photo - The Boeing 747-400 Global SuperTanker drops half a load of it’s 19,400-gallon capacity during a ceremony Thursday, May 5, 2016, at the Colorado Springs Airport demonstrating the firefighting capabilities of the world’s largest firefighting plane. The Spirit of John Muir plane will be stationed out of the Colorado Springs Airport and will be able to respond to fires around the world. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
The Boeing 747-400 Global SuperTanker drops half a load of it’s 19,400-gallon capacity during a ceremony Thursday, May 5, 2016, at the Colorado Springs Airport demonstrating the firefighting capabilities of the world’s largest firefighting plane. The Spirit of John Muir plane will be stationed out of the Colorado Springs Airport and will be able to respond to fires around the world. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Colorado Springs, where nearly 350 homes were destroyed in the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, has contracted with Global SuperTanker Services LLC to use the mammoth air tanker to drop giant payloads of water and retardant during fire disasters.

The city's contract with Global SuperTanker is a "call when needed" arrangement. If Fire Department commanders determine they need it, they'd request the SuperTanker - if it's not in service elsewhere.

Under the contract, the Springs would only pay if it uses the aircraft.

"Our city and the Fire Department took the necessary steps to engage in a contract with the Global SuperTanker, a one-of-a-kind firefighting asset, that doesn't cost our citizens anything, unless we call upon it during a disaster," Fire Chief Ted Collas said in a statement. "We are always looking for ways to ensure the safety of our community while being financially responsible."

The SuperTanker is classified as a Very Large Air Tanker or VLAT, and can dump 19,200 gallons of water, retardant or a mix on wildfires. By comparison, a Peterson Air Force Base MAFFS-equipped C-130 aircraft sent to help fight fires last month in the western United States can carry up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant.

A converted Boeing 747-400, the SuperTanker - based at the Colorado Springs Airport - can fly at 600 miles an hour and make up to eight drops from a single payload.

The city has more than 36,000 addresses in so-called wildland urban interface areas - neighborhoods predominately in heavily treed hillside areas west of Interstate 25, said Fire Battalion Chief Justin White. But the aircraft could be used anywhere it's needed in the city, he said.

"Anytime you have something like Waldo Canyon ... where structures are being lost, you have the ability to maybe use that Global SuperTanker to hit the head of the fire and slow it down," White said. "And so people can get to it, catch up to it and put it out.

"It's another tool in the toolbox. ... It's a big hammer, so to speak. I certainly hope we don't ever need it, to be honest with you."

The cost to use the aircraft would be up to $150,000 per fire, said Fire Department spokesman Capt. Steve Wilch. The city, however, could be reimbursed for portions of that cost if its request is made in conjunction with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control or federal officials, White said.

Bob Soelberg, Global SuperTanker's senior vice president and project manager, said the company will only charge the city for the aircraft's hourly flight time.

But, he added, there are too many variables to estimate that cost, such as the number of drops the SuperTanker makes, the fire's size and whether the aircraft must wait for other traffic to clear before it attacks the blaze.

Global SuperTanker also has a "call when needed" contract with Douglas County and is working to finalize a contract to fight fires on federal land, Soelberg said.

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