As the nation’s aging and outdated fleet of air tankers faces retirement, a private company is ready to offer a new breed of air tanker technology for wildland firefighting in the U.S. – the Supertanker.
Evergreen International Aviation has built a revolutionary new air tanker from a Boeing 747, creating an aircraft with seven times the drop capability of todays largest U.S. air tanker and the ability to loiter, or orbit around a fire, for up to six hours, compared to one hour for a traditional air tanker.
“With guidance from appropriate agencies,” the company claims, “Evergreen will assist state, federal and worldwide experts redefine how fires are fought and emergency management missions are performed.”
Similar technology has been used for wildfire fighting around the world since 1994. Russian “Waterbombers” capable of releasing more than 10,000 gallons in a single drop are available for contract through Global Emergency Response, a government and industry consortium of U.S., Canadian and Russian agencies. The Forest Service’s decision not to utilize the Ilyushin-76 despite success in other countries has drawn some controversy.
Forest Service officials could not immediately be reached for comment on whether they will consider the giant U.S. or Russian air tankers in light of devastating recent wildfire seasons and the grounding of the old air tanker fleet. Forest Service and Department of Interior officials have publicly stated that they are trying to develop a strategy to purchase newer aircraft.
“Clearly the days of operating older aircraft of unknown airworthiness for firefighting operations are over,” Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said in a press statement.
Evergreen spokesman Justin Marchand said his company’s first Supertanker was flight tested from March 21st through April 24th 2004, and they conducted over 100 dry runs, 50 drops and dropped 536,000 gallons of material. Evergreen expects the Supertanker to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification around July 4th, and their goal is to have the aircraft fighting wildfire this season and to eventually build a small fleet.
The Evergreen Supertanker can carry up to 24,000 gallons in one load and has the capability of performing segmented drops. It has a fill time of 26 to 30 minutes, compared to up to 25 minutes for a traditional air tanker.
Marchand said Evergreen has been discussing the technology with fire officials but said it is too early to speculate on future contracts or the cost of contracting the aircraft. He made it clear that the program is private and self-funded, not a government project.
They began designing the Supertanker in 2002 after a conversation between Evergreen chairman Del Smith and VP of Special Projects Cliff Hale, a 747 pilot who witnessed the fires at Los Alamos in 2000. “They discussed the fact that the fire service needs something above and beyond what’s out there today to combat these megafires,” Marchand said. “Their goal was to give firefighters a better tool.”
Marchand said no one else in the industry has created a supertanker from a 747, but he has heard of other U.S. ventures looking at large airframes. According to Evergreen’s web site, Boeing has worked with Evergreen to support the engineering studies and certification process.
Marchand said the Supertanker also has many additional benefits, besides its load capacity. Instead of just using gravity to drop liquid, it uses a pressurized system, which allows the aircraft to fight fire from an altitude of 400 to 800 feet, rather than the more dangerous 200 feet for a regular tanker.
According to the company’s web site, an aircraft this size will also provide a suitable platform for advanced GPS navigation and forward looking infrared capabilities, which could enhance navigation and possibly lead to night operations.
And even with 24,000 gallons of retardant, the aircraft is still 150,000 pounds below its maximum takeoff weight capacity, the company says, providing an enhanced safety margin. They say current air tankers take off at maximum certified take off weight, leaving no margin for error.
“We just think it has great potential,” Marchand said.