747 Supertanker expected to return to service in 2022

The retardant delivery system to be reinstalled in a different aircraft

5:11 p.m. PDT Sept. 3, 2021

Global Supertanker Retardant Delivery System
Global Supertanker Retardant Delivery System. Image by Global Supertanker.

A company that provides aircraft for lease has purchased the retardant delivery system (RDS) formerly in the 747 Supertanker. Logistic Air is now the owner of the tanking system that for years had interim approval by the federal government’s Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) to be used in an air tanker.

Global Supertanker’s recently modified  website proudly proclaims “Returning to Service in 2022.”

Global Supertanker
Screengrab from GlobalSupertanker.biz Sept. 3, 2021.

Many of the photos of aircraft on Logistic Air’s website are 747s, but they provide wide-body and narrow-body passenger and cargo aircraft for world-wide operations.

Fluid tanks 747 supertanker
The eight fluid tanks were inspected, tested, painted, and mounted to cargo pallets before being installed in the last version of the Supertanker in 2016. Photo by Global Supertanker.

The SuperTanker’s RDS is comprised of approximately 20 tanks that hold retardant and enough compressed air to pump the retardant out of the four nozzles that were in the belly of the huge aircraft. At various times the air tanker had interim certification by the IAB to carry 20,000, 19,200 and 17,500 gallons of retardant. The IAB and the US Forest Service appeared to bend over backwards to find reasons to not issue full approval to the aircraft and the RDS.

Supertanker's nozzels
Retardant comes out of four nozzles on the belly of the Supertanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Earlier this year the SuperTanker’s drop controlling system and other components were significantly modified to improve the delivery of retardant, including metering the volume dispersed based on the ground speed of the aircraft. It then went through dozens of tests on the ground. The operators were waiting for it to be scheduled for the IAB’s grid or cup test which measures the amount of retardant that hits the ground over a large grid. But before that took place, the owner, Alterna Capital, shut down the company and sold the aircraft and the RDS to two companies. The 747 was purchased by National Airlines to be used as a freighter, and Logistic Air bought the RDS.

747 SuperTanker makes demonstration water drop
747 SuperTanker makes demonstration water drop in Colorado Springs, May 14, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A person at Alterna Capital who was not authorized to speak for the company told Fire Aviation that Global Supertanker had approximately two dozen employees and contractors when the doors closed and none of them are working for the new owners at this time. The person said Alterna “will support Logistic Air in any way we can.”

Calls to Logistic Air were not immediately returned.

UPDATE at 6:27 p.m. PDT Sept. 3, 2021

After this was published we received a call from a person at Logistic Air who asked to remain anonymous. They confirmed that the company plans to install the RDS in a nose-loading 747-200 when the aircraft completes maintenance after the first of the year. The aircraft itself will have to be modified, of course, to enable loading retardant and compressed air, and the plumbing and belly nozzles need to be installed. Then they will schedule a grid test, which they are confident it will pass. The final and most important step is applying for and receiving a new contract from the US Forest Service, no easy feat. We were told that some of the former employees of GlobalSupertanker are expected to work with the new organization.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick.

A story about one drop from the 747 Supertanker

“Made the difference between success and failure on a devastating wildfire”

The 747, T-944, drops near Santiago Peak
The 747, T-944, drops near Santiago Peak August 8, 2018 on the Holy Fire in Southern California. Credit: Evver G. Photography

The article below is written by Jim Barnes, a former pilot of CAL FIRE S-2T air tankers.

It is a low-down dirty shame that the decision was made to cancel the 747 Super Tanker this fire season. Especially in the light of another potentially catastrophic fire season for our western states ahead of us. Some-how we never seem to heed the hard learned lessons of the past. The failure to be prepared is to prepare to fail. The 747 is not cheep for sure but the great work and many great saves it has made cannot be measured merely in dollars but potentially in the lives and property that might be lost by not having that capability.

In the week before I retired from tanker flying, I was relieving in Grass Valley. I woke up in a motel room just before daylight and flicked on the television on the way to the bathroom. I was shocked to learn that several fires were burning in the Grass Valley and Nevada City area. It was hot and it was windy so I got dressed, threw my s*** into my car and headed for the base with a short stop at Jack in the Box for of one of their delicious breakfasts.

