The world’s largest firefighting aircraft, the 747 Global Supertanker (GST), based in Colorado Springs, may soon be available to drop its 19,200-gallon load on forest fires in Colorado.
Today the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control (DFPC) issued a press release saying the Global Supertanker is in the final stages of completing a joint certification and approval process between the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the U.S. Forest Service that allows the aircraft to fly in federal airspace over fires in California.
The GST signed a contract with CalFire last year and signed a contract with Colorado earlier this year. That contract languished in the state bureaucracy until recently. Now that the Colorado contract has been signed the process takes a giant leap forward, but there are still hurdles to overcome.
The certification process is complex because it involves state firefighting assets working in tandem with federal resources on fires on a mix of state and federal land.
A network of mutual aid agreements among local, state and federal agencies allow the use of state and local resources on fires on federal lands and vice versa, but when it comes to aviation assets things get even more complicated because of the intricacies of managing aircraft flying over a fire.
Airspace above the surface in most cases is subject to federal control, regardless of who owns the surface.
When the federal government takes control of a fire because it is on federal land the airspace above the entire fire comes under the control of the Forest Service, which controls what aircraft are allowed to enter the fire airspace.
This is true even if the surface itself is state-owned or private property. As a result, state-owned or leased aircraft have to meet federal standards and agree to be subject to Forest Service control before being allowed to make drops on a federally-controlled fire.
According to DFPC Public Information Officer Caley Fisher, the process of getting the GST in the air under the state contract is “currently delayed solely because the SuperTanker needs a USFS required software addition.”
But Capt. Robert Soelberg, Program Manager for Global Supertanker LLC says that it is a little more complicated than that.
Because Colorado does not have a certification process approved by the Forest Service like CalFire does, the GST will have to operate under the CalFire certification. This requires an agreement by Colorado to accept that certification as valid in Colorado. The press release does not indicate whether Colorado has made such an agreement yet.
“Colorado is our home base, and there is nothing we’d like to be doing more than working alongside the brave men and women currently fighting some of the worst fires the state has ever seen,” said GST CEO Jim Wheeler in the press release. “We will work with the State of Colorado and others who need our services as quickly as possible.”
The GST has also been pursuing a “call when needed” contract with the Forest Service since last year that will permit the aircraft to fly on any fire in the U.S. if needed. A new bid solicitation for Very Large Air Tankers was released by the Forest Service on June 15 and will close July 15. Contracts will be awarded within 180 days of the closing date.
The contracting process for the Forest Service has been fraught with delay, including an appeal of the Forest Service contract requirements by GST last year before the federal government’s General Accounting Office in which GST prevailed.
The primary difference between the certification process underway and the pending Forest Service contracting process is who pays for the aircraft when it’s called into service.
Under the state contract it is the state that pays, whereas under a federal contract the federal government pays, but then later may determine what percentage of the cost is attributable to fighting fires on non-federal property that must be reimbursed by the state.
Presuming that the details of the certification process are worked out and the aircraft software is updated, the Global Supertanker could be flying in Colorado “at almost any time,” said Soelberg.
Update: Saturday, July 7
The Global Supertanker received a temporary “card” approval from CalFire on Friday afternoon. The aircraft is in California trying to complete a needed software update. CalFire agreed to give temporary approval because the software update is not a critical issue. As soon as the temporary approval was issued, CalFire immediately activiated its “call when needed” contract to put the aircraft in the air to fight fires there.
In a Facebook statement Global Supertanker President and CEO Jim Wheeler said, “We thank CAL FIRE and the USFS for their tremendous professionalism and diligence throughout the carding process and look forward working with the team in 2018. While the SuperTanker’s home is in Colorado, we serve the entire nation and even the entire world. It goes without saying that we wish the SuperTanker could be in two places at once, fighting alongside the brave men and women working around the clock to protect people and property. The severity and multiple locations of fires this early in the season is another indication that the country needs additional air assets in order to fight fires effectively and efficiently.
“The nature of call when needed contracts is that we go where we are called first. In this instance, that’s in California, fighting fires managed by CAL FIRE. Once the deployment is completed, we will be available to assist firefighters in Colorado or elsewhere should the SuperTanker’s services be needed.”