Marcos Valdez has been flying 747s for over 20 years but the last couple of decades pale in comparison to the rush he gets when he flies a 747, 200 feet above the trees at 160 miles per hour. As one of four pilots that rotate as captain of the Global Supertanker firefighting aircraft, Valdez is part of a team that has been responsible for putting out some of the world’s largest blazes for more than two years – he celebrated his two-year anniversary with the supertanker on Cinco de Mayo.
The Global Supertanker is a 747 that has been taken out of service as a Japan Airlines vehicle and modified to carry fuel to large fires across the world. Able to mobilize in under four hours, the team of pilots rotate so that a flying duo is always with the plane and usually able to mobilize in closer to two hours. The vessel has a massive wingspan of over 200 feet and can drop 19,200 gallons of retardant, foam, gel or water depending on client request. Usually, that decision is made according to the training and capabilities of the firefighting team on the ground. It takes the team about 30 minutes to reload the plane for every subsequent pass to drop their cargo. Fully loaded, the plane weighs in at 660,000 pounds. For any given fire, the plane can make up to eight passes, each taking only ten minutes. Depending on need, fire retardant can be dropped for up to a mile and a half with a width the size of a football field.
The plane is known as ‘The Spirit of John Muir’ named after the founder of the Sierra Club known for his advocacy of wilderness preservation. Muir focused much of his time on preserving forests in the western United States and is sometimes known as the ‘Father of National Parks.’
The tanker is based in Colorado Springs, but pilot Valdez learned early on in the airline industry to, “Never move where the airplane is located,” because that can change at any time and you can always travel when needed. Instead, Valdez who calls himself a “Chicano, Latino, Raza” lives in his hometown of Fort Worth. He calls his state of Texas part of “occupied Mexico” that was part of the country when it became the United States. His family never immigrated, they’ve been part of this region for generations and traces their family history all the way back to the Pueblo Indians.
Last year, Valdez didn’t see much of home because he spent 300 days flying. Many of their calls were in California fighting blazes throughout the state from August through December, activated between five and ten days at a time for any given mission. This year, the fledgling company has staffed up to improve quality of life for their pilots and provide more time off.
Customers of the Global Supertanker might include cities, states, counties, and countries. Typically, jurisdictions sign up for ‘call when needed’ contracts which Valdez equates to having an attorney on retainer. If competing jurisdictions have simultaneous needs, the vessel is sent on a first come, first served basis. Currently, contracts are in place for multiple Colorado counties, the State of Colorado and CalFire – the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Founded in 2015, the Global Supertanker has fought fires in the United States as far away as Alaska and outside the country, the plane has serviced Chile, Israel, Mexico and Spain.
Global Supertanker Abroad
In January of 2017, the Global Supertanker was approved for use in Chile after an extensive effort by Denverite Lucy Ana Aviles and the Fundación Viento Sur (Southern Wind Foundation). The nonprofit was formed to help Aviles’ home country in education and community building but some of the largest fires in Chilean history could not be ignored.
After an arduous process, the Chilean govern approved the use of the tanker which was used for several days in the rough Chilean terrain. The bureaucracy of the Chilean government was not much different than the process that the Supertanker team had to go through in the United States. While fire spread throughout the California countryside in 2017, the tanker was tied up in the approval process of the U.S. Forest Service. Eventually, approval was made for the largest firefighting tanker in the world and it was used to combat some of the largest and most damaging fires in California history.
In Chile, the Supertanker operated for nine consecutive days in January and February of 2017, setting a record for liquid dropped in a day by a tanker (134,400 gallons). Over the nine days, the plane flew over 10,000 miles on 31 missions across the country for a total of 35 flying hours. The total water dropped on the fires was over 500,000. Before being controlled with the help of the supertanker, 900,000 acres of land were burned and over 1,000 homes were lost.
In a press release, Jim Wheeler, President of Global Supertanker Services said, “It has been a tremendous honor to work on behalf of the people of Chile as they fight these devastating fires, “No other tanker has the capability to respond as quickly and comprehensively as the Global SuperTanker. This has truly been a team effort between our crew, the Chilean people and authorities, and private philanthropy to protect the people and property directly in harm’s way.”
Aviles is married to architect turned philanthropist, Ben Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton. They reside in Denver and have also started the Zoma Foundation to address early childhood education and housing deficits in the Denver metro area. Their new foundation is playing a key role in providing new housing for a cohort of Denver teachers who otherwise couldn’t afford to live in the city.
According to Valdez, the best part of the job is being part of a team and he gives credit to crews on the ground. “In no other job have I had such a sense of doing good – saving lives and saving property. In one case, I dropped seven loads in a day and by night, the fire was gone,” Valdez continued, “But to really be effective, you’ve got to have crews on the ground. The best part of this job is being part of a big, awesome team.”