air Spray. The company has five of the 146’s; two are out of the country and the other three are at the company’s Chico, California facility. Ravi Saip, their Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told Fire Aviation that they expect to begin flight testing one of them in air tanker mode around the first of the year. After they receive a supplemental type certificate from the FAA, work on the second one would shift into high gear. Then conversion of the other three would begin.
Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 single engine air tankers that they have purchased since 2014. Five of them have received the amphibious conversion by adding floats, and the other three are stock, restricted to wheels.
Air Spray’s Tanker 498, an L-188 Electra, is currently in Sacramento being inspected and carded by CAL FIRE so that it can be used in a Call When Needed capacity.
Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, told us that the FAA has awarded a supplemental type certificate for their reborn 747 SuperTanker — a major and sometimes very difficult barrier to overcome. Within the next two weeks they expect to receive the airworthiness certificate.
Beginning next week representatives from the USFS will observe some additional static tests and then there will be an airborne descent test, a new test added in 2013, releasing retardant in a downhill drop. That test was not required when Version 1.0 of the 747 was certified. It may have been added after it was discovered that the first BAe-146’s that were converted and issued contracts still retained hundreds of gallons of retardant after downhill runs.
These steps should take less than two weeks, Mr. Wheeler said, after which they will submit the results to the Interagency AirTanker Board.
Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told Fire Aviation that the company was offered an opportunity to submit a proposal for a call when needed contract solicitation in 2015, along with numerous other companies, but declined to do so. Their next opportunity to obtain a contract will be when another general solicitation is issued in 2017, or perhaps sooner, Ms. Jones said. The agency issued a Request for Information a few weeks ago, which is usually followed some months later with an actual solicitation.
Judging from the list of CWN air tankers with contracts, apparently it is possible to submit a proposal and receive a USFS CWN contract even if the aircraft exists mostly on paper and could be years away from being FAA and Interagency AirTanker Board certified.
In the meantime Mr. Wheeler realizes that the USFS is not the only organization that hires air tankers and has been talking with a number of other agencies in various states and countries as well as companies involved in marine firefighting.
Global SuperTanker is in the process of finishing repairs on the 747 in Arizona after some of the composite flight control surfaces (flaps, spoilers, elevators) and engine cowlings were damaged by golf ball sized hail at Colorado Springs several weeks ago. There was no windscreen or fuselage damage.
Mr. Wheeler said that was the first severe hailstorm within the last seven years at the Colorado Springs airport. But, after the aircraft left to be repaired in Arizona a second hailstorm struck the airport that some have said was a 100-year event and did much more damage than the first one.
Since then no decisions have been made. Ms. Jones told Fire Aviation:
The U.S. Forest Service continues to cooperate with the Department of Defense to identify potential federal facilities, which must be considered first.
It is unlikely that more than one or two of the seven HC-130H’s would be at the new base at at any one time, except during the winter when they would not have to be dispersed around the country to be available for firefighting. While the base might not be a huge expansion of the aerial firefighting capabilities in an area, the stationing of the flight crews, maintenance, and administrative personnel would be a boost to the economy of a small or medium-sized city.
Yesterday we showed you a couple of videos produced by Global Supertanker, the company that resurrected the 747 air tanker first created by Evergreen. Here are two more featuring the new Tanker 944. I was surprised how interesting it was to see a HUGE aircraft being painted and having the retardant delivery system installed.
Above: A screen grab from the 747 Supertanker video, “Mountain Flying”.
Global SuperTanker bought the retardant system and the intellectual property formerly owned by Evergreen, the organization that first put it in a 747-100 air tanker. It now resides in a 747-400 operated by Global SuperTanker which in recent weeks has been going through some of the final stages of installation, testing, and crew training.
On June 17 the aircraft traveled to Moses Lake, Washington to conduct crew training in mountainous terrain on the Colville Indian Reservation near Moses Lake, Washington. Training flights were under the direction of experienced Lead Plane pilot Jamie Tackman flying a King Air 90, and were recorded by video cameras located on the Keller Butte fire lookout tower and in a helicopter orbiting overhead.Tanker 944, along with the Lead Plane, made seven round trips to the training area, completing a mix of “show me” and low level dry runs plus various full load and segmented water drops.
Three FAA inspectors from Denver and Seattle observed the flights.
Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services, said they do not know if the aircraft will have to go through the retardant drop testing in which the liquid is caught in hundreds of cups placed on the ground. The retardant system is basically the same that was used in Version 1.0 operated by Evergreen, which was previously approved by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). The Board wants some additional data from static drops that will be conducted soon, then a decision will be made about what other data or testing they will need, if any.
Global SuperTanker Services is now preparing the aircraft, ground crew and their facilities for inspections by the FAA, CAL FIRE, U.S. Forest Service, Interagency Airtanker Board, and other state or regional fire agencies interested in CWN (Call When Needed) contracts for the 2016 fire season.
The company has produced videos showcasing the rebirth of the 747 air tanker, Tanker 944. Some have been removed but here is one of them. It appears to have been filmed during the training at the Colville Indian Reservation.