The Colorado Springs Airport’s newest tenant will convert and operate Boeing 747s to fight wildfires from the air. The airplane is touted to be the world’s largest aerial firefighting tanker.

“Global SuperTanker will be the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world,” said President and CEO Jim Wheeler.

The startup firm has long-term financial backing from an equity group, Alterna Capital and plans to fight fires in the southern and northern hemispheres, Wheeler said. Overall, the company plans to invest “several million” dollars into the Springs airport, he said. He declined to say how much Alterna was investing in the company, but said the equity firm was impressed by the infrastructure and support at the Colorado Springs Airport.

“They had one word: ‘Wow,’ ” he said. Global will initially rent hangar space at the airport, with plans to build possibly later.

The company is starting with eight employees and one aircraft, but has plans to expand its fleet to include three or four 747-class planes as well as aircraft of other sizes.

“We’re already working on our second airplane. We haven’t put a timeline together because everything is happening so fast,” he said. The first plane will be operational by the end of the fourth quarter this year.

- Advertisement -

The first aircraft is in California undergoing testing with the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Forest Service. When finished, the first aircraft will have a value of between $12 million and $16 million, Wheeler said.

“It’s not the last plane. We have a very aggressive plan to get this plane operational; we have to satisfy FAA and Forest Service regulations and others.” He added the team is considering expanding into different-sized planes as well.

Their 747-400 airplane, built in 1992, is larger and faster than aircraft currently used to fight wildfires throughout the globe, he said. A common airplane used to fight wildfires is of World War II vintage.

“We decided on the 747 class planes because they can fly 550 miles an hour — we can get there PDQ. That’s the way to fight a fire,” he said. “The current worsening trends in wildfires globally demand more capable response tools. The Boeing 747-400 represents a modern, strong, high-performance platform capable of flying more than 4,000 nautical miles at a cruise speed of 565 miles per hour, at pressurized altitudes, fully loaded, then directly deploying nearly 20,000 gallons of a range of liquids including retardant, water, gel and foaming agents. We believe the Global SuperTanker will be a ‘force multiplier’ for the men and women who are on the front line of controlling wildfires.”

The Global team had considered several airports to be the headquarters of its operation. It was only after Global Senior Vice President and Program Manager Bob Soelberg met with Colorado Springs Director of Aviation Dan Gallagher and saw the benefits of Colorado Springs that they settled on this airport. He first visited in late April or early May. Since then, they have met with Mayor John Suthers and Gallagher multiple times.

Wheeler said the company chose the Springs largely due to the airport’s facilities and staff.

“We love the tech businesses here, the weather, the airport,” Wheeler said. “It’s centrally located where the western regional fires happen. God knows you’ve suffered your share of wildfires.”

There’s no word on how much Global will charge for its firefighting services.

The company is new — only three months old — but its employees have considerable experience in the airline industry. Wheeler was the CEO of Evergreen International Airlines, a cargo airline that filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2013. Soelberg flew a supertanker for Evergreen, which originally designed the aircraft before it went bankrupt. All eight of the employees at Global SuperTanker worked for Evergreen. Wheeler himself has more than 40 years experience with airlines; he spent 26 years working at Federal Express.

The Colorado Springs Airport is experiencing a business boom in recent months, said Gallagher — Global SuperTanker is the latest company to move to the Springs. Gallagher said the airport has grown direct payroll by $240 million in the past 16 months, and has seen six new businesses and five business expansions. The airport is currently asking City Council to expand the Commercial Aeronautics Zone to allow more companies to take advantage of sales-and-use tax rebates provided by the district.