The Boeing 747 might be the most versatile aircraft ever flown, and we're not just talking about the many variations of the wide-body jet that have carried passengers around the world during 46 years of active service. The huge plane is also a firefighter—the colossal Global SuperTanker just scored FAA aerial firefighting approval a few weeks ago. And now you can step inside a 3D recreation of the firefighting 747 and experience the tech required to blast nearly 20,000 gallons of fire retardant onto a wildfire at 800 feet.
It's been a long, convoluted flight path for the to get here. The airframe originally served Japan Air Lines for nearly 20 years before finding a new home at the now-defunct Evergreen International Aviation. Evergreen had ambitious plans to convert four of its 747 cargo ships into firefighting aircraft. Only one of the airplanes was fully converted, and it wound up parked in the Arizona desert waiting on expensive deferred maintenance. Financial woes forced Evergreen into bankruptcy and the supertanker seemed doomed to live out its existence in the boneyard.
Fast forward a few years and along comes a new business called with ambitious plans to rescue the flying firetruck. Recruiting a large team of original Evergreen crew and technicians, Global SuperTankers stripped all the glorious guts from the original Evergreen 747-100 and moved them to the newer and more powerful 747-400. It's this plane that could soon be dropping huge quantities of firefighting compounds from the sky.
Now don't confuse this airplane with a simple dump-and-run water bomber. The 747's liquid drop system is quite advanced. The aircraft houses eight large pressurized tanks each holding 200 lbs. of air and can disperse retardant under high pressure or at the gentler speed of falling rain. The aircraft can also release its entire load on one target or disperse it in up to eight segmented drops.
This 747 supertanker can pack 19,600 gallons of retardant in its cargo hold. That's nearly twice as much as the next largest aerial tanker; Tanker 10's DC-10 tri-jet which carries a measly 11,600 gallons. Not only that, but the system is approved for retardant, gel, foam, and water drops, or the combination of any two of these agents. Since this airplane is simply an airliner converted for cargo, it can still cruise at over 600 mph and reach any location in the United States from its Colorado base in approximately 2.5 hours and the rest of North America in only two additional hours.
Be sure to experience all the details in the interactive 3D tour where you can virtually maneuver through the entire cabin including the cockpit, crew quarters, and even the first class seating area. That is, if you can pull yourself away from the fascinating details of the liquid drop system that occupies nearly all 20,674 cu. ft. of the main cargo deck.
But don't expect to see the big four-engine tanker dousing flames near you. Not yet, anyway. While the new FAA certification approves Global SuperTankers for performing water drops on state land, there's still one problem; no one has hired them. The U.S. Forest Service is the largest contractor of air tankers in the country, hiring 20 aircraft exclusively for firefighting. They spend roughly $26,000 dollars per aircraft per day to keep them available for battling a fraction of the 50,000 to 60,000 wildfires the USFS responds to each year. The Global SuperTanker is not one of these 20 aircraft. A spokesperson for the service recently in Colorado that contract discussions won't begin until sometime in 2017.