Can a 747 be reborn into a wildfire-fighting supertanker?

By John Fialka | 07/26/2016 07:31 AM EDT

In the summer of 2000, Cliff Hale, a Boeing 747 pilot, was on vacation visiting his family in Albuquerque, N.M., when a drama suddenly appeared on local television. There was a big forest fire raging out of control near Los Alamos, and a World War II-era aircraft that had been converted to a tanker was being loaded with fire retardant at the Albuquerque airport.

The "Spirit of John Muir," a Boeing 747 converted into a supertanker to fight large forest fires, drops a load of water during a recent demonstration in Colorado.

The "Spirit of John Muir," a Boeing 747 converted into a supertanker to fight large forest fires, drops a load of water during a recent demonstration in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Global SuperTanker.

First of a two-part series. Click here to read part two.

In the summer of 2000, Cliff Hale, a Boeing 747 pilot, was on vacation visiting his family in Albuquerque, N.M., when a drama suddenly appeared on local television. There was a big forest fire raging out of control near Los Alamos, and a World War II-era aircraft that had been converted to a tanker was being loaded with fire retardant at the Albuquerque airport.

A few minutes later, Hale heard the plane flying over his house. Forty minutes later, television crews picked up the propeller-driven Douglas DC-4, a plane first launched in 1942, lumbering over Los Alamos, preparing to drop about 2,000 gallons of the gooey, red liquid over the fire.


The fire was eventually put out, but this was just the beginning of the drama that soon took over Hale’s career.

Hale recalled in a recent interview that he was thinking that if the 747 he had just parked in New York could be converted into what pilots call a "fire bomber" — a passenger jet converted into a tanker — the big, wide-bodied jet could have gotten to the fire in half the time and dropped almost 10 times the amount of retardant.

Old jet airliners are like old generals: They almost never die, but gently fade away into the air freight business, where their capacity, strength and speed were making the airline Hale was working for — Evergreen International Aviation — rich. Hale, who specialized in training its new pilots, recalled that a temporary lull in the air freight business had left a lot of used 747s sitting on the ground.

"I was like, there’s got to be a way where we can put these airplanes to use and get a better grip on the fire situation," Hale said.

He knew climate change had begun to lengthen fire seasons in the West and expand the size of fires. So he decided to spend the next two years working out the design and engineering for a big cargo jet that would carry multiple tanks instead of pallets of cargo where the seats that carried as many as 539 passengers once were. The modified plane would have sophisticated controls allowing pilots to drop retardant precisely where it could best help firefighters rapidly gain control over bigger fires.

After two years, Hale had many of the details worked out. He had spent many nights explaining to his wife how the 650 mph speed of the aircraft could allow it to reach almost any major fire in the U.S. West within three hours. On arrival, it would use tanks of compressed air to shoot the liquid fire retardant out four nozzles in the back of the aircraft with adjustable precision, so it could make 100-foot corridors around different types of fires temporarily unburnable. That would allow ground-based fire crews to gain control over them more quickly.

His wife said he was ready for the next stage. "She told me that now I should call the chairman," he said.

A tough ‘chairman’ blesses the venture

This was the moment Hale had been dreading. Delford Smith, a crusty former World War II paratrooper, was renowned for his charitable work around his hometown of McMinnville, Ore., but that’s not the side of the owner of Evergreen that its employees frequently saw.

Delford Smith
Delford Smith, founder of Evergreen International Aviation, was known simply as “the chairman” to those around him. | Photo courtesy of the Evergreen Aviation Museum.

According to the obituary that ran in the local paper, the Yamhill Valley News Register, when Smith died in November 2014 at the age of 84, he was a man who would fire staff members "mercilessly, sometimes on what seemed like a whim." He was legendary for letting bills go "unpaid, stiffing the lowly and lofty alike. And he paid his pilots less than any other pilots in the industry, year after year."

Hale recalled that Evergreen’s maintenance chief been fired "about five times, but he kept showing up for work the next day. It was not uncommon for the chairman to fire you and then ask where you were. We called it management by intimidation."

The chairman even had rules for phone conversations with employees. Hale knew he had to boil down his case for the supertanker to no more than two minutes.

"I had it all prepared," he said. "I went into the megafires we were starting to have, and he stopped me 30 seconds into his call and said: ‘You’re talking about a 747 fire bomber.’ And I said yes. He said, ‘Let’s explore it,’ then hung up."

Two weeks elapsed and Hale heard nothing from the chairman. He began to wonder whether Smith thought his idea was crazy. Then he heard a rumor that other people in McMinnville had started talking about a fire bomber. Hale decided to take the risk and call the chairman again. "I said, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve been working on this for two years.’

"He said, ‘Meet me in Washington, D.C., next Wednesday,’ and boom, there we went."

Bad years for fire bombers

It was 2002, the wrong year, Hale later learned, for selling the federal government on a new concept. Fighting fires from the air had gotten a bad name. The first major clue that something needed changing came in June, when a Lockheed C-130A tanker leased to the Forest Service lost both wings above a fire in California, killing three crewmen. A similar crash a month later near Estes Park, Colo., brought down another leased tanker, the Navy’s version of the World War II B-24 bomber, killing two crewmen. Investigations later found cracks from metal fatigue in the wing structures of both planes.

In 2004, after a third, independent, blue-ribbon panel found safety flaws and poor management problems, the Forest Service terminated contracts for its entire large tanker fleet. For eight years, it struggled with smaller aircraft and heavy helicopters to fight fires.

