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Global Supertanker Ceasing Operations

For the last 12 years in the Western USA, if your home or business was ever threatened by a massive wildfire, you could always look to the air for support and protection in the form of Tanker 944, a Boeing 747 Supertanker that could deliver 17,500 gallons of fire retardant to knock down the inferno.  That was until the owners of Tanker 944 shut down operations last week.

The company is in discussions with prospective buyers for the huge air tanker, but no sale has taken place, and it was unknown whether the aircraft would remain an air tanker or be converted to a freighter.  Most of the company’s employees were furloughed.

Dan Reese, president of Global Supertanker, said, “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.”

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.

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.

In 2016, Tanker 944 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 seven sorties.  Six of the sorties were near Navidad and Matanzas, 115 miles southwest of the Santiago airport, where many structures were threatened.  The seventh was near Concepcion, 404 miles south of Santiago.  In total, 138,400 gallons were delivered to assist the firefighters on the ground.

The air tanker also had assignments in Mexico in 2011 and in Bolivia in 2019.