When I got to the base it was still dark and I was the only one there.  Looking out toward the city you could see the orange glow. I started pre-flighting with my flashlight when the base pilot, Colin Rogers showed up. He was soon followed by the Chief and his Air Attack Pilot who ran out to the OV-10, kicked the tires and blasted off toward the fire. Within minutes he called for both tankers to respond. Colon took the lead and I taxied into position to do a section go. Colon started his roll and within seconds aborted takeoff because of a mechanical problem. That put me first in.

The Chief wanted me to start a protective line in front of a house at the top of a steep hillside. The wind was terrible so I used two wingspans for correction. That wasn’t enough and the entire load was blown down into the canyon. On the way back to base I heard tanker 88 checking in with Air Attack.  His mechanical problem was fixed and Colon was back in the hunt.  I briefed him on the effect of the wind as we crossed paths. On my way back out I heard Colon in tanker 88 calling the tanker base.

“We better get prepared to operate eight tankers out of Grass Valley all day long.”

But we never saw any more S-2s at our fire. They were already committed to project fires all over the state like the one that was devastating Santa Rosa. We did get one C-130 out of Chico and he did a great job but because he was in Chico his longer turn arounds gave us about two drops an hour.

So, we had two S-2Ts hot lapping making about 13-minute turnarounds, all the helicopters and ground forces that they could muster and the fire was still outproducing us badly. The fire now posed an imminent threat to several communities, including Grass Valley and Nevada City. One residential area was about to be over burned which would have resulted in catastrophic losses.

Somehow CAL FIRE got a hold of the 747 Very Large Air Tanker.  Air Attack assigned him the job of picking up an entire flank that was about to impinge on homes, a school and businesses. Without the aid of a lead plane the 747 lined up on the target, made a perfect drop and covered the entire flank with a massive load of retardant. We never saw him again for the rest of the day but that one drop made the difference between success and failure on a devastating wildfire. We will never know what would have happened had he not been there. Unfortunately for our Citizens and Firefighters we may find out this year. My prediction is that when the s*** hits the fan the powers that are will be scrambling to get the 747 back on contract. I have seen this story play out many times in my thirty-five years of aerial firefighting.  Damn, I’m sure tired of being right.

To see all articles on Fire Aviation written by Jim Barnes, click here.

The 747 Supertanker is ceasing operations

The company is in discussions with prospective buyers for the huge air tanker

Updated at 3:08 p.m. MDT April 23, 2021

747 sunset March 22, 2016
747 Supertanker at MCC during sunset March 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The investor group that owns the 747 Supertanker, Tanker 944, is shutting down the huge air tanker. In an email sent April 21 to officials in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the federal government, Dan Reese the President of Global Supertanker gave them the news:

This week the investors that own the Global SuperTanker just informed me that they have made the difficult decision to cease operations of the company, effective this week…This is extremely disappointing as the aircraft has been configured and tuned with a new digital drop system and other upgrades to make it more safe and efficient.

Mr. Reese said in the email they are in discussions with prospective buyers, but it was unknown at that time if the aircraft would continue to be configured as an air tanker capable of carrying more than 17,500 gallons or if it would be used as a freighter.

Most of the company’s employees have been furloughed until the fate of the SuperTanker is known.

747 Supertanker takeoff from MCC
747 Supertanker takeoff from MCC, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In an April 2020 letter posted on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s website the Chair of the National Interagency Aviation Committee, Joel Kerley of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote to Global Supertanker Services  saying the Committee would not issue a seventh interim approval of the aircraft’s retardant delivery system:

The Interagency Air Tanker Subcommittee does not support any further interim approvals without correcting some issues originally identified in the 2009 test of the system that included failure to meet coverage level 3 & 6, retention of retardant in the system after drop, aeration of the retardant causing trail off, and inconsistent flight profiles affecting retardant coverage.

Due to the current national situation regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19), NIAC will issue an eighth interim approval to GSTS. However, NIAC will not support, nor issue a ninth interim until GSTS successfully passes all requirements of the 2013 IABS Criteria. This must be completed prior to December 31, 2020.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

Last winter Tanker 944 spent several weeks in Moses Lake, Washington getting routine maintenance and a conversion of the retardant delivery system from an analog controller to a digital version, a change that was requested by the National Interagency Aviation Committee.

