Water generating air tanker

Wildfire Today has learned that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been working on an advanced air tanker in secret for the last six years. The agency will hold a press conference later today, April 1, to unveil the aircraft. The prototype air tanker that the public will see for the first time, named the Water Generating Air Tanker, or WaGAT, is made almost entirely from very lightweight carbon fiber and can carry 8,100 gallons of water or retardant.

DARPA has experience designing very advanced aircraft. Their accomplishments include stealth bombers, the Internet, GPS, cloud computing, cars that drive themselves, and handheld speech translators.

Generates its own water

The most astounding feature of the WaGAT is that it only rarely has to fly back to an air tanker base in order to reload. DARPA has developed an advanced version of an atmospheric water generator that extracts water from ambient air. Their system uses bleed air from the two jet engines to compress air, producing water during the process. Their experimental prototype system takes 25 minutes to generate 8,000 gallons, but DARPA expects to reduce that to 4 to 5 minutes over the next 18 months.

Onboard retardant mixing

Working with Phos-Chek, the two organizations have co-developed an onboard hopper and mixing system to combine long term fire retardant dry powder with the onboard-generated water, creating standard liquid fire retardant. Thomas Figgenbottom, Director of Research and Development at Phos-Chek, said their company and DARPA have also developed a highly concentrated dry retardant powder enabling a small amount of powder to treat a large quantity of water. The new hopper and mixing system will convert 475,000 gallons of water into conventional liquid long term fire retardant, or enough for 58 loads of 8,100 gallons each.


The WaGAT will have an optional receptacle for aerial refueling enabling the aircraft to remain airborne over a fire almost indefinitely. After it makes 58 drops (or more if it splits the loads from the 8,100-gallon tank) it could simply drop plain water for hour after hour. Frank Shovelmeister of the National Park Service, which in July will be taking over the lead from the U.S. Forest Service in managing the federal air tanker fleet, has started preliminary talks with the Air Force Reserve about providing a refueling tanker when the National Prepardness Level reaches 4 or 5.


We talked with Merle F. Appenzellar, the Director of Operations at Air Tractor which makes the AT-502B single engine air tanker, about the WaGAT. He said they will need to learn more about the aircraft, but they may be interested in obtaining a license to manufacture the WaGAT at their Olney, Texas factory. It would take them about two years to tool up, he said, and the first Air Tractor-manufactured WaGATs could be flying about three years after they obtain the license and technology.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

11 thoughts on “Water generating air tanker”

  1. I always get caught on the first joke of the day but I have to admit you really had me going, well done. Water generators was crazy enough then I read 8,000 gals. in 4-5 mins. and aerial refueling!

  2. I understand that they are going to deploy it to put out the erupting Bear Butte. I will be anxious to see how effective it is!

  3. WaGAT has many of the advanced, user-friendly features that firefighting aircrews and ground-pounders have been searching for; USFS and FAA consulted extensively with current line firefighters to find real-world solutions that maximize Safety, Effectiveness, and Efficiency (S.E.E.), and incorporated their suggestions:
    The new new Phos-Chek retardant power developed for the WaGAT system is non-corrosive, easy to wash off aircraft and personnel but maintains it’s effectiveness on the ground indefinitely, at an estimated cost of approximately 10¢/gallon, with no adverse environmental effects (it is an acceptable substitute for Gatorade).
    The constant-flow drop system with infinite control settings adaptive to all terrain, environmental conditions, and fuel types, is linked to a laser GPS/EVS/SVS/HUD-controlled autopilot, that in turn is fed by IR, environmental, and optical sensors to provide extremely accurate, fully automatic drop sequencing and activation. The crew in the port pod has primary control when making left turns, the starboard pod controls during right turns.
    The all-new Chinese WuPee 265,500 pound thrust ultra-high-bypass engine is totally home-grown in which China’s ad hoc, eclectic approach to strategic technology development truly manifest itself. China has offered open access to this original wonder to the rest of the freedom-loving world, gratis. The engine can run on standard Jet-A fuel, and has been successfully tested using recycled methane. DARPA is experimenting on extracting methane from cabin air in situations where sufficient passengers are carried (USFS is floating the idea of carrying media and possibly paying passengers in the spacious twin hulls).
    Advanced engine controls and ducting allow vertical take-off and landing from country roads, aircraft carriers, or CNN roof-top helipads, although a state-of-the-art avionics suite allows real-time download of multi-media action coverage to multiple ground receivers (and WiFi for crews and passengers).
    The unique twin-hull design with dual conning towers (cockpits, but for women too) will be manned by two crews with a third crew as backup and OJT. Initial crews have been fully trained, including type-rating and USFS IA carding, using Nintendo Wii apps on personal iPads. Their first flight in the aircraft will be a live dispatch to an active fire.
    There are a lot more exciting innovations in WaGAT that I will cover later. Gotta go now—I hear my nurse coming—

  4. Great! I always knew that my fellow readers/posters thought outside of the box, but who would of thought that they can think outside of reality and this universe as we know it? With ideas like this, I believe that one of them may have the potential to become the next USFS Director of Aviation!

  5. I heard the 2nd generation of this new WaGAT airtanker design will be unmanned to reduce weight, prolong time aloft and confuse the FAA. Already on the drawing boards.

  6. I am going to go to sleep tonight believing this to be true. Dont try and stop me. I need one night of relief from the insanity that has become our reality.

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