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The three DC-10 converted passenger jets currently being used to fight wildland fires around the western U.S. — and right here on the Goodwin Fire this past week — are massive.
Operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the former widebody aircraft are called “VLATs” by fire agencies, and that stands for Very Large Air Tanker. They can drop 12,000 gallons of water or slurry in eight seconds, forming a line 300 yards wide and a mile long.
But that pales in comparison to the Global Supertanker. A converted Boeing 747-400, it can carry nearly 20,000 gallons, and can make drops the width of a football field and three miles long.
The 747 VLAT was developed by Evergreen International Aviation in Marana, which built two of a planned four-plane fleet of the monster airtankers. After spending millions to develop the system, Evergreen ran into a problem: the tanks and sprayers worked with water, but it needed to carry slurry, or fire-retardant, too – and that is much heavier. The Federal Aviation Administration was concerned about the stress that would put on the aircraft.
In November 2013, Evergreen filed for bankruptcy.
Global Supertanker Services was formed in 2015 and it bought all the hardware used on Evergreen’s 747s and put the equipment into a newer airframe.
The drops cost about $27,000 each from the DC-10s, more from a 747, and the federal government – in this case, the U.S. Forest Service – pays for them.
And that’s the problem. Although the 747, the largest airtanker in the world, has flown fires in Israel and Argentina, and was certified airworthy by the FAA last year, the Interagency Air Tanker Board has not certified it for use.
The Supertanker, based in Colorado Springs, received a six-month interim approval in January, but it hasn’t yet been renewed.
On Thursday, the senior vice president and program manager at Global Supertanker, Bob Soelberg, said the company wasn’t allowed to do any testing during that interim period, and they don’t know why.
“The primary purpose of the interim (approval) is so the ground crews, incident commanders, the firemen, as well as the lead plane of the air attack can observe the aircraft operate in live-fire environment,” he said, “and we were denied that.”
U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said, in an e-mail, “In January 2017, the IAB provided Global Supertanker Services with a six month interim approval that expired June 15 to allow them to make modifications in their tanking system, which earlier tests indicated needed adjustment to ensure proper delivery of fire retardant, and provide information from missions they flew internationally.”
Soelberg said, “Right now, we’re in, hopefully, the final certification tests for the Forest Service. They’re actually flying, as we speak, over in Lancaster, California.”
Even so, Soelberg said, if the 747 is needed, the Forest Service does “have the ability to ignore the testing process under the ‘urgent and compelling’ clause, and put aircraft on contract. We would certainly welcome that.”
Soelberg said that the government should realize that the VLAT concept works, given the fact that “they had three DC-10s working on (the Goodwin Fire) at the same time.”
He added that the Supertanker could be in Arizona “this afternoon,” if it were requested.
Pressed by the media at his visit to a shelter in Prescott Valley on Thursday, Gov. Doug Ducey said he is working with the agencies to get the 747 certified. He added that he wants all resources available on the fire, and does not want bureaucracy to get in the way.