Boeing 747 - Modern Airliners

Aerial Firefighting with Fire Fighting Airplanes

Fire Fighting Airplanes like this converted DC-9 are a big part of our fire fighting effort.

It seems to be the new normal now that each year brings devastating fires that are getting harder and harder to fight. Like anything, bigger problems need bigger solutions. To support the brave men and women who risk their lives to fight these fires, often coming in from other countries to support their brothers and sisters in need, we have seen in recent years new tools come into play. A few years ago smaller planes, like the twin-engine high wing Canadair CL-215 would skim across lakes or other bodies of water, scooping up that water to then dump it on inaccessible fires. We also had helicopters such as the Sikorsky S-64, an example of which was owned by Erickson Air-Crane called Elvis which was loaned to Australia in the early 2000s. Aerial Firefighting is now moving to the next level with fire fighting airplanes.

With bush fires becoming more ferocious and harder to fight from the ground, organisations are turning more and more towards larger fire fighting airplanes. Fire fighting airplanes are not purpose-built, however, with so many airliners now being retired, there is a ready source of large aircraft that can be converted. Unlike the current trend in air travel where large jets are becoming all but obsolete, for fire fighting airplanes bigger is better. So now we are seeing those older airliners that we used to travel in getting a new lease on life.

..for fire fighting airplanes bigger is better..

The biggest is the Boeing 747, “Queen of the Skies”. Yes, the airliner that was the world’s largest for most of its life is now finding a second life as the air defence to back up our on the ground firefighters. Like ground troops in a war, when the going gets tough you call in air support, and you want to be sure that they can bomb the hell out of the enemy. Well, this is the biggest, no doubt.

Global Supertanker Boeing 747-400
Global Supertanker Boeing 747-400.

The Global Supertanker, Spirit of John Muir, is the worlds largest VLAT or Very Large Air Tanker, holding almost twice as much water or fire retardant as its next closest rival. This Boeing 747-400 started its life as an airliner flying for Japan Airlines before retiring to its next role as a freight carrying aircraft for the now defunct Evergreen International. The seats already long having been stripped out, the fuselage now accommodates two large identical tank systems giving the aircraft an effective payload of 20,000 gallons of water, retardant or gel. The tanks are pressurised and can deliver in one burst or in 8 segmented releases. The delivery can take the form of a blanket or drizzle out like rain which comes out through four outlets under the fuselage.

Spirit of John Muir can reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland within four hours and with a load time of 30-35 minutes can be deployed very quickly where needed. The aircraft was a great asset in South America during the recent Amazon jungle fires, really living up to the John Muir legacy.

Flying the Global Supertanker takes very special skills. Normally you would see the likes of a 747 taking off from a big city airport, climbing to cruise and then descend to some other big city airport at the other end of the journey. The skill required to fly the VLATs is more in line with that of an air-force bomber pilot skill set. Each sortie is critical and the retardant or water must be delivered to a precise location to be effective. This means that delivery runs are often at a very low level, around 200 feet above ground in difficult terrain and smoky conditions. Not for the faint of heart. Having said this, accidents have happened to other fire fighting aircraft and in some cases, airmen gave their lives in service of others.

10 Tanker Air Carrier DC10
Since 2006, converted McDonnell Douglas DC10s have been used in aerial firefighting.

10 Tanker Air Carrier operates a fleet of 5 converted DC-10 aircraft. These converted airliners can hold around 12,000 gallons of water or retardant and have been deployed all around the world as required.

BAe 146 aerial fire airplane
This BAe 146 aerial firefighting aircraft is ideal for its slow speed abilities. Here we can see the tail air-brake is deployed to allow it maximum time over the target.

So we can see that the toolbox at our firefighter’s disposal is taking on whole new proportions as we try to stay ahead of our changing weather patterns. It is heartening to see some of our old favourite airliners getting a new lease on life and returning them to the usefulness they once enjoyed. It is, however, even more, heartening to see serious force being brought to bear in the fight to save lives and our precious environment. Never underestimate the bravery of those on the ground and in the air that fight for our benefit.

Is this finally the end of the Boeing 747 Jumbo?

Pan American World Airways Boeing 747 N750PA

Just over 50 years ago on 09 February 1969, Boeing made history as the worlds largest jet airliner, the Boeing 747 named City of Everett, climbed off the new purpose-built runway into Seattle’s grey sky. Thus began our love affair with what was to be dubbed the Jumbo Jet.

US carrier Pan Am was the launch customer for the Jumbo and scheduled their first service from New York to London for 7:00 pm 21 January 1970. The service was to be flown by an aircraft named Clipper Young America. On departure from the terminal in New York, however, there were technical difficulties around one of the engines overheating. The aircraft returned to the terminal and a replacement aircraft was flown in. The replacement 747 which was called Clipper Victor, was substituted and renamed Clipper Young America. The first commercial service of the 747 Jumbo departed New York finally at 1:52 am on 22 January.

