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The Boeing 747 dominates every segment she competes in. The firefighting variant, the 747 Supertanker, offers incomparable performance.
For a big fire, big retaliation is needed. When all other aerial firefighting machines fall short of the task, the queen of the sky is summoned. The Supertanker can reach the battleground faster than any of its competitors. She is also capable of doing this while carrying more firefighting capabilities.
With forest fires raging more than ever, more powerful fire fighting methods are required. The solution, take one of the largest planes in the world and make it a firefighting weapon. The Supertanker emerged. The Boeing 747 offered unmatched capabilities making it the only one for the job.
The 747 offers a range outside of the reach of any of the existing aerial firefighters. The payload capacity of the jumbo is matched by none in this segment. The Supertanker brings the performance of one of the most capable jets ever developed to the battleground.
The Supertanker brings with it decades of exceptional industry performance. The 747 is known for its reliability and capabilities. The Supertanker combines this with firefighting technology making it the ultimate machine deserving of its name. Among pilots and engineers, the 747 is a favorite.
History of the Boeing 747
The “Queen of the Skies” is arguably an aircraft that needs no introduction. Its iconic design announces its presence anywhere she lands. The 747 makes its entrance from a distance with its famous fuselage hump. The 747 was developed to meet the needs of the rapidly evolving industry
The United States military began looking for aircraft that could carry cargo too large for any of the available aircraft at the time. At the same time, passenger travel was higher than ever. This prompted Boeing to develop a larger aircraft.
As the industry grew, more passengers wanted to fly further. The airplanes at the time were too small and had shorter ranges. The market called for a jet that could seat over 400 passengers and take them to destinations almost 5000 miles away. Boeing’s solution was the 747.
Boeing saw massive success with its 737 family. The aircraft was reliable and at the time offered competitive fuel consumption rates. But the 737, and even other larger twinjets, still lacked the capacity and range needed.
Development of the 747 began in the early 1960s. Boeing funneled massive amounts of resources into the program. Boeing had a reputation for delivering exceptional aircraft. The 747 design lived up to the expectations.
The 747 was the first twin-aisle jetliner. The largest aircraft of its kind. This large design needed powerful engines. New high bypass turbojet engines pioneered by General Electric and Pratt & Whitney made the design possible delivering up to 230 kN of thrust.
The queen of the sky entered service with Pan Am in 1970. Arguably one of the most iconic moments in aviation history. The phenomenal design continues to grace the skies over 50 years after its maiden flight.
The 747 went on to secure an unmatched reputation. Its safety record and passenger comfort combined with its reliability and safety made the queen the preferred aircraft.
The Iconic Hump
The 747 is the most recognizable aircraft. At first glance, the jumbo is instantly identified. Its infamous hump was a symbol of ingenuity and dominance by Boeing. If you showed a picture of the jumbo to a non-aviation enthusiast, there is a good chance that they will say “that's a Boeing 747.”
The hump gives the jumbo a futuristic silhouette. Less common knowledge however is the history behind its design. The hump, firstly, is a functional choice and then an aesthetic one. Boeing designed the jet with the future in mind; without the hump, the Supertanker may not have been conceived.
With the development of the Concorde on the way, the industry believed that supersonic travel was the future of aviation. Leaving no place for the 747 in passenger service. This prompted Boeing to think out of the box when formulating the design of the jumbo
Cargo transport is less sensitive to flight time than passengers, so the 747 was designed to be adapted for cargo use after its passenger venture. The hump was born.
To maximize the size of cargo pallets and equipment the jumbo could carry, the design needed a cargo door that could access the widest part of the fuselage. The engineers at Boeing had the brilliant idea to move the flight deck above the main cabin area.
By doing this, the flight deck was eliminated from the main open area of the fuselage volume. This allowed the nose of the aircraft to be furnished with an upward opening door, clear of the flight deck. This genius design made the 747 future-proof.
Although the industry took the path of efficiency over speed, the design allowed the 747 to be adapted for a variety of applications. Most notable is the adaptation into the Supertanker.
What is an Aerial Firefighter?
With global warming encouraging higher global temperatures, wildfires are making these forested areas their habitat. These wildfires mainly occur in densely forested areas far out of the reach of firemen and firetrucks. The solution: use an aircraft.
By using planes and helicopters, firefighting reach is as capable as the fires themselves. These aircraft are purpose-built or adapted to deposit water or fighter fighting compounds directly and precisely onto their target.
These aircraft can drop fire retardant compounds or water directly on the fire or by suffocating the fire by the use of a fireline. A fireline is a narrow path created which stops the progression of the fire across the terrain.
As fires get bigger so does the demand for resources. This has prompted the industry to go bigger. There are tons of purpose-built firefighting aircraft well capable of attending to their target. However, they are confined by their capabilities. The most viable solution was aircraft conversion.
