There are a couple of more hurdles before the 747 SuperTanker is certified to fight wildfires

Chief Dennis Brown of CAL FIRE, when describing under what conditions his agency might use the 747: “You don’t use a sledgehammer to do your finish work.”

747 Supertanker

Above: The 747 Supertanker at McClellan Air Field March 22, 2016.

(Originally published at 4:21 p.m. MDT July 27, 2017.)

On July 25 the 747 SuperTanker achieved probably the most difficult step toward its goal of being able to drop retardant on wildfires, it received a 17-month interim approval of the retardant delivery system from the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). But it still can’t operate over fires. The next items on the To Do list of Global SuperTanker (GST), the company that operates the 19,200-gallon Very Large Air Tanker, is to have the pilots “carded” and the aircraft inspected. That process will be starting in a day or two while the ship, Air Tanker 944, sits at Victorville, California.

GST signed a Call When Needed (CWN) contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) on June 6 of this year hinging on the aircraft receiving approval by the IAB and the aircraft and the pilots being approved or carded.

Dennis Brown, the Chief of Flight Operations for CAL FIRE, told us today that his agency is working with the U.S. Forest Service to review the required information about the 747 and the personnel so that the cards can be issued if everything is in order. He said if they receive the data they need from GST, everything looks good, and there are no stumbling blocks along the way, the most optimistic scenario is that the cards could be issued by the end of next week, around August 4.

747 Supertanker
747 Supertanker taking off at McClellan Air Field at sunrise March 24, 2016.

But Chief Brown said, “It’s a little longer process than carding a Cessna 182, for sure”, adding that there are about 600 Airworthiness Directives to consider.

We asked if GST had any Initial Attack (IA) qualified pilots. “No, and we would not use them IA nor do we use the DC-10 IA”, Chief Brown said. “They would all be required to have an [Aerial Supervision Module] Lead Plane in front of them just like the [Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems] and the DC-10’s.”

We mentioned a widely reported quote attributed to CAL FIRE spokesperson Janet Upton, who reportedly said earlier this week, “Would we use [the 747] if approved? Absolutely we would use it.”

According to Chief Brown that is not what Ms. Upton said. “If the SuperTanker was approved it could be considered for CAL FIRE use”, he said, elaborating on Ms. Upton’s remarks to the reporter. “And then she went on to explain that it could absolutely become another tool for Incident Commanders to consider using along with other assets available to them.”

Mr. Brown said if the aircraft and pilots are completely approved it does not mean his agency will call them up on every fire they have. “It’s a specific tool for certain situations”, he said. “It’s certainly not going to be the tool we use on half-acre fires. If it gets approved we will consider it just like we do with anything else. There are some situations where a scooper will work the best, a [Single Engine Air Tanker] might work the best, a [Large Air Tanker] or a [Very Large Air Tanker]. But not every aircraft fits every role. You don’t use a sledgehammer to do your finish work, you know?”

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