Firefighters battling the deadly wildfires in northern California’s wine country haven’t had much good news, but the arrival this week of the only 747 supertanker in the world falls into that category.
The modified Boeing 747 owned by Colorado-based Global SuperTanker Services, LLC, flew six flights over fires in Napa and Sonoma counties on Monday. The aircraft can fly 600 miles per hour and drop 19,200 gallons of fire retardant over an area more than a mile long and 200 feet wide. It refills in 30 minutes.
As recently as June, it appeared that the plane would not be allowed to fly firefighting missions in the United States. The U.S. Forest Service offered a contract for tanker aircraft that could drop water or fire suppressant over wide areas, but the contract barred planes that could hold more than 5,000 gallons.
That left out the supertanker, despite its recent record of success fighting fires in Chile, Spain and Israel. Without a contract from the U.S. Forest Service, states would not be reimbursed for the cost of using the 747. It costs $50,000 a day to have the plane on stand-by, and $15,000 per flight-hour.
The supertanker isn’t new. The fire retardant system on the 747 was first used in 2009 to fight fires in Alaska, and it was fully certified by the Interagency Airtanker Board for a Call When Needed contract from the U.S. Forest Service in 2013.
However, the company that developed the system, Evergreen, went into bankruptcy. Global SuperTanker purchased the hardware and the intellectual property in 2015 and installed the system into a newer version of the 747. The new plane flew its first mission in November, 2016, in Israel.
In June, red tape effectively grounded the plane in the U.S. when an interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board, atypically brief at only six months in duration, expired. But on July 25, the same day that this news organization’s editorial page called for an end to bureaucratic delays holding up the use of the…