Boeing 747 reborn as Global Supertanker, flies to save rainforest

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A 14-member aerial firefighting crew with deep ties to the Golden State, including its former Cal Fire firefighting President, has flown 5,300 miles to Bolivia in an effort  to save the Amazon rainforest.

Though Boeing 747s, nicknamed the Queen of the Skies, are being retired as passenger jets, global warming and radical fires may be the cause for some to be reborn as mammoth, flying fire trucks.  

At least that's the case for one 747, called the Global Supertanker, dubbed the 'John Muir.' 'It's on scene and already fighting fires consuming the Amazon rain forest. The behemoth jumbo jet liner is modified with huge tanks and pumps to drop fire retardant on big fires in one huge drop, almost two miles long, or numerous smaller drops.

Former Cal Fire Deputy and Aviation Chief Dan Reese is president of Global Supertanker on station in Bolivia.

"Lots of fire. Lots and lots of fire," said Reese. Global Supertanker is the only tanker in this fight in a place that's never had fires of this magnitude; with several 100,000 acre fires burning all at once.

According to Reese, they'll have to fight this enormous fire one bite at a time until it rains.

"This is something new for them. They've never seen this kind of fire. It's very. It's very dry. It's predicted to be dry for the next several months which compounds things," said Reece. Whatever the specific mission, it's all about slowing the fire down to serve the needs of firefighters on the ground who ultimately make sure no embers or hotspots survive.

"I know that if I was on the ground and I got in trouble, I'd want something like this available to call in and put a wall between me and the fire," said Supertanker Chief Pilot Cliff Hale.

With a range of 1,850 miles, the term Global Supertanker is apt because it has already fought fires in Israel and 43 missions over Chile as well as 102 missions over California and Oregon in 2017 and 2018.

From its Colorado base, it can be anywhere in the continental U.S. within two and a half hours. From its California base at Sacramento's McClellan field, it can be anywhere in the nation in four hours. It can speed to a fire at 600 miles an hour, just under the speed of sound, but slow to a mere 165 miles an hour to conduct precision retardant drops from a daringly low 200 feet above the terrain.

On a fire it can drop anything from water, to firefighting gel, to fire suppressant foam, to red fire retardants.

"The payload, the ability to fly slow, low and maneuver like the 747 can, is just a perfect match for us," said pilot Hale. At least for now, this aircraft is not available for use in California or the U.S., though several other almost as large tankers are.