Amid a drought in the West and warnings of another potentially destructive wildfire season ahead, the owners of the world’s largest firefighting air tanker have grounded the massive aircraft, saying it’s just not turning a profit.
The decision to ground the plane comes after more than 4.3 million acres burned in California during the state’s historic 2020 wildfire season and as the region contends with a crippling drought, with vegetation and grasses beginning to brown much earlier in the season than usual.
The Boeing 747-400 SuperTanker, capable of dropping 19,000 gallons of fire retardant per trip, was deployed last year to battle the El Dorado Fire in Southern California – a blaze ignited by pyrotechnics at a gender reveal party. The fire happened during the state’s worst wildfire season on record.
The plane was also one of several aerial firefighting tankers that battled the lightning-sparked LNU Complex Fire in Northern California’s famed wine country.
The Supertanker flew 119 sorties last year, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Isaac Sanchez. The plane could have been dispatched multiple times for one fire event.
The plane has been used internationally, as well. In 2019, it was dispatched to Bolivia to aid in fighting the raging fires in the Amazon rainforest.
But Alterna Capital Partners, the investment firm that owns Global SuperTanker Services, decided last week to cease operations of the massive plane, saying its federal firefighting contracts were not generating enough profit.
“Over the past three years, GSTS (Global Supertanker Services) has made enormous strides in making the 19,000-gallon SuperTanker a valuable tool in the arsenal of the USFS, CAL FIRE and numerous states, and is operationally cash flow positive,” said Roger Miller, managing director of Alterna Capital Partners LLC, in a news release.
“However, the technology investment to upgrade the drop … system and the 747-400 aircraft was very significant. The economics under the company’s current federal ‘call when needed’ contract are such that the investment will take longer to realize profitability than previously expected.”
Alterna said it is pursuing alternative business streams for the SuperTanker, including using it as a freighter to carry large amounts of cargo during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The option to sell the aircraft as freighter has been in part driven by the COVID-19 crisis, which has led to a significant increase in value for freighter aircraft,” said the firm.
While the grounding of the SuperTanker is a loss to the firefighting community, Sanchez said Cal Fire maintains a large firefighting fleet and will still be able to aggressively attack fires. With the state at 70% below normal for total precipitation this water year, forecasters warn California residents to be vigilant as the state enters fire season.
“People need to be aware there is a high threat and this year that threat is coming earlier,” said Eric Kurth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, earlier this month. “The grasses are drying out sooner, so things are quicker in terms of us getting into that extreme fire season. Be careful you aren’t a part of starting these fires.”
CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray contributed to this report.