If you are reading this story, then the worst has happened. Without any 11th hour savior, government intervention, or miracle, the Global SuperTanker, Tanker 944, is no longer in operation.
The Global SuperTanker was the third 747 to be converted into what is commonly referred to as a “Supertanker” configuration. The first two aircraft operated by now-defunct Evergreen Aviation, one of which still sits atop the Evergreen museum, which also houses the iconic “Spruce Goose.”
Global SuperTanker Services acquired the majority of Evergreen’s assets during the company’s insolvency, leading to the development of Tanker 944 (N944ST), a Boeing 747-400 previously owned by Japan Airlines as a cargo freighter. Conversion into the Global SuperTanker took place shortly after purchase, finally becoming the Spirit of John Muir, a nod to the man known as the “father of national parks” in the United States.
The Global SuperTanker would begin operations after certification by the FAA in September of 2016, fighting fires first abroad in Israel and Chile before gaining its first firefighting contract in the United States in California in 2017.
Dan Reese, CEO of Global SuperTanker, was, in recent weeks, in talks with Hilary Franz, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, among others, to discuss the potential, and options for multiple states to hire the GST as a group. At a press event held at Moses Lake just three weeks ago, Franz attended by AerialFire Magazine, stated there was a desperate need for an aircraft the size of Tanker 944 to help fight fires that have caused significant losses over the past several years in multiple states. Despite interest from Washington, California, Oregon, and several other states, on April 19th, according to the press release put out by ownership group Alterna Capital Partners, the Global SuperTanker ceased operations.
Alterna’s press release, in part, paid homage to the leadership of CEO Dan Reese, stating, “In late 2018, the Alterna/GSTS vision was accelerated with the hiring of Dan Reese, former Chief, Tactical Air Operations at CAL FIRE as President of GSTS. Reese’s initial priorities were building a professional firefighting organization and re-engineering the Supertanker to meet and exceed all requirements defined by the federal Interagency Airtanker Board (“IAB”).
By 2019, the GSTS team had made significant enhancements to the SuperTanker drop system and conducted two months of successful missions in Bolivia. In 2020, further refinements to the drop system were completed, and GSTS was granted a “call when needed” contract by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for the first time. Additionally, California (CAL FIRE), Oregon, and Colorado “call when needed” contracts were awarded. In 2020, the GSTS strategy and technology upgrade progress was validated by mission assignments from both CAL FIRE and the USFS.”
Despite these successes, the financial belt-tightening of fire budgets after COVID may have signed the death knell for one of the most substantial air assets ever seen.
In an exclusive interview with AerialFire, Dan Reese spoke on his sadness not only on the demise of a project he and his team had poured their heart and souls into for so many years but his concern for the welfare of his staff. This included pilots, maintenance staff, and everyone else that had a hand in creating what was known throughout the world as a game-changing aircraft when it came to fighting fires.
When speaking on his impressions of what led to Alterna Capital ending hopes for the continuation of the program, Reese stated many issues that did in and of themselves played a part in the demise of Tanker 944.
Still, collectively, when factoring in the unlucky timing of COVID-19 and its impact on global financing, all played a part in the investment company agreeing to end operations.
“it’s, it’s difficult to predict (fire danger) ahead of time. Except for years like this, all the indicators are lining up to be a terrible year. You want to have the aircraft in a place where it can command the price that it should and engage contracts. However, it’s one aircraft. So, when there’s a need, we have multiple requests, but because it’s one aircraft, we can only accommodate one at a time. It was a really significant investment into the company to keep going and move the arrow in the industry along and continue to invest in modernizing the technology needed.
Unfortunately, there are multiple requests that we cannot handle, typically in the summer months with the fires that we’ve had. If we’re on an (exclusive) contract for the State of California, then we can’t realize those call when needed agreements that we have for other states like Colorado and Oregon. So it becomes a first-come, first-serve basis.” said Reese.