Aircraft like the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Bombardier Dash 8 are perfect examples of passenger aircraft being given a second life as air tankers. These aircraft are gutted and fitted with a sophisticated deposition system. Even the smaller Boeing 737 had its moment as an air tanker.
But even those aircraft are too small for the job. The 747, when converted to the Supertanker, offered a much larger capacity and wider range than any of the aircraft mentioned above. The Supertanker is in a class of her own.
Transformation Into The Supertanker
There are purpose built aerial firefighting aircraft in production however, the scale of these aircraft pale in comparison to the Supertanker. Development of a brand new supersized tanker is not financially practical as only few are required across the globe. Conversion of existing aircraft is a cheaper alternative.
The Boeing aircraft used for these conversions are older aircraft that served for decades before being retrofitted. By purchasing older aircraft, this further drives down the cost of the project.
Evergreen International Aviation developed the first Supertanker based on a Boeing 747-200 aircraft. This development was accelerated after the fatal crashes of two air tankers, a Lockheed C-130, and a PB4Y-2 Privateer.
These once passenger jets are gutted of all their internal cabin equipment. This includes seats, galley areas, lavatories, and baggage compartments. The aircraft is left with an empty cabin design removing all unnecessary equipment and reducing the weight of the aircraft.
There are typically two methods used for adaptation into an air tanker. The first method is to fasten the fluid tanks to the base of the fuselage, this method is less complex and is overall a more basic design. The other method is using the cabin space to house the tanks.
The Supertanker uses the second approach. The cabin area was fitted with a series of pressurized tanks along the length of the fuselage. This allowed the Supertanker to accommodate a larger capacity while maintaining its streamlined shape.
The tanks were pressurized with air allowing rapid dispersion of the fire retardant compound or water. A sophisticated deposition system was fitted within the aircraft with the deposition nozzles at the base of the fuselage.
The four nozzles at the base of the fuselage could be pressure fed or gravity fed resulting in a lighter mist as opposed to a pressurized stream.
This design allowed the Supertanker to precisely deposit its load as intended. The equipment was controlled via a system in the cockpit.
747 Supertanker Specifications
The Supertanker’s first design was based on the Boeing 747-200 aircraft. However, this model did not enter into active service. In 2009, the first Supertanker entered into service. This model was Based on the 747-100. The third was a converted 747-400.
The initial 747-100 cost the Evergreen company $79 million US dollars and a further $40 million Us dollars for the retrofitting of the aircraft. But due to issues with the spraying system the conversion of the 747-100 version was a success.
The Supertanker used, based on the 747-200, maintained the same specifications as its passenger equivalent, other than the firefighting equipment and the lack of seats of course. The Supertanker exceeds the performance of any of its rivals in every way.
The aircraft features, in its upper deck, a 14 person cabin. This allows the aircraft to transport support team members as well as additional crew. This allows the aircraft to have a crew on board ready to fly long missions.
Performance of the Supertanker
The Boeing 747 is known for its unmatched range and capacity. So it's expected that the retrofitted firefighter would carry forward the performance of the jumbo. The Supertanker surely did.
Unlike scheduled passenger service and cargo flights, fires usually book their ticket at the very last minute. This can result in a major fire demanding the needs of the Supertanker while the aircraft is on an entirely different continent on the other side of the world.
Luckily, the Supertanker can make this leap with ease. The Supertanker can touch down at any airport capable of accommodating her ready to battle a fire in less than 24 hours. The team can even scramble the jumbo jet to combat fire in any US state within 5 hours.
The speed and range of the 747 are translated into the superior performance of the tanker. The speed and range of the jumbo make it ideal for the job. Reaching further than its rivals. This can be the difference between millions of dollars in fire damage.
Unlike other aircraft, the jumbo can make the furthest of leaps with minimal, if any, fuel stops. This can reduce the journey by hours. This means the fire can be attended to hours ahead of the rivals. When it comes to wildfires, every minute counts.
The DC-10-10 Air tanker has a range of 3,500 nmi / 6,500 km while the Supertanker can leap 6,560 nmi / 12,150 km. This is comparing it to the next biggest aircraft in the category. The Supertanker truly sets itself apart in performance and capabilities.
Although her range may not always be required, her capacity is unmatched. Sometimes, the shoes can only be filled by the 747. The Supertanker offers a capacity of almost double that of the next biggest tanker and 7 times more than most tankers.
The Supertanker can carry a whopping 19,600 US gal (74,000 l) of water or fire retardant compound. This capacity is only fulfilled by the Supertanker. The next biggest aerial firefighter, The DC-10 Air Tanker, can carry an unimpressive 12,000 US gal (45,000 l), in comparison.
The sheer scale of the Supertanker is further perceived when compared to other aircraft in the category. The smaller sibling, the Boeing 737-300, has a capacity of 4,000 gal (15,000 L). The Supertanker can do a john that would take the 737 four trips.
