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 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.