The Colorado Springs Airport announced Wednesday that it will be home to the largest firefighting aircraft in the United States, a business deal that could bring jobs and prestige to the city.

The newly formed company Global SuperTanker Services plans to park and fuel at the airport a 747-400 Boeing Converted Freighter, which can carry up to 19,600 gallons of retardant or water for 4,000 miles. The company is billing the plane as the "largest and most modern" firefighting aircraft in the world, surpassing the 12,000-gallon capacity DC-10 airtanker.

But more than bringing impressive firefighting power, the aircraft will also put Colorado Springs on the map when it comes to cutting-edge firefighting technology. After the city lost a bid this spring to house the state's Center for Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, a coveted fire research facility, the arrival of Global SuperTanker and the 747 are expected to draw more wildfire business to the city.

It's the kind of venture that the airport's newly lowered operational costs were designed to attract - and it worked for Global SuperTanker.

The company plans to stay in Colorado Springs and to grow, although executives did not say how many jobs their company would add or if those would be based in Colorado Springs. Nonetheless, President and CEO Jim Wheeler was confident on Wednesday that the arrival of the 747 will help the airport will reap many rewards.

"I think you are going to see that the loss of the Center of Excellence will be minuscule compared to what we will bring here," he said.

Mayor John Suthers, who attended the news conference, was delighted by the economic prospects that the aircraft and its company will bring the city-owned airport.

"We think this airport has a very good dynamic now," Suthers said. "Once you start attracting companies like Global Supertanker you are going to get other interests. And people are paying attention."

An airtanker of the 747's size is not without its critics, however. Some firefighting experts view the increasing trend toward using larger airtankers as being driven by politics, not good practices.

Some claim bigger airtankers can complicate a firefighting effort - the planes' heavy loads of retardant often damage access to forests and make it difficult for firefighters to reach the flames. Airtankers are an important component of wildland firefighting, but their appeal can be misleading, firefighters say - the tankers are meant to slow flames, not stop them.

But for Wheeler and his vice president, Bob Soelberg, a former 747 pilot, their airtanker brings benefits that firefighting efforts around the world need.

This is not the first time the men have worked with a 747 to fight fire - Evergreen International Aviation used an earlier model of the plane to fight fires from Alaska to Israel. The crew that flew the earlier 747 model will fly Global SuperTanker's latest version, Wheeler said. The company is holding off on signing contracts with any agency, although Wheeler and Soelberg said they have had "significant and good conversations" with the U.S. Forest Service, which contracts with private companies to provide so-called next generation airtankers to add to its aging fleet.

Both men said they have not settled on rates for use, although Wheeler suggested that the cost of hiring the plane would be steep.

Their choice of the Colorado Springs airport as a home was motivated by more than just good rent and fuel-flow fees. Unlike other smaller airports, the Colorado Springs Airport can accommodate a 747, and it has enough fuel reserves to fill the plane. The weather and central location are key for accessing fires around the West, Wheeler said.

"We could take off and be fighting fires in the state of Washington in two hours," he said, adding that anywhere in Colorado would be reachable within minutes and that the plane can fly thousands of miles with a full tank.

"We can take off from here and be fully loaded and be ready to fight a fire in the (United Kingdom)," Wheeler said.

The plane is equipped with certain electronic capabilities that are uncommon in airtankers, although Wheeler would not discuss those in detail. Wheeler also said the plane will likely be the youngest very large airtanker in the country because many similar aircraft several decades old. The plane should be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in October and flying by the end of this year, Wheeler said.


Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0198

Twitter @ryanmhandy

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