Retired Passenger Jets Are Getting a Chance to Be Useful Again As Water Bombers

Retired Passenger Jets Are Getting a Chance to Be Useful Again As Water Bombers

When thousands of acres of forests and residential areas are up in flames at the same time, firefighters can only cover so much ground at once. Aerial firefighting has quickly become the future of fire control in areas prone to the terrifying disaster, and old passenger jets are being repurposed to save lives and preserve nature, serving humanity once again.

Wildfires are so relentless that it could take days to put out the dangerously spontaneous flares in a single area. The 2019-2020 Australia wildfire season, called the Black Summer, is presently regarded as one of the worst wildfire incidents in human history and was unusually devastating. [1] From June 2019 until May 2020, the fires burned beyond control, taking 33 human lives, some of whom were heroic firefighters. Nearly a billion animals were killed and over 46 million acres of land were charred to destruction.

The situation was no better in America’s California, another intensely hot region of the world that’s prone to devastating fires. While wildfires are a part of the natural dynamic in California, the situation is nearly uncontrollable this year as 1.6 million acres of land and vegetation have been scorched as of August 26. [2] Fire officials report that most of the fires were started by thousands of consecutive lightning strikes. With over 13,000 firefighters and volunteers working endlessly to control the situation, no end is in sight as August is usually the peak fire period.

Firefighting jets to the rescue

Planes are not usually built with firefighting in mind, but when the going gets tough, the old and seasoned come out to work. As reported by Business Insider, Airlines are upcycling old planes to be useful again as water bombers in areas prone to wildfires, flying low and dumping thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant. [3] Aging planes like the Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas MD-80 that are now unsuitable for passenger transport are being stripped of their passenger seats and filled with water and fire retardant tanks.

The Boeing 747 once held the title for the world’s largest plane and was used by Japanese Airlines as a freight plane. These days, the Boeing is reportedly tearing through the skies in California, dousing acres of burning vegetation with its maximum capacity of 19,200 gallons of firefighting liquids. 

Aboard each plane would be the pilot and a crew member who would operate the tanks and release the liquids once the plane is in position. The fluids flow out of three large holes on the side of the plane at high pressure. Just one new feature has been added to the cockpit of the Boeing – an “emergency dump switch” that allows the pilot to flick a control and dump the contents of the plane all at once. 

Aerial firefighting is still a dangerous approach

 According to one of the most prestigious aerial firefighting companies in the world, Coulson Aviation Inc., the Boeing 747 is not the only water bombing jet in the “hero birds” fleet.

The company’s website reads: “Our fleet currently features custom-designed Hercules C-130s, Sikorsky S-61 helicopters, Boeing Chinook CH-47 helitankers, Sikorsky Black Hawk UH-60 helitankers, and our custom-converted Boeing 737 fireliners equipped with our proprietary RADS-XXL technology.” The company also flies the Martin Mars, a flying boat used by the US Navy during World War II that’s capable of filling up with water by gliding over lakes. Coulson is the only aerial firefighting company that operates both Type 1 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

 As long as fires are involved, safety is never guaranteed. Aerial firefighters may be at less risk than ground operators, but the planes still have to dive into thick plumes of smoke and fly dangerously close to the fires. They have to be less than 500 feet above ground level to target the fires at the base level.

Over the decades and just like the heroes fighting on the ground, firefighting jets have saved countless human lives, burning bushes, buildings, and wildlife. These days, it’s amazing how previously glorious planes have found purpose again instead of rotting away and taking up space.


  1. Impact of Australia’s catastrophic 2019/20 bushfire season on communities and environment. Retrospective analysis and current trends.” Science Direct. Filkov et al. Retrieved August 26, 2020.
  2. Deadly California wildfires scorch more than 1 million acres with no end in sight.” CNN. Amir Vera. Retrieved August 26, 2020.
  3. Retired passenger airliners are getting a second life fighting fires as iconic jets are repurposed as water bombers – take a look.” Business Insider. Thomas Pallini. Retrieved August 26, 2020.
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