Most large air tankers carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant. The 747 is capable of carrying far more retardant than any other. When first introduced it was listed at 20,000 gallons. Then the federal government certified it at 19,200 gallons. More recently it was required to carry no more than 17,500 gallons. The second-largest capacity air tanker is the Russian-made Ilyushin IL-76 at 11,574 gallons. The DC-10 until a couple of years ago was allowed to hold 11,600 but federal officials now restrict it to 9,400.

The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. agency that contracts for all of the large and very large air tankers used by the federal government, has been slow to warm up to the concept of tankers that can carry more than 5,000 gallons. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, accepted the concept of the 747 and DC-10 more quickly.

We asked the Forest Service for a comment on the demise of the 747. “The USDA Forest Service is aware of this vendors decision,”  said Stanton Florea, Fire Communications Specialist for the agency.”The Global Super Tanker is on a Call-When-Needed (CWN) contract for aerial wildland fire suppression.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Global Supertanker Services has an ad in the sidebar of Fire Aviation.

Opinion of a Lead Plane Pilot

I asked a Lead Plane Pilot who has worked with Tanker 944 for his impressions of the aircraft. He is currently active and not authorized to comment publicly:

It’s a specialized tool, and as such it has a niche that it fills and in that niche there’s nothing else any better. That is, it puts out a huge amount of retardant in one pass, and that sometimes can be a great thing. It can travel halfway around the world and deliver product. Having said that it is also a specialized tool in that it isn’t very good at doing the little stuff.

I asked him about the retardant that sometimes trails off after a drop:

That trail off, that’s something they can beat them over the head with, but at the end of the day hardly anybody I know gives a s**t about it. Ok, well, it’s not a perfect tank.

Below is video of Tanker 944 dropping on the Holy Jim Fire on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California in 2018.

First drop on a fire

The initial version of the Supertanker installed by Evergreen in a 747-100 made its first ever drop on a fire 12 years ago at the Railbelt complex in Alaska in 2009. When Evergreen went bankrupt Global Supertanker bought the hardware and the rights to the retardant system and installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.

Assisted firefighters in Israel, Mexico, Chile, and Bolivia

In 2016 the 747 assisted firefighters in Israel, and in 2017 it spent several weeks working on fires in Chile. In one day, February 1, 2017 working out of Santiago, it conducted a total of 11 drops on 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.

The air tanker also had an assignment in Mexico in 2011, and in 2019 spent about seven weeks on a firefighting contract in Bolivia.

Updated at 3:08 p.m. MDT April 23, 2021 to include a quote from the US Forest Service and a link to the NWCG letter to Global SuperTanker Services.

DC-10 air tanker dispatched to wildfire in Mexico

About this time 10 years ago the Martin Mars, the 747, and two MAFFS air tankers assisted firefighters in Mexico.

Wildfires near Monterrey, Mexico
Map showing the location of wildfires (in red) southwest of Monterrey, Mexico 3:48 p.m. CDT March 28, 2021.

One of the DC-10 air tankers, T-912, has started a contract with the state of Coahuila to assist firefighters battling a fire 20 miles southwest of Monterrey in Mexico. Today was its first day of operations but when we spoke to John Gould, President of 10 Tanker at 2:45 p.m. CDT today March 28, the aircraft was on the ground waiting for an improvement in the weather.

They are working and reloading out of the airport in Laredo, Texas about 160 miles northeast of the fire.

The fire they will be dropping retardant on initially is just west of the Coahuila/Nuevo León state line. According to heat detected by satellites it appears to be several thousand acres, while a fire about 4 miles to the east in Nuevo León looks to be more than 22,000 acres. Both fires are near Highway 20.

Wildfires near Monterrey, Mexico
Wildfires southwest of Monterrey, Mexico 3:48 p.m. CDT March 28, 2021.

“Beautiful country there,”  Mr. Gould told Fire Aviation. “Very steep and challenging country for fighting fire. The state of Coahuila is providing the aerial supervision aircraft and we have put one of our pilots with lead plane and Air Tactical Group Supervisor experience in the right seat.”

