Tens of thousands of wildland fires are burning in the Amazon Rainforest right now. Firefighters and soldiers across the region are scrambling to control the blazes, but resources are thin and many of the fires are nearly unreachable, set by ranchers and farmers in remote locations. Fortunately, one of the toughest machines in the industry is on the job.
The Global SuperTanker, a Boeing 747-400 jet retrofitted to haul up to 20,000 gallons of water and fire retardant, has been contracted by the Bolivian government to help fight fires in the Amazon. The jet and its crew landed in the country on August 22, Global SuperTanker President Dan Reese tells Popular Mechanics from his makeshift office in Bolivia. The 15-person crew has a two-week contract and has been flying an average of four flights per day.
“We really didn’t know what to expect down here,” says Reese. While the mechanics of operating the SuperTanker don’t change from one fire to the next, “the difference here is the shear numbers of fires and the volume of fires on the ground,” he says. Many of the fires are unstaffed because there simply aren’t enough firefighters to battle the blazes.
The SuperTanker is only one tool in an arsenal of many. It’s primarily designed to knock down the flames so that firefighters on the ground can gain control of the fire.
“A lot of people think that air tankers outright put the fire out, but that’s not the case,” Reese says. “For our aircraft to be really effective, we work best in concert with firefighters on the ground.”
The massive plane can sweep as low as 200 to 250 feet above the ground to douse the flames, and, in the case of Bolivia’s fires, the tanker has been dropping more than 19,000 gallons of water during each flight. The aircraft is equipped to unload both water and an ammonia-based fire retardant, but is only dropping water on the fires in Bolivia because government officials were concerned that the costly retardant would further impact the already devastated ecosystem.
Based in Colorado Springs, the Global SuperTanker has been called on to combat wildland fires across the United States, Chile, Australia and the Middle East. Before it received FAA approval in 2016 to combat the world’s most dangerous wildland fires, the jet shuttled passengers around the world for Japan Airlines.
There are currently two crews of three who are working in shifts to fly the plane and operate the water drop. Additionally, Reese says there are five maintenance officers, an operations chief, an air tactical supervisor officer, and a business development and contracts officer.
But the souped-up air tanker doesn’t just fight wildland fires. The plane can help fight fires that break out on off-shore drilling and oil rigs and can assist in the clean up of chemical and oil spills in remote locations that are inaccessible to personnel and vehicles. The Global SuperTanker can even help mitigate erosion in remote, fire-torn regions by dumping stabilizing plant seeds across large swaths of land.
There’s no telling how long it will take before the fires are extinguished. Reese says the Bolivian government has the opportunity to extend the SuperTanker’s contract. But if they don’t, Reese and his team are prepared to go where they’re most needed.
“We’re willing to assist whichever country calls us,” he says.