COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A one-of-a-kind airplane based in Colorado Springs is helping fight the wildfires in Southern California.
The Global SuperTanker is a Boeing 747. It began its life as a passenger plane for Japan Airlines, then was repurposed as a cargo plane before being converted into a tanker.
There is no other plane like it.
“It was converted into a water bomber to be used for forest fire fighting worldwide,” Global SuperTanker vice president Bob Soelberg said.
“One of the reasons we chose Colorado Springs was because of the length of the runways and the capacity here.”
From the airport, the plane can fly nonstop to Sydney. Including fuel stops, it can reach any destination worldwide within 20 hours.
The plane has been deployed to places all around the world, including Australia, Israel and Chile.
It wasn’t cleared for use in the United States until earlier this year. And California is the first state to utilize it.
“It’s flown fires on three or four separate occasions [in California] this year alone,” Soelberg said.
The SuperTanker has been spotted in the skies over Southern California for the past 10 days, dropping red fire retardant at altitudes as low as 200 feet above the ground.
“To see this aircraft operate like it does at the low altitudes and doing the job it does is extremely spectacular,” Soelberg said.
SuperTanker’s tanks are especially spectacular. It can hold 19,200 gallons of water or fire retardant.
There are two compartments that can hold 9,600 gallons on each side.
The next largest aircraft used for fighting fires has a capacity of 11,600 gallons.
To put SuperTanker’s size into perspective, Soelberg said to think about it in terms of the area one drop of retardant can cover.
A typical plane can carry enough of the liquid to drop a line 500 yards long. SuperTanker can carry enough liquid to drop a line three miles long.
It also has a pressurized tank system that allows the material to be sprayed instead of dropped.
One gallon of water weighs 9 pounds. That weight free falling onto property can cause damage such broken windows.
SuperTanker’s system scales the force back, allowing the water or retardant to fall like a heavy rain shower.
Soelberg said the plane has been a game-changer in firefighting.
“We are definitely responsible for saving numerous structures, villages and saving lives,” he said.
However, it comes at a steep price.
According to a contract with Colorado Springs, SuperTanker costs $23,500 per hour, which doesn’t include the cost of a lead plane to pinpoint drop locations or the cost of the retardant.