Fire SW of Monterrey in Coahuila, Mexico
Fire SW of Monterrey in Coahuila, Mexico. Noon March 26, 2021. 10 Tanker photo.
Fire SW of Monterrey in Coahuila, Mexico
Fire SW of Monterrey in Coahuila, Mexico. Noon March 26, 2021. 10 Tanker photo.
Fire SW of Monterrey in Coahuila, Mexico
From high altitude, this is the general area of the fires, SW of Monterrey in Coahuila, Mexico. March 27, 2021. 10 Tanker photo.

In 2011 the 747 air tanker, two C-130’s with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) from Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, and the Martin Mars worked on fires in northern Mexico. The C-130’s were reloading at Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas while the 747 worked out of Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.

The Martin Mars was  based at Lake Amistad reservoir near Del Rio, Texas. The lake straddles the U.S./Mexico border, and the aircraft was moored on the U.S. side.

Tanker 912, N522AX
Tanker 912, N522AX, after new livery, Feb. 26, 2021. 10 Tanker photo.

Washington state exploring ways to increase access to firefighting aircraft

Supertanker and Hillary Franz
Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz spoke at a demonstration of the 747 Supertanker March 23, 2021 at Moses Lake, Washington.

Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has been outspoken recently about the need for her state to have adequate resources to prevent and suppress wildland fires. She is supporting a bill before the Legislature that would appropriate $125 million over the next two years and create long-term, dedicated funding for wildfire response, forest restoration, and community resilience.

From the Herald:

That $125 million investment includes:

$70.8 million for wildfire response, including hiring 100 additional firefighters and boosting the agency’s response to nearly 400,000 acres that current is unprotected; two new fixed-winged aircraft; upgrades and maintenance of the agency’s Vietnam-era Huey helicopters; and infrared and night-vision technology for fire detection work;

$35.7 million to fully fund the 20-year forest health plan for thinning and other work on 1.25 million acres of forest; grants and surplus vehicles to local fire districts and departments, as well as funding for training, equipment and personnel; and $1.2 million for workforce development for education and training, to bring forest-related jobs to communities throughout the state; and

$19.6 million to be spent at the community level to develop and implement programs for firebreaks, prescribed burns, creation of defensible green space and help for homeowners to protect homes and properties.

On Tuesday Commissioner Franz was at Moses Lake, Washington to see a demonstration water drop by the 747 Supertanker. The aircraft has been there for several weeks for routine maintenance and an upgrade to its drop system which is powered by compressed air.

She envisions state and federal funding sources to combine so that the 19,200-gallon air tanker can be based at Grant County International Airport at Moses Lake, which she described as “an unbelievably perfectly situated place” and could be a hub for firefighting aircraft to serve several states and British Columbia. She wrote on Twitter Wednesday, “If we get the federal and state resources we need, we can keep this plane based in Washington.” And on Tuesday, “This aircraft is a strategic wildland firefighting asset for the nation, and its home base in Moses Lake will allow it to fight fires in Washington and the entire West Coast.”

Washington has 11 UH-1H helicopters, a fleet acquired through the Federal Excess Property Program.

In an interview in 2019 Commissioner Franz talked about their aviation program. She believes in aggressive initial attack and keeping fires small:

“Helicopters are number one in initial attack and being able to get on top of fires quickly, get them contained, and help our firefighters get in safely… And then we can put the fire out and move on to the next one.”

747 returning from assignment in Bolivia

747 supertanker Bolivia
File photo of Air Tanker 944 at Viru Viru International Airport in Bolivia. Global Supertanker photo.

The 747 Supertanker (GST944) has completed its assignment assisting the firefighters in Bolivia. It is scheduled to fly  back to U.S. Monday night after arriving in South America on August 23.

Tanker 944 is scheduled to depart from Viru Viru Int’l (VVI) at 3:06 PM MDT Monday October 14 heading for San Bernardino International (SBD) with an estimated arrival at 12:04 AM PDT Tuesday October 15. (UPDATE: it appears the departure will be delayed, and the aircraft will probably arrive at SBD Tuesday afternoon.)

