A Boeing 747-400 SuperTanker whose owners have been disputing a rule of the U.S. Forest Service that keeps them from flying fought a fire in the U.S. for the first time last week, contracted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The SuperTanker can drop more than 19,000 gallons of water or retardant at a time. “In six days of firefighting, the SuperTanker has flown 14 sorties, and made 22 drops of 248,025 gallons of retardant on four fires in California,” company spokesman Lewis Lowe told AVweb on Wednesday. “By comparison, it would have taken a DC-10 26 sorties to drop that much retardant and a C-130, or BAe-146 or an RJ-85, over 82 individual sorties.” The SuperTanker is fighting the Ponderosa Fire, 10 miles east of Lake Oroville. Lowe said the flights are continuing and could go on for several weeks.
The SuperTanker is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and operated by Global SuperTanker Services. It uses a patented system that can deliver single or multiple payload drops aggregating over 19,000 gallons of water, fire retardant or suppressant. The fluids can be released at variable rates from the plane’s pressurized tanks. This allows it to make as many as six drops in a single flight, according to Global. With a flying speed of 520 knots, the 747 can reach any part of the globe in 20 hours or less, and virtually any part of North America in less than 4.5 hours, the company says. The SuperTanker has previously fought fires in Chile and Israel. According to Global, the U.S. Forest Service won’t use the airplane because its standard contract limits firefighting aircraft to 5,000 gallons of fire suppressant. The Forest Service has declined to comment, noting that the issue is under dispute.