Above: 747 Supertanker in Chile, January 26, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
A Colorado county on Tuesday approved a deal that sets the stage for a response from the largest firefighting aircraft in the world if and when major wildfires flare up near Denver, marking the culmination of a first-of-its-kind contract.
Commissioners in Douglas County on Tuesday approved the one-year, $200,000 deal with Global SuperTanker Services LLC that gives the county access to the mammoth Boeing 747-400 aircraft that can drop roughly 20,000 gallons of water or retardant — nearly double the capacity of its closest rival, the DC-10.
The deal is unique in that it gives the 800-square-mile county situated between Denver and Colorado Springs exclusive access to the SuperTanker.
“Douglas County is establishing a model for wildland fire-prone municipalities to follow,” Bob Soleberg, senior vice president and program manager for Global SuperTanker, said in a statement Tuesday night to Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation. “Their planning is comprehensive and designed to protect lives, property and the natural resources.”
The county’s office of emergency management requested approval of the deal, citing “ongoing dry conditions in and around Douglas County and coupled with the limited air resources in the region for the purpose of wildland fire suppression,” according to county documents proposing the contract.
Director of Emergency Management Tim Johnson told the newspaper the move was part of a multi-pronged effort ensuring adequate air power existed when fires ignited. From The Post:
Douglas County has firefighting contracts with Castle Rock-based Rampart Helicopter Service, Broomfield-based HeliQwest, Loveland-based Trans Aero Ltd., and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, which uses DC-10s carrying more than 11,000-gallons capacity on board. It also has access to state and federal firefighting air resources.
“We need redundancies in our abilities during fire season because the resources may not always be available — we want to be able to go down a list,” Johnson said. “We’re leaning forward in terms of preparedness.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Above: A screen capture from a video shot from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker.
This video is a compilation of scenes recorded from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker as it dropped on fires in Chile between February 5 and 12, 2017. It was shot from a camera set up by Tom Parsons, one of the pilots on the air tanker.
If you enlarge the video to full screen you might be able to see the lead plane in the first two of the three shots.
On January 24, 2017 the 747 SuperTanker left its base in Colorado Springs, Colorado for an assignment in Chile. It returned on February 13 after dropping on many wildfires in the South American country, making as many as seven sorties in a day each with 19,200 gallons of water enhanced with an additive to help make the water more effective, since long term retardant was not available.
After 17 years as a ground based wildland firefighter, with much as it as a smokejumper, Jamie Tackman transitioned to the air, becoming a lead plane pilot. He has worked off and on with the 747 air tankers since Evergreen converted the first one. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled to Chile to provide lead plane services for the huge aircraft operated by Global SuperTankers. This time he had a different role, or at least a different platform, flying ahead of the air tanker as usual but in an aircraft flown by military pilots.
Bill Gabbert interviewed Jamie, who began by describing the situation. Chile has no infrastructure for supervising, using, or refilling large or very large air tankers and they were unfamiliar with the concept of lead planes. In spite of these challenges the personnel working with the 747 and the other aircraft developed procedures to fight the fires from the air, while the local firefighters improvised a system on the ground for refilling the 747 and the IL-76 with water.
Above: Members of the 747 SuperTanker crew, and others, assemble after the crew received an award from the Chilean Red Cross.
The Red Cross in Chile presented each member of the 747 SuperTanker crew with an Extraordinary Services Medal, the highest honor the organization can bestow on individuals contributing to the management of emergency services.
The aircraft has been in the country since January 25 and initially flew many missions dropping water on wildfires, but Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global Supertanker, said today the fire activity has slowed greatly, and they have not dropped on a fire in the last five to six days. They expect to still be assigned there through Sunday, February 12, and while there is a slight chance they could be extended beyond that date, it is not likely unless the fire situation changes.
Just a quick video of the 747 SuperTanker pulling up to the reload pit at Santiago, Chile airport after completing its seventh sortie on February 1, 2017, making a total of 11 drops on the 7 sorties. Six of the sorties were near Navidad and Matanzas 115 miles (185 km) southwest of the Santiago airport where many structures were threatened. The seventh was near Concepcion, 404 miles (650 km) south of Santiago. In total, 138,400 gallons (508,759 l.) were delivered to assist the firefighters on the ground who actually put out the fires.
This video contains shots of many water drops by the 747 Supertanker since it arrived January 25 in Chile. Some of the drops are seen multiple times recorded by different people from various angles. I guess you could call it air tanker porn.
There is one thing all of the shots have in common — the joy and exuberance that you hear every time the huge aircraft appears. Some of it comes from knowing it will assist the firefighters on the ground who may have been struggling to put out the fire that was threatening the property of the bystanders. And the rest perhaps is the novelty of it — seeing this massive machine they have been hearing about on the news and having the chance to see it in person. It is likely that none of them have ever seen in person a large or certainly not a very large air tanker. The country has some single engine air tankers but nothing like this critter.
As this is written at 1713 Chile time on January 31, the 747 just took off on its 4th mission today, carrying another 19,200-gallon load to a fire south of Santiago. (UPDATE at 2310 Chile time: the aircraft flew five missions today.)