Due to the configuration of the Supertanker, it is also capable of landing with a full tank of fuel and full fluid tanks. This allows the aircraft to land on canceled missions without the need for dumping fuel or payload.
The aircraft also provides one of the most cost-effective approaches to aerial firefighting. The aircraft has a per gallon drop cost lower than any other aerial tanker. This is important since the company is privately owned and is dependent on profits for sustained operations.
The Boeing 747 Supertanker is the only Aircraft in the super heavy aerial fighter fighting tanker category. For this reason, it can carry “ Supertanker” in its name with pride and confidence.
The Supertanker is fitted with a sophisticated pressurized deposition system. The internal pressurized tanks are capable of depositing the fluid at very high flow rates. The operations of the system can be preprogrammed and operated from the cockpit.
When in combat mode, the Supertanker is configured in a landing attitude with flaps extended ready to disperse the compounds. This attitude allows for the most accurate control and dispersion of the compounds.
The combination of varying the flow rate, aircraft speed, and altitude all influence the coverage and density of the drop. The aircraft is capable of creating a fireline up to three miles long and as wide as 150ft.
The speed of the aircraft can determine how much area is covered per second. The faster the aircraft flies the more area covered per second and the slower speeds mean less area covered. The aircraft can fly as slow as 160 mph.
The altitude of the aircraft determines the span of the area covered. At higher altitudes, a wider area is covered while at lower altitudes the area covered is narrower. It's like using a garden hose on the sprinkler setting where the further away the object is the wider the stream of water.
Combining these two flying properties with the variable flow rate, the Supertanker can accurately control the area covered and the density of the compound deposited. The nozzles can even be closed and opened periodically allowing the Supertanker to make multiple drops on a single mission.
The aircraft is not only certified to fight fires but it can also attend to missions that allow it to deposit containment compounds on oil spills within ocean bodies.
The unique pressurized system allows the Supertanker to penetrate narrow basins and valleys. Something that other fighter-fighting aircraft are not capable of. This makes the aircraft more versatile and adaptive to the mission.
All flight crew are certified for overwater flying making them capable of accommodating an overseas mission as little time is available between time of call and aircraft dispatch. This saves valuable time.
The aircraft can be dispatched from any of its approved bases which usually include any airport or airstrip with a runway of a minimum of 6,500 ft. The response time can be as little as 30 minutes including taxi time. This allows the aircraft to be on site and join the fight faster.
The Supertanker is led by a lead/ Bird dog that flies ahead of the jumbo and the purpose of this aircraft is to observe the mission ahead and ensure conditions and drops occur as planned.
During operation, it is recommended that all ground personnel stay at least 200 ft from the intended fireline. This is to avoid any injury to those on the ground as the aircraft drops its load. Safety of the entire operation is of paramount importance.
Due to the nature of the operations, and special approvals and permissions,the Supertanker is able to fly at altitudes, and speeds without conventional restrictions getting in the way. This allows the Supertanker to plan itineraries not possible or allowed by civilian aircraft.
Past Firefighting Missions
The newly converted Supertanker made its maiden mission in 2009 battling fires in Cuenca, Spain. And later that year the aircraft made its American debut fighting in the 2009 California Oak Glen Fire.
The Supertanker was called upon to serve in Israel in 2010, battling the Mount Carmel forest fire. The Supertanker was again used in Israel in 2016 when fires were raging across the country especially in the northern city of Haifa.
For two weeks in January 2017, Chile experienced some of the worst wildfires in its history, claiming a total of 11 lives. To put an end to the wildfires, the Chilean government summoned the Supertanker.
In 2018 the Supertanker attended to a raging campfire started in Buttle County, california.
In 2019, the Queen was summoned by the Bolivian government to fight fires in the Amazon forest.
The Supertanker and its capabilities opened up a new category of aerial firefighting that could bring its resources anywhere around the world. Capabilities never before possible with other aerial firefighting aircraft.
The Grounding of the Supertanker
Due to financial difficulties, the Evergreen company was unable to conduct maintenance procedures on the tanker to keep its airworthiness status. In November 2013 the company shut down operations. And shortly after the company filed for bankruptcy.
However, in 2015, Global SuperTanker Services acquired all the assets of the now bankrupt Evergreen company, including the Supertankers. This gave the aircraft hope of emerging once again. However in 2012, Global suffered the same fate. The 747-400 Supertanker was sold and converted into a cargo aircraft.
The Return of The Supertanker?
In early 2022, Global Supertanker Services claimed that the 747 Supertanker will be returning to service by the end of the year. If this claim is true, the queen of the sky will once again join firefighters on the battlefield combating wildfires. Returning the iconic aircraft to missions around the globe.
The capabilities of the Supertanker are matched by none. Resuming operations could potentially save billions of dollars in damage and prevent loss of precious forested areas. But for now, the Supertanker remains in the history books.