The Colorado Springs–based Global SuperTanker may be the world’s largest firefighting aircraft, but that doesn’t mean it’s slow: The Boeing 747-400 can travel 575 mph, enabling it to reach anywhere in North America in less than four and a half hours and almost any location around the globe in fewer than 20. Those aren’t the only impressive facts related to the jumbo jet, though. As wildfire season heats up, we gathered the details on every blaze’s worst nightmare.
A Bit of a Stretch
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The jet has a 211-foot wingspan—about the length of five RTD buses. That’s 56 feet longer than the next largest tanker, a DC-10 passenger plane converted and operated by the U.S. Forest Service.
Hitting The Mark
A pressurized system gives the plane’s three crew members precise control over how quickly they can spray water and retardant, allowing them to better target incendiary spots from about 250 feet above the fire. The goal is to make towering flames more manageable for firefighters on the ground.
Drop It Like It’s Hot
During a single mission, the massive plane, which has been designated as a Very Large Airtanker by the U.S. Forest Service, can release 19,200 gallons of water and a lot of fire retardant. It would take a jet with the next largest classification, Large Airtanker, seven trips to deliver the same amount.
The Global SuperTanker has completed 406 missions during its four years of operation. That includes 149 trips in 2019 alone to help the Bolivian government control flames in the Amazon. The plane has also made journeys to other far-off locales like Israel, as well as some closer to home in Washington and California.
Patience Is A Virtue
It took Cliff Hale 16 years to turn the retired 747-400 into a firefighting machine. He bought the plane in 2000 while chief pilot at Evergreen International Aviation. Financial woes stymied his plans until Global SuperTanker Services, run by firefighting-by-air veterans (including Hale), bought and finished fixing it in 2016. The firm contracts with state and federal governments to support wildfire suppression.