Supertanker

While watching news footage of a wildfire raging, maybe you've been struck by frustration at the lack of a high-tech, super-sized firefighting solution. Why, in 2009, don't firefighters have access to a super water-cannon? Where is the quick-hardening smothering shell? How much longer will we wait for a mountain-climbing hydro-Roomba?

The answer may be closer than you think. On Thursday I was treated to a demonstration of the largest firefighting vehicle in the world, the Evergreen Supertanker. Evergreen International Aviation, based in Oregon, has been supporting wildland firefighting since the late 1930s.

The Supertanker is an obscenely large fire extinguisher cradled in the walls of a Boeing 747 jet.

This thing is a monster.

With a payload of 20,500 gallons, it has more than eight times the drop capacity of other federal air tankers currently fighting fires.

To surpass the water-hauling abilities of current aircraft, Evergreen faced a number of challenges. To drop water precisely, from an altitude appropriate for such a huge jet, the upertanker was built with an array of high-pressure tanks. The water or retardant isn't just dropped, it is sprayed out of four 16" nozzles under 40,000 lbs of pressure.

From what I'd seen in their marketing material, the Supertanker water drop looked incredible. Standing out on the tarmac at McClellan Air Force Base, waiting for the Supertanker to cruise by, I was excited. There was a joyful anticipation in the air like for a space shuttle launch. After a low-altitude dry run, the massive aircraft came by for the real thing. It came in low and slow, as if it was preparing for a landing.

A tumbling blast of water shot out toward the ground. As it left the high-pressure nozzles, the water slowed and rained down onto the field below. It dropped its entire load, 20,500 gallons, in less than 10 seconds.

In use, the Supertanker can spread water or fire retardant into a patch 100 yards wide and 3 miles long. Or it can divide the load into separate drops, depending on what is needed for the fires at hand. It can also dump other liquids.

I imagine the high pressure water dump makes an impressive whoosh, but it is not at all audible over the roar of low-flying 747 jet.

The Supertanker pulled up and around and circled back for a landing. In an operational situation, it would be landing for new fuel, retardant and pressurized gas.

California and other state fire agencies will probably be slow to embrace this new titan. At a cost of $3 million per month, the Supertanker may find itself fighting only the worst fires in the most precious places with the most property at risk.

Maybe the Supertanker won't replace traditional firefighting equipment and techniques, but it will definitely be nice to have a superhero waiting in the wings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(This is where they drop the Mentos in)

 

 

From a safe distance, it is easy to lose perspective on how big the Supertanker is, and just how much water is being released.

A man has been added to this image for scale.


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May 6, 2009.

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