Why The World's Largest Firefighting Plane Is Not Fighting Fires Today

The absence of the Boeing 747 Supertanker is a huge loss to global firefighting efforts.
Chris Young

As devastating wildfires ravage a number of regions in countries including Turkey, Greece, and the United States, global firefighting communities are turning to technological solutions such as firefighting aircraft to aid in the fight to extinguish the blazing fires. 

One large aircraft that the community unfortunately cannot count on is the Boeing 747 Supertanker, a behemoth blaze extinguisher that was grounded in April last year, a report by OrbitInside point out. 

A firefighting behemoth

The US-made Boeing 747 Supertanker, which has a capacity of 19,200 gallons of water or 18,000 gallons of fire retardant, goes down in the history books as the world's largest firefighting plane. Global Supertanker Services, the company responsible for developing the 747 Supertanker, explains on its website that its "capacity is nearly double that of the next closest very large air tankers (VLATs) at 9,400 gallons." Such a large firefighting plane allows for the deployment of fewer aircraft in fire-ravaged areas. This, according to Supertanker Services, "improves safety margins and assists to reduce risk as fewer aircraft in the firefighting area means less exposure to ground and air crews."

The 747 Supertanker flew 119 times to fight fires only last year. As it can fly anywhere in less than 20 hours and it can land at any airport with a 8,000-foot (2,400 m) long runway, it has been deployed internationally in Israel, Chile, and in Bolivia, where it fought the Amazon forest wildfires in 2019. The aircraft was also deployed against California's historic wildfires last year.

Why was the 747 Supertanker grounded?

Unfortunately, the issue that led to the downfall of the leviathan Boeing 747 passenger aircraft and the Airbus A380 also caused the grounding of the 747 Supertanker. Just last year, it was announced that Boeing would halt production of its iconic 747 airliner, due to low profitability compared to the high costs required to operate the aircraft. According to OrbitInside, Roger Miller, managing director of Alterna Capital Partners, the investment firm that owns Global Supertanker Services, the investments required to upgrade the Supertanker 747, including a new drop system upgrade, were simply too steep. "The economics under the company's current federal 'call when needed' contract are such that the investment will take longer to realize profitability than previously expected," Miller said.

Instead, amid financial difficulties, Alterna Capital Partners looked to sell the Boeing 747 Supertanker as a freighter aircraft, citing increased demand due to the pandemic. "The option to sell the aircraft as freighter has been in part driven by the Covid-19 crisis, which has led to a significant increase in value for freighter aircraft," the company explained. Unfortunately, in April 2021 Global Supertanker Services shut down and it sold the Supertanker to National Freight to be converted into a cargo aircraft, meaning that the world's largest firefighting plane has put out its last fire. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) having published a landmark report on climate change today, August 9, amid the increasing global wildfire crisis, don't be surprised to see a successor in the works.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron