747 SuperTanker arrives in Chile

Above: The crew from the 747 SuperTanker is welcomed at the Santiago Airport, January 25, 2017.

Early Wednesday morning the 747 SuperTanker landed at Santiago, Chile to begin an assignment to help firefighters on the ground suppress some of the many fires burning in the country during an extended drought and heat wave.

After landing, the huge aircraft was towed by an airport tug to a remote corner of the military side of the airport where two very large bladder bags had been positioned, presumably containing water to fill the 19,200-gallon tank. It took quite a while for the tug to position the 747 in that location, so the aircraft crew will be working with the locals to reposition what will be a loading pit so that the aircraft can quickly taxi in and out to reload, without the use of a tug.

chile supertanker
Drug-sniffing dogs searched the interior of the SuperTanker after it landed at Santiago.

The first order of business was to bring three drug-sniffing dogs on board. One of them had to be carried up the very steep ladder to the upper deck — not an easy task. Kudos to the dog’s handler who made it look fairly easy, even though the dog looked quite uncomfortable.

jim wheeler carol perez
Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker, meets with the US Ambassador to Chile, Carol Perez.

After we were bussed to a VIP version of Customs, the U.S. Ambassador to Chile, Carol Perez met with Jim Wheeler, CEO and President of Global Supertanker. Next was a chaotic press conference where Alfredo Mascareno of CONAF, which is the Chilean version of the U.S. Forest Service, was mobbed by several dozen members of the media, including CNN of Chile. Mr. Wheeler told me he was grateful that he was not interviewed.

Chile fires
Alfredo Mascareno of CONAF (wearing glasses) is mobbed at the Santiago Airport during a press conference about the wildfires in Chile.

The two flight crews will get some rest Wednesday morning, and one of them will most likely be available in the afternoon to fly the aircraft. But many logistical and coordination details still need to be worked out.

Christopher M. Nyce of the U.S. Embassy told us that USA fire personnel have been deployed to Chile for this fire siege, including four from the USFS and a “team” from CAL FIRE. The USFS contingent arrived early Wednesday morning. CAL FIRE signed an agreement with Chile in November regarding mutual assistance during wildfires.  There may be firefighters from other countries arriving later this week. (UPDATE January 31, 2017: there was a change in plans, and the personnel from CAL FIRE did not deploy to Chile.)

A private foundation is funding the initial deployment of the SuperTanker

Above: Ben and Lucy Ana Walton de Availés display a Chilean flag at the door of the 747 Supertanker the day before the air tanker departed for Chile. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The assignment of the 747 SuperTanker to help fight the numerous wildfires in Chile is very different in at least one respect — a private foundation is supplying the starter funds for the huge air tanker to travel to Santiago and for approximately three days of actual use on fires.

An heir to the Walmart fortune, Ben Walton and his wife Lucy Ana Walton de Availés, of Denver, have worked out arrangements with the Chilean government and the operator of the 747, Global SuperTanker, to assist the firefighters on the ground in Chile. The funds are being provided by Ben and Lucy Ana’s foundation, Foundación Viento Sur, which has a connection to the Walton Family Foundation. They hope the government will retain the services of the air tanker for as long as it is needed after they see the effectiveness of the aircraft.

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Lucy Ana Walton de Availés, Ben Walton, and Jim Wheeler (L to R) in front of the tanks in the SuperTanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Lucy Ana is originally from Chile and has strong feelings about finding a way to help the residents in her homeland to defend against the fires that have destroyed scores of homes and damaged vineyards, a very important industry in the country.

Ben and Lucy Ana visited Global SuperTanker’s Colorado Springs facilities on January 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 capabilities and its potential to assist the residents of Chile.

Working out the details with the foundation, the Chilean government, and Global Supertanker was a complex procedure that took a few days. Finally late Tuesday morning, January 24, the flight crew received the GO order and departed for South America at about 1:40 p.m. MT.