A Government Accountability Office report in August 2013 found widespread confusion between the two federal agencies fighting fires from the air. The Forest Service, which is a branch of the Agriculture Department, and the Bureau of Land Management, which belongs to the Interior Department, were having trouble coordinating a strategy.

They had been involved in nine major studies since 1995 to identify the number and types of aircraft they needed to fight fires, but there was "limited information and collaboration," along with budget problems that drove the agencies to leasing "legacy" aircraft, fragile relics of past wars.

But Smith was an experienced wire-puller in Washington. Evergreen had flown both missions for the armed services and secret flights for the Central Intelligence Agency for almost three decades, and some doors were always open to him in the nation’s capital. Moreover, Hale found out later that his boss had been interested in fighting fires from the air since he started in the aircraft business in the 1960s by buying a fleet of helicopters.

The chairman had even worked on a scheme to replant burned forests from the air, by spraying hillsides with fertilizers and seeds. In 1986, he had worked with the Forest Service on a study that showed jet-powered tankers, such as the new version of the C-130 and the 747, would make effective fire bombers, but the price of early 747s — then in vogue as a passenger aircraft — was too steep to fit into budgets approved by Congress to fight fires.

By 2003, the price had dropped, but the political sensitivity in Washington about firefighting aircraft had risen. Since 2001, 22 crewmen have died flying leased aircraft for the Forest Service. "So when we came along to make the case for the first 747, it was right after some of these accidents, so it took the FAA six months just to give us a project number," Hale recalled.

Testing tankers from Spain to Israel

The old process, which attracted companies to refit fragile, sometimes severely used military aircraft from World War II and the Korean wars and hire former military pilots — often poorly trained for firefighting — to fly them, invited accidents. The new process, to use newer, wide-bodied jets to fight fires, hadn’t been developed yet.

There was talk that the government might even have to pay for new aircraft that were specially designed to fight fires.

Hale and the chairman of Evergreen rounded up aircraft engineers who supported their argument that the newer 747 had the strength and the power to fly down low and fight fires — as long as the way they did it did not exceed the design specifications for the aircraft.

By 2006, they had permission to test a refitted "proof of concept" 747 in the Arizona desert and began developing tactics on how the aircraft would be used. By 2009, a refitted Evergreen 747 had permission to fly to Europe to demonstrate the effects of large air drops on big wildfires.

It helped douse a fire in Spain, which fit into Evergreen’s marketing campaign. The company was keen on developing international interest in the plane because bigger forest fires were being experienced around the globe. When fire season ended in the late fall in the United States, it was just starting in other countries, such as Australia and Israel, which called for help in December 2010. A fire on Mount Carmel, Israel, near Haifa, spread quickly, consuming much of the Mediterranean forest covering the region.

Israel, which had been following the saga of Evergreen’s 747, called the company for help.

"It took us a little over 17 hours to get there," recalled Hale, who made two drops. "When I got into the fire traffic area, I think there were five tankers circling from different countries. None of us spoke Hebrew, but the Israelis handled it perfectly." Shortly afterward, the Israelis declared the fire contained. It had claimed 44 lives, making it the deadliest in the country’s history.

Jet tankers prove their worth — too late

On the morning of Aug. 17, 2013, the Forest Service got a scary preview of the speed, havoc and damage future wildfires would bring if better ways to fight and prevent them weren’t found. It started with a small campfire set by a careless hunter in a remote canyon in the Sierra Nevada range. It quickly grew into the largest fire in the region’s history.

Within two days, it had consumed nearly 90,000 acres of a national forest, made tinder-dry by a record drought and stacked with years of brush and deadwood that might have been removed earlier, but there was no budget left for that. Then the blaze — christened the Rim Fire — attacked the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Thousands of people were evacuated, replaced by 5,000 firefighters, who fought their way into almost inaccessible terrain during a heat wave to locate and try to contain it.

The accelerating fire forced California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to declare a state of emergency for San Francisco because damaged power lines serving the Bay Area had caused two of its three hydroelectric power plants to shut down. It also threatened operations at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the main source of water for San Francisco.

Fortunately, San Francisco continued to enjoy power and water because the Forest Service threw two of its newest assets into the fight, two leased McDonnell Douglas DC-10 airliners converted into aerial tankers that flew five or more missions each day, dumping several hundred thousand gallons of fire retardant around the blaze. Almost a decade of doubts about whether big jets were maneuverable enough to get low and slow enough to help contain large fires vanished with the smoke. Their impact on the fire, which burned 257,314 acres, was "tremendous," one Forest Service official said later.

A Forest Service call had gone out that spring to five companies to request the use of what it called "next-generation" air tankers. But most of these companies were unable to respond, including Evergreen. Its 747 needed $1 million to complete testing, and its engines had been put into storage. The long wait for Washington to approve bigger, newer air tankers had proved expensive. Evergreen officials promised it would be ready for the 2014 fire season, but the air freight market was in another one of its slumps.

By late December 2013, Evergreen was in bankruptcy.

Leasing big jet tankers can be expensive. If it had been available, the 747 would have cost the government about $75,000 a day. That might seem like a lot, but the Rim Fire cost U.S. taxpayers $127 million to put out, not counting the cost of lost timber, burned homes, closed highways, lost work and school days, health-threatening air pollution and parklands charred during the nine-week battle to control it.

According to the Forest Service, the Rim Fire provided just a taste of what climate change may bring in the future. In a recent statement, it predicted that wildfires will increase throughout the United States, "causing at least a doubling of area burned by the middle of this century."

Tomorrow: the supertanker gets relaunched.