Firefighter’s widow files suit against CAL FIRE and Global Supertanker over air tanker drop

The widow of the Draper, Utah firefighter who was killed while fighting a wildfire in Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, according to a report by the Sacramento Bee.

Matthew Burchett
Matthew Burchett. Photo: Draper City FD

Matthew Burchett, a 42-year old Battalion Chief from the Draper City Fire Department was killed August 13, 2018 when a retardant drop from the 747 air tanker uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him. Three other firefighters had different assortments of injuries from sheered-off trees and limbs, including broken ribs, deep muscle contusions, ligament damage to extremities, scratches, and abrasions.

On September 14, 2018 CAL FIRE released what they call a “Green Sheet” report about the fatality and injuries that were caused by the falling tree debris. The accident occurred on the Ranch Fire which was part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

Standard procedure is for firefighters to leave an area before an air tanker drops. The report said the personnel on that Division were told twice that day to not be under drops — once in a morning Division break-out briefing, and again on the radio before the fatal drop and three others from large air tankers were made in the area. It was not confirmed that all supervisors heard the order on the radio to evacuate the drop area.

One of the “Incidental Issues / Lessons Learned” in the report mentioned that some firefighters like to record video of air tanker drops:

Fireline personnel have used their cell phones to video the aerial retardant drops. The focus on recording the retardant drops on video may distract firefighters. This activity may impair their ability to recognize the hazards and take appropriate evasive action possibly reducing or eliminating injuries.

The air tanker that made the drop was T-944, a 747-400 that can carry up to 19,200 gallons. Instead of a more conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery system, the aircraft has pressurized equipment that forces the retardant out of the tanks using compressed air. This is similar to the MAFFS air tankers. When a drop is made from the recommended height the retardant hits the ground as a mist, falling vertically, rather than the larger droplets you see with a gravity tank.

Diagram fatality air tanker drop Green Sheet
Diagram from the CAL FIRE Green Sheet.

In this case, according to the report, the drop was made from approximately 100 feet above the tree tops. The report stated:

The Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) identified the drop path to the VLAT by use of a smoke trail. The VLAT initiated the retardant drop as identified by the smoke trail. Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the VLAT pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path. This rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site.

When a drop is made from a very low altitude with any air tanker, the retardant is still moving forward almost as fast as the aircraft, as seen in this drop. If it is still moving forward there will be “shadows” that are free of retardant on the back side of vegetation, reducing the effectiveness of the drop. From a proper height retardant will gradually slow from air resistance, move in an arc and ideally will be falling gently straight down before it hits the ground. Another example of a low drop was on the Liberty Fire in Southern California in 2017 that dislodged dozens of ceramic roofing tiles on a residence and blew out several windows allowing a great deal of retardant to enter the home.

Global Supertanker, the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, gave us this statement shortly after the Green Sheet was released:

We’re heartbroken for the families, friends and colleagues of Chief Burchett and the other brave firefighters who were injured during their recent work on the Mendocino Complex Fire. As proud members of the wildland firefighting community, we, too, have lost a brother.

On August 13, 2018, Global SuperTanker Services, LLC acted within procedural and operational parameters. The subject drop was initiated at the location requested by the Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) after Global SuperTanker Services, LLC was advised that the line was clear.

The company is owned by Alterna Capital Partners LLC, of Wilton, Conn.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

747 air tanker begins working on wildfires in Bolivia

747 supertanker Bolivia
Air Tanker 944 at Viru Viru International Airport in Bolivia. Global Supertanker photo.

The 747 Supertanker arrived in Bolivia at 1:37 a.m. local time Friday August 23 at Viru Viru International Airport outside the capital city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and began sorties on fires later in the day.

It appears from the photos above that the method of filling the 19,200-gallon tank may be similar to that used in 2017 when the 747 was working on fires in Chile. In that case there was no robust infrastructure for the distribution of water, so the Santiago Fire Department established a system of portable water tanks filled by water trucks. Fire engines then pumped water from the tanks to the aircraft.

747 air tanker supertanker Chile
Firefighters in Chile created a system to fill the 19,200-gallon tank on the 747 Supertanker in Chile. Photo by Bill Gabbert, January 25, 2017.