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 drops on a fire in Israel

747 Supertanker
The 747 Supertanker, T-944, drops on a fire in Israel northwest of Jerusalem on November 26, 2016. Screen grab from video by @ShaiBenari

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.

Shai Ben-ari (@ShaiBenari) recorded a video of the drop. The image above is a screen grab from the video. And, here is another video, by @Israel, which shows the entire drop. Below is a screen grab from that second video.

Supertanker dropping
Screen grab from a video by @Israel of the Supertanker dropping northwest of Jerusalem, November 26, 2016.

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.

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.

supertanker 747 Israel
The flight of T-944 as recorded by FlightRadar24.

747 Supertanker mobilized to wildfires in Israel

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.

route map
Typical route between Colorado Springs and Tel Aviv — about 6,900 miles.

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.

747 air tanker supertanker Israel
747 Supertanker dropping retardant in Ein Hod in the Carmel Forest on the outskirts of Haifa, Israel, on Dec. 5. Photo: Jack Guez

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.

If it actually is assigned to a fire in Israel after it arrives it will be the first time this version of the SuperTanker has dropped on an actual fire. The previous version had a call when needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service and was used sparingly, making its first fire drop on the Railbelt Complex of fires in Alaska, July 31, 2009.

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.

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 Supertanker videos, part 2

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.

747 Supertanker update

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.

T-944 training drop
Initial new hire training run at Keller Butte in North central Washington state. Global SuperTanker photo.

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.

Downhill, You Tube sharing from Global SuperTanker on Vimeo.

Three FAA inspectors from Denver and Seattle observed the flights.

T-944 training drop
T-944 makes a training drop on Keller Butte . Global SuperTanker photo.

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.

Video of Tanker 944, a 747, at Colorado Springs

On May 4, 2016 Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, made a dry run over the Colorado Springs airport and then conducted a practice drop with water. We were there to shoot this video and the still photos.

More information about the event.

(UPDATE May 5: the Colorado Springs Airport tweeted this video of the aircraft dropping today.)

And there’s this:

And here is a bonus video at no additional charge. Just after the 747 began taxiing before take off, three F-18’s landed. They taxied pretty close to where I was standing. A little military aircraft porn.