Photo courtesy of Leggitt Varner

The SuperTanker, shown at work on wildfires in California earlier this year, can drop up to 19,000 gallons of retardant or water.

By Ann McCreary

A jumbo jet that is converted to fight wildfires had to sit out most of the massive fires that raged across the West this year.

But the Boeing 747-400, which can drop 19,000 gallons of water or retardant on fires, may be able to fly more next year in the United States, after a federal agency advised the U.S. Forest Service to revise limitations on the size of planes it will contract to fight wildfires.

Global SuperTanker Services challenged the Forest Service’s limitation of 5,000 gallons on air tankers, which prevented the SuperTanker from contracting with the agency to fight wildfires. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), sided with the Global SuperTanker in a recent decision.

The SuperTanker, the largest air tanker in service, fought fires last summer in California under a contract with the state, and has fought fires in other parts of the world, including Chile, Mexico and Israel. The GAO decision was welcomed by Jim Wheeler, president of the Colorado-based company.

“We do hope we are able to assist in wildland fires wherever they are in the United States, as we have throughout the world,” Wheeler said. “All we want is a fair opportunity to get in there and compete” for contracts.

Twisp resident Bill Moody has traveled with the SuperTanker on most of its assignments around the world. A longtime smokejumper and air attack supervisor, Moody has shared his aerial firefighting expertise to train SuperTanker flight crews and advise the company on firefighting techniques.

Moody has been involved in development and promotion of the SuperTanker for more than eight years, and said he looks forward to seeing the aircraft used more often to fight fires in its home country.

The GAO recommended that the Forest Service revise its size limits on air tanker to allow planes that carry more than 5,000 gallons to contract to fight wildfires. The Forest Service had said the 747 was not suited for initial attacks on wildfire, an argument rejected by the accountability office, according to an Associated Press report.

Wheeler said the SuperTanker can deliver the same amount of retardant in a single sortie as five tankers in the 4,000-gallon size range. He said the plane is able to fly low over steep, rugged terrain, and can reach fires anywhere in the United States within three hours.

Wheeler said he plans to meet with Boeing officials in Washington before the end of the year with the goal of acquiring and converting another 747 into an air tanker.