Why is one of the world’s largest air tankers grounded in Colorado Springs?

COLORADO SPRINGS — With the ability to drop nearly 20,000 gallons of water or retardant in a single pass, the Global SuperTanker could be an airborne, blaze-battling behemoth on the front lines of the 416 fire near Durango — or any of the other wildfires burning in Colorado this week.

But the converted Boeing 747-400, which started life 26 years ago as a Japan Airlines passenger jet, instead sat Wednesday on a runway at Colorado Springs Airport, its engines off and its cockpit empty. Lacking a contract to fight fire on federal land, the Global SuperTanker appeared to be little more than an oversized tarmac ornament.

“It’s very frustrating for us,” said Bob Soelberg, senior vice president of Global SuperTanker Services LLC, as he showed off the plane for a small group of reporters Wednesday. “We would like to be on (a fire).”

Global SuperTanker, which carries nearly twice as much firefighting capacity as the next biggest aircraft that is used to fight fires — the DC-10 — hasn’t been completely idle over the past year. It dropped retardant on a wildfire in California last fall and has been used to fight blazes in Chile and Israel. The company, which launched its first firefighting operation less than two years ago, has “call when needed” contracts with Colorado Springs, along with Douglas and El Paso counties, and it is negotiating a deal with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to fight fire on state land.

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