Supertanker CEO ‘Sick’ Over Plane’s Grounding In U.S.

By Dillon Thomas

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CBS4) – As dozens of wildfires across 10 different states burned through the night, the Colorado-based “Global Supertanker” was stationary.

Due to a contracting issue with the National Forest Service, the world’s largest firefighting aircraft could not legally participate in fire responses.

“We know we can do the job, yet we are sidelined here in the United States,” said Jim Wheeler, CEO and President of Global Supertanker.

Wheeler told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas he was heartbroken by fires, knowing his Colorad Springs-based specialized aircraft was grounded in the United States.

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(credit: CBS)

“It makes me sick, and incredibly frustrated,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler planned to fly to Boise, ID to meet with the National Forest Service on Monday. Wheeler said the meeting could potentially bring the aircraft back into service, one month after the FAA’s temporary approval expired.

Currently, the aircraft could only serve those in other countries.

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(credit: CBS)

The Forest Service only allowed smaller planes to enter contracts during the summer of 2017, thus far. Planes only capable of carrying around 5,000 gallons of firefighting materials were permitted.

“I wish I could give you a rational explanation for that, but I can’t,” Wheeler said.

The Supertanker has the capability to carry nearly 20,000 gallons. The plane, able to carry water, is also capable of carrying several chemicals, including gels and retardant.

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(credit: CBS)

Wheeler said the decision to “deliberately exclude” the Supertanker from service was unfounded, in his opinion.

“Would you call the fire department and say, ‘please, send me the slowest smallest fire truck you have.’ I don’t think so.” Wheeler said.

“Tests conducted in August and September 2016 indicated that Global Supertankers Service’s tanking system needed adjustment to ensure proper delivery of fire retardant,” the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement. “Global Supertanker Services was scheduled to do another test later in the fall of 2016 to determine if the issues had been addressed but the company asked to not do the testing so they could fly wildfire suppression missions internationally.”

The Interagency Airtanker Board, according to the USFS, gave Global Supertanker Services until extension to make the modifications. That deadline expired on June 15.

Wheeler said he believed the decision was bureaucratic in nature. He hoped a meeting with the government would allow the Supertanker team to propose new prices and conditions.

“We can save lives, save property,” Wheeler said. “We cannot fly for the forest service, if there is not a contract available to fly on.”

Dillon Thomas is a reporter at CBS4 and a Colorado native. He believes everyone has a story, and would love to share yours! You can find more of his stories by following him on Twitter, @DillonMThomas.

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