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.”