On a sunny Tuesday morning at the Grant County International Airport, a group of people turned their eyes to the sky as the converted 747 Global Supertanker dropped 19,200 gallons of water on the runway below.
The drop, part of a demonstration, was met with claps and cheers.
Normally, the crew of the Supertanker is flying over thick smoke produced by devastating wildfires as they help to slow the spread of the blazes with support to firefighters on the ground.
While Global Supertanker does not have a contract with Washington state to help fight wildfires, officials hope that having the aircraft based in Moses Lake will be a resource to call upon in the future.
“I’m excited to have the supertanker here in Washington state, first and foremost because of what it means for our region’s wildfire fighting capabilities, but also because of what it means for our state’s economic growth, for the opportunities of innovation,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.
The supertanker has the ability to drop in one pass what would take a standard plane eight drops to accomplish. The Global Supertanker has been based in Moses Lake and working with AeroTEC, a company that provides flight testing, data analysis and FAA certification services for aircraft modifiers.
Wildfires have devastated not only Washington, but much of the West in recent years. In 2020, some 800,000 acres burned in Washington, with 300 homes destroyed, including the town of Malden, Franz said. A young boy even died in the Cold Spring Fire in Okanogan County.
The Department of Natural Resources has a “small but mighty” fleet of helicopters to help fight fires from the air.
“Almost all of them fought in the Vietnam War, and they have the bullet holes to show for it,” Franz said.
The department also has fixed-wing planes under an exclusive contract, but the Supertanker far out-performs anything in Washington’s arsenal.
The converted 747 was built in Everett in 1992 and delivered to Japan Airlines, where it was flown commercially for 17 years, said Capt.Mark “Taco Loco” Valdez from Global Supertanker.
In 2009, the plane entered the Boeing Converted Freighter program and flew freight until 2013 before going into storage for a few years, Valdez said.
Then, in 2015, it was bought and converted into a supertanker by Global Supertanker. It’s the only plane of its kind, Valdez said. The company got FAA certification and U.S. Forest Service authorization to fly it as a tanker.
Since then, the plane with its four pilots and three drop system operators has flown in Israel, Chile, Bolivia and the United States. It hasn’t made a drop in Washington state yet, Franz said.
The plane can take on 18,000 gallons of fire retardant that it can drop in various levels of density. In the United States, fire retardant is more commonly used than water, Valdez said.
The fire retardant can slow the growth of an entire flank of a fire for days, Valdez said.
“The technology that you’re going to witness, frankly, is simply remarkable,” said Lee Human, CEO of AeroTEC. “What this aircraft can do, is very unique in the world of aviation.”
The plane will fly behind a lead plane that describes the drop, then sends off a puff of smoke at the beginning and end of the drop zone in a “show me,” allowing the pilots to see the wind’s effect as well, Valdez said.
Then the pilot performs the drop with the smoke and landmark cues.
The plane is only over the fire traffic area for three to five minutes and drops from 250 feet going 150 knots or about 172 mph, Valdez said.
“It makes us very very efficient over the fire,” Valdez said.
For the demonstration Tuesday, Capt.Cliff Hale, accompanied by Assistant Chief Pilot Tom Parsons and Drop System Operator Christ Farinha, dropped water from 500 feet due to safety constraints at the airport.
“I’ve never seen firsthand these things operational,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse after watching the drop.
Newhouse is coordinating with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to help the Forest Service have the ability to create a cooperative agreement between the state and the private company to have the supertanker technology more available in the Western U.S, Newhouse said.
“It’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to deliver that much water where they need it, exactly where they need it,” Newhouse said. “That should help minimize the impacts of these fires, save money and lives and property, which is so important; that’s what we’re trying to do.”
While Global Supertanker only has one plane with these capabilities, Lisa Brown, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, said innovative aviation technology is expanding in Washington state.
“For me, the combination of being able to respond to fires quickly and effectively, and the economic development of aviation, increasing its presence in Eastern Washington,” Brown said, “that’s, that’s kind of the win-win of this.”
As the only professional pilot in the Washington state Legislature, Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, is often the person his fellow legislators turn to for expertise.
“Well, people know that I have that life experience, so they listen,” Dent said. “Kind of like when I gave a speech on having COVID, they listened. They know that you’ve been there and you get it.”
A bill to set up dedicated funding to fight wildfires in Washington, House Bill 1168, unanimously passed the House of Representatives earlier this month and is headed to the Senate.
Dent said he believes it’s time for the state to take a “hard look” at forest health, especially with so many wildfires that are difficult to fight.
“It takes off and then you can’t stop it. I mean, airplanes like this can really help. And the big thing is, we can save communities in different areas where they don’t have to burn, with fire suppression,” Dent said. “We have to get a handle on our forest health, we just have to.”
Franz touts the bill as a path to a more “proactive plan” to fight wildfires and help Washington become more “self-reliant.” With Washington’s wildfire season often starting after other Western states, it can be nearly impossible to get aid from neighboring states and the federal government, Franz said.
Having the resources based in Moses Lake will hopefully make it easier to call on them, Franz said. She hopes to develop an Air Resources Strategic plan and secure funding for more contracts to provide guaranteed air resources in Washington state.
“We need to do all we can to prevent the Evergreen State from turning charcoal black,” Franz said.