747-400 aircraft could deliver huge loads of fire retardants
By Ann McCreary
For most of his career as a firefighter, Bill Moody of Twisp attacked wildfires with the help of a light, nylon parachute. Today, the longtime smokejumper is helping fight fires with a more formidable tool — a Boeing 747 “SuperTanker” aircraft.
For more than a decade, Moody has been involved in helping with development of the world’s largest air tanker, capable of dropping almost 20,000 gallons of retardant on wildfires. That’s almost twice as much as the next largest aerial tanker, a DC-10, can deliver.
His work on the SuperTanker has taken Moody to Israel, Mexico and Chile to fight fires with the aircraft. This summer, Moody went with the SuperTanker to California, the first time the Global Supertanker Boeing 747-400 was used to fight fires in the United States after receiving interim approval from the federal government.
Moody is hopeful that the interim approval, granted by the U.S. Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) in July, will mean that during next summer’s fire season the plane will be able to more fight fires in its home country.
Moody is known locally as a prior record-holding smokejumper and former manager of the Methow Valley’s North Cascades Smokejumper Base. His smokejumping career began in 1957, when he started working for the Okanogan National Forest as a smokejumper after graduating from high school. He parachuted into fires for 33 years, holding the record for the most number of jumps (615) for many years. He managed the North Cascades Smokejumper Base from 1972 to 1989.
After retiring from smokejumping, Moody continued to work as an air attack supervisor until last year, flying in small planes over wildfires to provide air traffic control, strategy and tactics to fight wildfires from the air.
Moody’s background and expertise in aerial firefighting made him attractive to an Oregon-based company called Evergreen Aviation that was working to transform a 747 into the largest air tanker in the world. Thirteen years ago, he was asked to work as a consultant with Evergreen Aviation to help train flight crews in aerial firefighting techniques.
Moody participated in the plane’s earliest retardant drops in California beginning in 2009 after the Evergreen Aviation tanker received interim approval to fly in the United States. The plane was also used on fires in Israel in 2010 and Mexico in 2011.
In 2013, Evergreen went bankrupt, and a year later was purchased by a company called Global SuperTanker Services, based in Colorado Springs. Moody was hired in 2015 by Global SuperTanker Services as vice president for fire operations and incident response.
Global SuperTanker continued development of the newer 747-400 as an aerial tanker, but the company had to re-initiate the approval process before the plane could operate in the United States. Meanwhile, the plane was able to operate abroad. It was called to Israel in November of 2016 and was in Chile for three weeks in January and February of this year.
Working in Chile
In Chile, the SuperTanker flew 43 sorties to drop water on forests, residential areas, vineyards and farms. Because retardant wasn’t available, the plane dropped water that was mixed with an additive that made it more effective in suppressing fire, Moody said.
The massive fires in Chile followed an eight-year drought. “It was like Okanogan County in 2014 and 2015,” Moody said. He was on board the 747 to advise the flight crew on some flights. On others he was flew in an air attack plane directing operations, or in a lead plane — also called the “bird dog” plane — flown by Jamie Tackman of East Wenatchee, a retired NCSB smokejumper and U.S. Forest Service lead plane pilot. A lead plane is required for all very large air tankers, and flies about 400 yards ahead of the 747 to report any hazards and provide tactical advice.
While in Chile the SuperTanker set a record for the most liquid dropped by a land-based tanker in a single day — 134,000 gallons. The crew, including Moody and Tackman, received an award from the Chilean Red Cross for their contribution to saving lives and property.
Seeking contracts in U.S.
With the granting of an 18-month interim approval in July to fly in the United States, Global SuperTanker can sign contracts in this country. One of the first was a “call-when-needed” contract signed this summer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
In August, the SuperTanker was called to fight fires in southern, central and northern California, where residents watched in awe as the giant plane flew only 200 feet above the hilltops, releasing huge streams of retardant on the fires.
“I have been both on the ground evaluating drops and onboard on over 40 drops, plus supervising it overhead. I’ve watched, from the ground and air, most of the air tankers since close to the beginning of the airtanker program in the mid-1950s. Every drop of the 747 inspires awe,” Moody said.
The interim approval means other jurisdictions can sign contracts with Global SuperTanker, and Moody said the contract with Cal Fire may encourage other states and nations to contract for services.
“It’s really opened it up for us,” said Moody, who has attended firefighting conferences around the world to share information about the Global SuperTanker and aerial firefighting strategies. He said the company already has call-when-needed contracts with Cal Fire and Douglas County, Colorado, and is working on a call-when-needed contract with Colorado state. The company plans to bid on a contract this year to work in Australia, he said.
Global SuperTanker hopes to ultimately contract with the U.S. Forest Service, but that agency is “conservative about making significant changes to their fire aviation program,” according to Fire Aviation.com, a website dedicated to news about aerial firefighting.
Before receiving final federal approval, the SuperTanker must be successful in its “field evaluation,” demonstrating that it delivers retardant effectively and aids firefighting on the ground, Moody said.
In early October the plane will get an “after-action review” based on its performance in the California fires, he said. “Everything we’ve gotten so far is really positive,” he said. “It’s helped that we have video of our operations in Chile and California.”
It’s been hard to see the plane remain grounded, Moody said, while huge wildfires raged this summer throughout the West — in Montana, Oregon, California and Washington. From his home in Twisp, Moody watched the plumes from the Diamond Creek Fire this summer.
The Methow Valley has experienced the power of large air tankers in recent years. During the Carlton Complex and Rising Eagle Road fires of 2014 and the Twisp River Fire in 2015, the next largest air tanker, a DC-10, was called in at different times to drop retardant. Multiple drops by a DC-10 during the Twisp River Fire, as the fire threatened to jump Twisp River Road, have been credited for preventing the fire from moving into the Town of Twisp, Moody said.
In the aerial firefighting world, DC-10 and 747 aircraft are classified as “very large air tankers” or VLATs, which are capable of dropping 8,000 gallons or more. Only four VLATs, including the Global Supertanker, are currently available in the United States.
The 747-400 aircraft used for the SuperTanker is equipped with a pressurized system that allows it to dispense retardant or water from four nozzles in the belly of the aircraft. The plane can drop liquid in one continuous stream or up to eight segments, Moody said.
On fire missions the plane carries about 200,000 pounds less than its allowable take-off weight, which means it can land fully loaded if a sortie is cancelled. Stationed in Colorado Springs, the Supertanker can fly at a speed of 600 miles per hour and can arrive at almost any location in the United States in 2.5 hours or be anywhere in the world within about 20 hours.
The SuperTanker has had to overcome some doubts about its ability to perform, and its affordability, Moody said. There are preconceptions that the plane, because of its size, can’t work well in steep terrain. With the exception of canyons narrower than the plane’s wingspan, “we have yet to find terrain we couldn’t operate in effectively … it can maneuver and be effective in steep terrain,” Moody said.
There have also been questions about the expense of operating such a large aircraft, he said. But if 18,000 gallons of retardant are needed on a fire, that is one load for the SuperTanker, compared to six loads for a smaller air tanker, he said. “VLATs are the most cost-effective airtankers,” Moody said.
The SuperTanker may be most appropriate tool for specific aerial suppression jobs, while smaller aircraft that carry anywhere from 800 gallons to 3,500 gallons may be the best tool to accomplish other suppression objectives, Moody said. “The concept is a toolbox — each is best at doing a particular part of the fire job.”