Currently, there is a fast-moving fire in Sonoma County’s wine country. The forest fire, fueled by extreme winds, erupted on Thursday morning and has continued to grow since then. Helping to save the day is Global SuperTanker Services and its Boeing 747-400, converted into a VLAT – or ‘very large air tanker’.
Global SuperTanker Services
Is this the first time you’ve heard of a Boeing 747 being used as an aerial firefighting aircraft? Well, here’s how the company describes the capabilities of its own aircraft:
“The SuperTanker operates without any speed, altitude or operational restriction and provides a level of safety to ground personnel, property and natural resources unmatched by any other tanker, civilian or military. The exceptional and superior performance of the SuperTanker is such that it departs 200,000+ pounds below maximum allowable gross weight and can land immediately without dumping fuel or retardant if the operation is cancelled.”
As mentioned above, the aircraft is owned and operated by a company called Global SuperTanker Services. Although the jet has certification by the United States Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Forest Service, the company is an LLC – or Limited Liability Company. This means that it is a private company and not affiliated with any government department.
Therefore, the aircraft is hired by governments around the world when the need arises. In the words of the company: “while the SuperTanker’s home is in Colorado, we serve the entire nation and even the entire world”.
In fact, the SuperTanker was fighting forest fires in Bolivia in late August. Furthermore, according to the company’s website, the aircraft has been employed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for the last three years. The company says its SuperTanker has been in use ever since it was first approved in July 2017 (although Wikipedia mentions that it gained FAA approval in September of 2016).
More about the aircraft
Here are some additional statistics about the SuperTanker and its capabilities:
- Its speed allows it to be almost anywhere in the U.S. in approximately 2.5 hours.
- Departing from its base in Colorado Springs, the SuperTanker can reach almost any point in North America in approximately 4.5 hours.
- The SuperTanker can be almost anywhere in the world in under 20 hours, including fuel stops, if necessary.
- The aircraft is configured with 14 first class seats and two bunks for support staff and additional flight crew.
- Not just for fighting fires, the aircraft is certified by the USDA to spray dispersants on marine oil spills.
- Lastly, the pressurized system in the SuperTanker is capable of aerial reseeding on a large scale.
According to Airfleets, the 747-400 with registration N744ST first belonged to Japan Airlines and is 28 years old. After serving with Japan Airlines for roughly 19 years, it went to Evergreen International. Evergreen converted the aircraft into the supertanker that it is today. The aircraft was then acquired by Global SuperTanker after Evergreen ceased operations.
The most recent journey
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) October 26, 2019
Interestingly, the aircraft is also traceable on flight tracking websites like FlightRadar24. Using the flight number GST944, we can see that today the plane was dropping fire retardant over the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. The affected area lies north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento.
The aircraft appears to have taken off and returned to Sacramento McClellan airport with a flight time of 54 minutes.
In conclusion, the 747 SuperTanker is an impressive tool for firefighting. In fact, the company claims it has the lowest cost per gallon dropped of any other aerial tanker. Hopefully, you won’t actually be in a situation or area where you need its services – but if you are, it’ll be an impressive sight to see.