Another year goes by and while much of the American West is on fire once again, the most potent fire bomber ever created sits idle in the Arizona desert. Evergreen’s mammoth 747 Supertanker, developed at a cost approaching $50,000,000, can drop 26,000 gallons of retardant over an area 300 feet wide and almost five miles long. The big tanker can also make any number of small “smart” tactical drops utilizing its unique pressurized tanks and dispersal system. Its ability to haul huge volumes of wet stuff to where it is needed most equals roughly the capacity of 20 S-2 Trackers or 8 P-3 Orions.
Its ability to loiter for hours allows for fantastic flexibility for command staff directing resources in the air and on the ground. Also, the big jet can be used as a command and control platform or transport while still retaining its colossal fire dousing capabilities. Sounds like a fire fighter’s dream machine right? Well the US Forest Service doesn’t think so.
For years the Super Tanker has been brushed aside and shunned from the smoldering infernos that wreak havoc across America during fire season. Some would point to the fact that the Supertanker cannot be used in deep valleys and other tight places, yet another “very large air tanker” (VLAT), “Tanker 910,” which is based on a DC-10 airframe, has seen use around the American West over the last few years, and from what I have heard the jet is very much appreciated by its customers. Furthermore, Tanker 910, the DC-10’s moniker, can only drop less than half of what the Evergreen Supertanker can, so why on earth would this aircraft get called to the front lines while Evergreen’s jumbo remains grounded? Seeing as the VLAT concept has already been proven by Tanker 910, I cannot think of any logical reason as to why the Supertanker would remain on the sidelines aside from possible cost issues. Although does cost really matter when you are fighting an out of control fire that can destroy whole towns?
Recently, bill 3261 was singed into law which allows the US Forestry Service to award air tanking contracts easier and without the congressional notice period of 30 days. With the signing of this bill the Forestry Service was able to add a handful of “Next Generation Tankers” to their arsenal over the coming months and years. The Next Generation Tanker aircraft are optimally turbine powered and carry a load of around 5000 gallons. These new aircraft are based on platforms like the BAe-146 and MD-80, and are certainly an upgrade from the geriatric P-3 Orions which carry around 3000 gallons. Yet these aircraft are still a totally different animal when compared to the mighty VLATs, and specifically Evergreen’s Supertanker. Curiously, neither VLAT was included in the recently passed bill.
Helicopters, small tankers, and even medium tankers are fantastic to have but they are all tactical types of assets. The Supertanker and its DC-10 cousin should be thought of on a new level, as strategic assets, able to save whole neighborhoods at a time, or used to lay down literally miles of retardant to stop key areas of a fire from “hopping” roads or other key obstacles. Sure, you would not use a 747 tanker deep down in canyon or ravine, but you would use it on a ridge top or at the edge of an inhabited area. In other words, the Forestry Service obviously believes, whether they know it or not, in “combined effects” operations, a military term used to describe a strategy where many different platforms, all with their own unique qualities, get employed together creatively to achieve an objective. The sum of their collective punch being much more powerful than their individual abilities alone. So why not bring in the heavy iron to add to this team-based “combined effects” fire fighting effort? Let the helicopters and light fire bombers deploy out in the field for tactical strikes and utilize the medium tankers for larger, less accurate “area” tactical drops, and bring in the VLATs for strategic “carpet bombing” of major fire-lines and buffer areas.
This morning I had pictures emailed to me showing the iconic bright white United States Air Force Academy Cathedral set on a backdrop of black smoke and burning ridges. Beyond the heartbreaking “human toll” of such a fire, Colorado Springs is a very important place strategically for the United States. The USAF Academy, NORAD, and the USAF Space Command are all located in that area and now the firefighters, smoke jumpers, and air attack heroes are trying to keep the area from becoming a total loss. Shame on the US Forestry Service for not bringing in every asset to bear when it comes to fires like this. Will it take a loss of a major metropolitan or strategic area to wake us up to the seriousness of these wildfires and the need to employ every piece of equipment available as well as game changing new technologies in order to fight them decisively?
Is it a money thing? A political thing? Or maybe it’s just a relationship thing where an “old boys network” of tanker guys and Forestry Service bureaucrats don’t want a possible new game changing all-star to get a shot up at bat? Honestly I really don’t know and these are simply guesses, and really that is the problem. Today I did a live radio interview on the subject and was informed that the host had talked to multiple Congressmen, the Forestry Service, and Evergreen in an attempt to get an answer as to why the Supertanker is sitting idle while Colorado Springs burns. Nobody they talked to had any answers and the Evergreen folks were as frustrated as anyone else obviously.
Aviation is an odd business, it’s about passion just as much as it is about dollars and sense. Often times the money is just a means to an end when it comes to developing new capabilities and aerospace applications. It is a risky business, but in that business nothing is worse for an aviator’s or aerospace engineer’s spirit than knowing that you have worked for years to create a solution to a life and death problem but nobody will let you even prove its value.
After years of traveling around the US on aviation related photo-shoots and the like, and having walked onto active fire-bases many times to take some pictures and chat with the guys on the ground, I can tell you that the frustration over “tanker contracts” is more than evident and really quite omnipresent. The unending maze of regulation, politics and funky doctrine that is involved in just getting these purpose-built assets into the firefighting mix is sickening to say the least. Enough is enough, something smells bad when it comes to the Forestry Service’s banishment of Evergreen’s “death star” of fire-bombers and we need to get to the bottom of it.
Every extra second that brave Smoke Jumpers, firefighters and air attack pilots have to be out fighting these fires their risk of injury or death goes up. In any major war you should fight to win from day one, bringing every possible weapon to bear on the enemy’s capabilities, anything else would just be a reckless endangerment to America’s servicemen and our national treasure as the longer a conflict lasts the more expensive and deadly it becomes. Fighting wildfires is no different really, once you have lost control of situation every ounce of capability should be applied to the objective in order to regain control. Apparently the folks at the US Forestry Department disagree with this warrior mindset, and they do so without explanation.
Let’s get to the bottom of this charade and get the Evergreen Supertanker out in the field where it belongs- saving property and lives from on high.