While the future is uncertain for the Global SuperTanker as an aircraft and if it will remain in its current configuration, Reese, like many others, hopes the aircraft is snapped up by someone else to continue its service to countries in need. Reese sees the plane as much more than a financial burden as some may refer to it, but an essential asset that can make the difference in a firefight with the most significant retardant dropping capacity and the aircraft’s new digital drop system.
Reese went on to explain the complexities of making a profit for the GST while trying to provide the best service possible with the existing technology, which appeared to be a more than complex task when factoring in the freedoms given by a call when needed contract for the company versus the financial stability of an exclusive use contract. A balancing act that Reese seemed to do incredibly well given the circumstances.
Funding for the GST ahead of time for state and federal contracts has always been a struggle. Finding permanent funding for ongoing use in either exclusive use or call when needed contracts have always been the sticking point for the industry and an aircraft the size of the GST. That problem may be partially attributed to the way the governments prioritize the funding to fight fires.
Federal funding can be provided to states to fight fires, but typically, not until a fire has taken hold, which at times, as far as property and lives are concerned, can often be too late. Much of the federal budget related to fire management is now centered around forest management practices and not fire suppression, which is a dangerous trend if not balanced.
The federal government may provide grant funding for firefighting through the Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) program, which provides a 75 percent Federal cost share. The State pays the remaining 25 percent for actual costs.
According to the FEMA website detailing the FMAG program, “Before a grant can be awarded, a State must demonstrate that total eligible costs for the declared fire meet or exceed either the individual fire cost threshold – which it applies to single fires, or the cumulative fire cost threshold, which recognizes numerous smaller fires burning throughout a State. Eligible firefighting costs may include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities.”
In essence, when it comes to large fires that qualify for an FMAG grant the federal government will pick up a significant portion of the tab. This implication means that there is often more incentive for LAT and VLAT aircraft to be sent to fight a large fire and make a difference, but not until the fire is well underway. As explained by Reese, “we are only one aircraft, and if fires break out in California, sometimes we are already on another contract and requests from others states or countries cannot be realized.”
The Rumor Mill
While there has been much speculation on why the Global SuperTanker is winding up operations, one persistent rumor that continues to propagate is that Tanker 944 could not pass certification with the USFS, scheduled to take place just days after the announced closing down of operations.
This rumor was refuted by Reese, who explained in great detail what the certification process involved previously, what the company had done to rectify any listed issues or deficiencies, and how the aircraft was in his mind going to pass certification with flying colors.
The Global SuperTanker team of talented engineers, maintainers, and other staff spent the last year installing and testing the digital drop system. However, short of a significant cash injection or the company selling to another owner, the system is not likely to ever see action on a fire.
One of the much-publicized issues noted in prior certifications was the “trail off” of retardant, which Reese stated had been rectified prior to the 2020 season. This, along with other improvements that centered around ease of loading and drop pattern work. The GST team could calculate down to the gallon how much retardant was being used and what coverage was being applied on the ground, which at this late stage of the game, appears to have been for naught.
While other options exist, such as gutting the aircraft and returning it to a cargo configuration, the future is unclear for the aircraft that now sits idle in Moses Lake, Washington. Just three weeks prior to the announcement of the GST ceasing operations, the company performed a water drop during a media day. The day was aimed at highlighting a bill to improve Washington’s firefighting response capability and promoting the State of Washington as an aviation industry destination for business. Unknown to anyone on the day, myself included, this was to be the last drop made by this iconic and life-saving aircraft.
While the bell has yet to toll for the final time on Tanker 944, the end is potentially near, and public sentiment is that of sadness, anger, and resentment that an aircraft that, while expensive, has saved countless lives, properties, and hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in its years of service.
Petitions have begun to circulate on change.org, stating the need for the service of the GST. In addition, hundreds of Facebook posts celebrating the aircraft or lamenting its potential loss have begun to pile up.
The future at this point for the GST may a bleak one, but only time will tell if she will fly again or if all the effort now being put in as a last-ditch effort to save her may be a case of too little, too late.