Pan Am under the stewardship of Juan Trippe was a force to be reckoned with during that time and their need for a larger aircraft than the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 was a driving force in the eventual design outcome of the 747. Boeing was not completely convinced that a passenger aircraft of this size had a market. To this end, they created a design that would work well for freight airlines, which is where they saw the biggest market potential. This is of course why we have the distinctive bubble on top of the fuselage where the flight deck is located. The bubble enabled the 747 to be produced with a nose door for loading cargo with clear access to the fuselage unencumbered by a flight deck blocking the access. This may well have been a stroke of genius as we now see Boeing still producing the 747-8F, the freighter version.

Including the current 747-8, there have been 1,555 Boeing 747s delivered since that historic flight back in 1969. The 747, “Queen of the Skies”, changed the world of travel and became the symbol of air travel. Appearing in songs and movies and just generally winning our hearts, the 747 has been a favourite for many years.

KLM Boeing 747-400 departing from Amsterdam.
KLM Boeing 747-400 departing from Amsterdam. KLM has been retiring their 747s and don’t anticipate the type to ever fly again under a KLM tail.

50 years is a long time in technology. Of course, the various models of the 747 have all come out with improvements and technology updates, but other technologies have also improved and eclipsed the need for a very large four-engined airliner. This is discussed in our article “Boeing 747-8 Are we falling out of love?”.

Whilst Boeing is seeing a tapering off in interest in the passenger Jumbo, they at least still have the cargo version which has around 17 outstanding air-frames still to be delivered. Spare a thought for Airbus and the Airbus A380. You could say they came a little late to the Jumbo, or Super Jumbo party. By the time the first A380s were being delivered, the aviation scene was already changing, with newer technology large twin-engine airliners such as the Boeing 777, Boeing 787, Airbus A330 and Airbus A350 taking on long haul services. ETOPS certifications enabled these giant twins to fly the routes previously reserved for the 4 engined giants. The writing was on the wall.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 (D-ABYU) at Frankfurt Airport.
Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 (D-ABYU) at Frankfurt Airport. Lufthansa was the launch customer for the Boeing 747-8i (International) and currently have not announced plans to retire these newer aircraft.

These changes were already well underway before the current economic market created by Covid-19 took its toll on travel. Airlines who still carried the Boeing 747 in their fleets already had firm plans in place to retire the type in the very near future. This, in many cases, was projected to happen over the first years of the 2020s, however, the effects of Covid-19 on global travel has prompted these airlines to bring forward their 747 retirement plans.

For example, Virgin Atlantic will be retiring its 7 747s very shortly. Consider that its 747 fleet has an average age of 20 years, whereas the rest of its fleet, excluding these 747s, has an average age of 9 years. This represents a significantly higher cost in maintenance for the aging older technology aircraft. Lufthansa has also brought forward the retirement of 5 of its 13 Boeing 747-400s. It is worth noting that Lufthansa is one of the few airlines that bought the newer Boeing 747-8i. At the time of writing, this aircraft would still be retained by the airline. British Airways which has a large fleet of 28 747s will be working toward complete retirement of the type by 2024.

British Airways Boeing 747-400
British Airways have 28 Boeing 747-400s in their fleet and are working toward retiring them all by 2024.

QANTAS for its part was looking to retire their last 6 747s by the end of 2020. The current travel climate has caused them to re-evaluate that schedule. Of the 6 mentioned, 3 have now already made their way to the aircraft graveyard in the Mojave Desert, California. The remaining 3 were scheduled to operate routes to Johannesburg, Tokyo and Santiago until the end of 2020. It is now widely believed that the remaining 3 will follow their sisters to Mojave this month, June 2020. Foreward QANTAS schedules show that the aforementioned routes will now be flown by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The “Flying Kangaroo” on a 747 tail, once a very common site will be no more. By the end of the year, the only place you will be able to see a QANTAS 747 will be at HARS(Historical Aircraft Restoration Society) at Shellharbour Airport, just south of Sydney. Well worth a visit.

Boeing 747-438 VH-OJS QANTAS
QANTAS Boeing 747-438 . Once such a common site in our skies, soon to be no more.

I know I’ve had some of my most epic and memorable flights on the 747. Down the back or up the front always a wonderful experience. Whether it be a brand new 747-200B of Air New Zealand or a really tired old QANTAS 747-400, you always felt like you were on a real airliner, the grand old Queen of the Skies. I know I will miss seeing them and being able to get on one.

Do you have any special memories of 747 flights you have taken. Feel free to share them below.

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