As warm and dry conditions ramp up, California firefighters are gearing up for what could be another deadly summer.
And, as evident in the skies above the capital region, they aren’t the only ones preparing.
The Global SuperTanker, the world’s largest firefighting airplane, arrived at Sacramento McClellan Airport in late June, complete with its four pilots, to train in the region they’ll likely spend the next few months.
“The dots are starting to line up for another bad fire season,” said John Winder, chief operations officer for Global SuperTanker Services. The company is based out of Colorado Springs and contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, among others in the U.S. and around the world.
Last year, the Boeing 747-400 jet modified released 1,327,478 gallons of fire retardant during 71 drops, according to Winder. It was brought in for the Camp Fire in Paradise and several others including the Ranch, Call, Front and Donnell fires.
And just weeks after this year’s Sand Fire burned 2,500 acres in rural Yolo County, the red and white jet could be seen zooming up and down a rural area about 10 miles north of Lake Berryessa, flying low to the ground and weaving through tall trees.
After several runs through the route, the SuperTanker’s pilot dropped thousands of gallons of water, in a simulation meant to familiarize the pilots with the terrain. The process was repeated over several days, with each of the pilots taking turns navigating the course.
“It’s probably the most difficult flying a pilot will ever do,” Winder said as the plane took off to do its training for the day on June 20. The flight track takes the plane across the Sacramento area, including near downtown and the state Capitol, according to tracking service FlightAware.
The pilots have been flying cargo 747s together for 20 years, according to Global SuperTanker pilot Tom Parsons. He said they’ve probably collectively flown 16,000 hours.
Now, they exclusively fly the Global SuperTanker.
The plane, also dubbed the 944, was originally built in 1992 to fly passengers, Winder said. That’s what it did for 16 years before being converted to a freight liner in 2008. Its career transporting cargo lasted six years, and in 2014, the supertanker was developed into a fire-fighting jet.
“The Global SuperTanker is ready, willing and able just like a real 747 is,” said Marcos Valdez, another of the Global SuperTanker pilots. “We just use it for a slightly different purpose.”
In its latest configuration, it’s capable of dropping 19,200 gallons of water or fire retardant. Christened the Spirit of John Muir, it’s capable of flying at 600 mph and can deliver up to eight drops in a single flight.
The plane fought fires down in Chile in 2017 and across the globe in Israel the year before, according to Winder. Once called in to help, the jet can be anywhere in the world in 20 hours with just one fuel stop, Valdez said.
While a useful tool for firefighters, the plane and pilots have to go through an extensive vetting process. When the plane arrived for trials in late June, Cal Fire officials inspected the jet’s maintenance records and pilots’ records, Winder said.
With their training completed before July 4, the pilots headed back to Colorado to wait until needed.
“When the calls come, we’ll be ready,” Winder said.
Correction: Photo captions that accompanied this article originally misnamed the airport. It is Sacramento McClellan Airport.