Another cause receiving assistance from the foundation includes Postpartum Support International (PSI), an organization to help women suffering perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. The grant will strengthen postpartum treatment in the state of Colorado, although PSI has global connections. 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.

Lucy Ana Walton
Lucy Ana Walton de Availés enjoys the classic jet aviator’s pose.

747 air tanker receives federal approval

Above: the 747 Supertanker at McClellan Air Field, March 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The 747 SuperTanker has received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker, the operator of the air tanker, said he first heard from the IAB on January 6 that the approval had been granted.

Interim approval is the last step before full approval. It means the company can compete for and receive contracts to serve as an air tanker for federal agencies in the United States. If it receives a contract, the performance and effectiveness of the aircraft will be evaluated while under this status. Then if satisfactory, it can be elevated to full approval. The interim approval is valid through June 15, 2017, Mrs. Jones said.

When the Neptune Aviation BAe-146s were first converted to air tankers they were given “interim” status while bugs in the new system were found and eventually mitigated. For example, the company added additional drop doors farther forward on the fuselage in order to improve the dispersal of retardant while making a downhill drop.

However the retardant delivery system on this 747 has been used on previous 747s and was fully certified by the IAB years ago. Over the last year it has been installed in a 747-400 which has more powerful engines than the 747-100 and 747-200 used by Evergreen, the company that first built a 747 air tanker. Global Supertanker bought the hardware and intellectual property for the retardant system when Evergreen declared bankruptcy.

The 747 can hold 19,200 gallons, much more than any other air tanker. For comparison, the DC-10 very large air tanker carries 11,600 gallons, while the BAe-146, RJ85, and C-130 hold up to 3,000 to 3,500 gallons. The P2V Korean War vintage aircraft that has been the workhorse air tanker for decades usually carries less than 2,000 gallons. The S-2T used by CAL FIRE holds up to 1,200 gallons.

Last summer the 747 Supertanker received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA and the agency’s Federal Aviation Regulations Part 137 certificate.

T-944 mountain flying
Global Supertanker.

In November it made a non-stop flight to Israel and after arriving dropped on two wildfires at the request of the country’s government.

“IAB approval is an essential requirement in airtanker contracts for some wildfire agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS),” Mr. Wheeler said. “With this approval, we look forward to bidding on – and winning – upcoming domestic and international contracts. We are grateful and excited to join the team of airtankers currently serving a critical mission for the United States and globally, and look forward to continuing to work with the USFS, CAL FIRE, and the IAB during the final approval process.”

Photography Prints

Using the 747 Supertanker to drop on fires at night

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:

R&D proposal for night drops
Global Supertanker R&D proposal for night drops.

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.”

How the 747 Supertanker was used in Israel

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.

Tanker 944, a 747-400
Tanker 944, a 747-400, at Colorado Springs, May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Supertanker Watch Party
Found on Instagram: “Supertanker Watch Party”.

747 Supertanker receives certification from FAA

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.”

747 makes practice drop at Colorado Springs

(UPDATED at 12:08 p.m. MDT, May 4, 2016)

The practice drop by the 747 Supertanker occurred as planned this morning. After takeoff from the Colorado Springs Airport the aircraft followed a very detailed route specified by the FAA and made one dry run. After that it circled around and made a water drop between a runway and a taxiway. The FAA restricted them to half a load, only allowing them to drop about 9,800 gallons.

747 SuperTanker

747 SuperTanker

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(Originally published at 10:21 a.m. MDT, May 4, 2016)

The 747 SuperTanker will be making a dry, low pass and after that a practice water drop at the Colorado Springs airport Wednesday morning, approximately between 10:45 and noon.

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Tanker 944, a 747, at the Colorado Springs Airport Wednesday May 4 2016

Jim Wheeler introduces the 747 SuperTanker

An interview with Jim Wheeler about the 747 SuperTanker that can carry 19,600 gallons of fire retardant or water. Mr. Wheeler is the President and CEO of Global Supertanker Services LLC. The interview was filmed at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento, California March 22, 2016 by Bill Gabbert for FireAviation.com