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Firebomber! (and some warbirds too)

By Michael Blank
March 12, 2005

Michael Blank takes us on a tour of the wildfire-prone regions of the Western United States, visiting the fleet of vintage propliners and military aircraft operated under contract to the United States Forestry Service. These veteran workhorses have been converted into aerial fire-fighting platforms, and have played an important role in fighting the vast wildfires that sometimes engulf large portions of the region. On the way, he also shows us other historic aircraft, and in the process, creates an entertaining and enlightening narrative.

An advert by Ian Allan appeared in Propliner for Autumn 2003, for a “Propliner tour to air tanker/waterbombers home bases of the USA,” to take place in April 2004.

It sounded right up my street, the idea behind the tour being to go over to the USA in April, before the major forest and brush fire season begins and catch those magnificent propliners still in use as waterbombers, (actually, retardant bombers) hopefully all gathered together at their spring maintenance bases, before they scattered across the country to their fire fighting stations, so I duly booked a place.

So, on April 17th this year, twenty-two propliner enthusiasts (or were they all?-see on) gathered at Gatwick airport. After meeting our tour manager, Colin Watson, we then boarded a Northwest Air Lines DC10 for a direct flight to Minneapolis-St Paul in the USA. The flight was uneventful and on time and there were the usual dull modern airliners on the ground at Minneapolis.

On arrival in the United States, we boarded another Northwest Air Lines aircraft, this time a DC9, for a much shorter flight, to Billings, Montana and it was during takeoff for this that those of us on the left hand side of the aircraft saw our first US propliner.

I had thought, during the DC10’s landing roll, that I had seen the unmistakeable shape of a C97, but thought there could not possibly be one at a major US airport. I was wrong: there is, at Minneapolis, not only a C97, but also a Convair T29/C131 and a C130A.

These three aircraft are preserved in a small USAF museum in the military section of the airport. I don’t think access to them by the public is allowed and unfortunately we were too far away from them for any chance of a photo, but it was a promising start.

We then flew across the Great Plains to Billings, on another on time flight (thank you Northwest). There was nothing of note visible at Billings airport, so we duly collected our bags and went out to meet our waiting coach, with our driver, Phil. An uneventful journey to our overnight hotel across the State line in Sheridan, Wyoming then followed.

The first day proper of the tour, 18th April, dawned badly, with heavy rain. This continued at our first port of call, Sheridan airport. This was a sleepy place, with no aircraft visible at first. However, a very helpful guy from the airport fire service led us, in our coach, onto the airfield, then over to a quiet corner in a field, where there were two Martin 404s, which had obviously been “out to grass” for a long time.

Despite this, they were both in pretty good condition, all things considered, being substantially complete and showing few external signs of corrosion. On one of them, we could even faintly discern the lettering “Go Ozark.” The heavy rain continued throughout this brief visit, making photography difficult and making for muddy shoes and trouser bottoms for everyone on the coach, through trudging the short distance across the field from the coach to the aircraft and back.

We then set out for Greybull, also in Wyoming, home of legendary propliner company Hawkins and Powers. It was a great journey, initially over a mountain pass through deep and heavily falling snow, with a brief photo stop on the way down from the pass to shoot some particularly nice mountain scenery.

H and P’s aircraft at Greybull were visible from about two miles away, as we approached the town. They then disappeared again, to re-emerge spectacularly as we climbed a hill out of town. It was a breathtaking sight: a C82A, umpteen C119s and Neptunes, seven (!) C97s, four Privateers, two DC6s, three C130s, a F27, a Lodestar, a Beech 18, two Orions, two C123s and others.

We were met by Ryan Powers, grandson of company founder Gene Powers (still involved in the business), who could not have been more helpful and cooperative. He gave us almost completely free rein of the airfield for two and a half hours-ample time to take all the photos we wished, though not before many of us had eagerly bought H and P baseball caps, sweat and T shirts.

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The C82A (the world’s only flyable Packet I believe) was none other than Ontos/N9701F, TWA’s old European engine transporter of the fifties, sixties and seventies, which was based at Orly during its time with the airline. Two of the Neptunes were active, being painted in H and P’s very attractive red and cream livery. The F27 looked a bit out of place amongst all the American hardware.

H and P’s active aircraft were ranged around a small apron area and there was also a small fenced off museum area, housing a Beech 18 and two C119s. The majority of the aircraft however are arranged in two long lines out on the airfield. The Privateers were magnificent-looking aircraft, as were the C97s, the DC6s and indeed all the aircraft present.

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All of this was set against a dramatic backdrop of mountain scenery, which went some way towards compensating for the somewhat overcast conditions. We had however left the morning’s heavy rain far behind and it was a marvellous two and a half hours-a truly great start to the trip proper. A final great gesture by Gene Powers capped the afternoon, when he ran up both engines on one of the Neptunes.

Sadly however, it was clear that the great majority of the aircraft at Greybull will not fly again. We must hope that as many as possible of them make it into preservation and indeed H and P have substantive plans for that.

After all that, it was back to Billings for our second overnight stop, at which most, if not all of the party adjourned to a nearby steakhouse to sample American meat and drink.

An early start the next morning, 18th April, saw us make the short trip back to Billings airport. We first went round to the back of the airport, led there by another very helpful guy from the airport fire service. Here we were admitted onto the active field and made our way over to two A26s. One of these was in colourful civilian markings, while the other was in full Vietnam war camouflage, complete with dummy (presumably) rockets and bombs. Both of these aircraft were in pretty decent condition.

We then made our way over to near the passenger terminal, pausing to let a Northwest Air Lines DC9 taxi out and take off. Here we were shown the airport fire service’s Martin 404, which sits on a bed of sand, its undercarriage retracted. Despite its use as a fire trainer for some time, the aircraft was in reasonable condition and we were even able to go inside it.

After that, it was a long haul across Montana and Wyoming, past distant snow covered mountains and through many typical American small towns, to Helena airfield, via a lunch stop at Bozeman airport-no propliners there.

At Helena Air Technical College, it was case of quality rather than quantity, as one of their instructional airframes is an ex-US Navy EC121. Again the people at the College could not have been more helpful and we were allowed full access to the Connie and the College’s other airframes (a Sabreliner, a HU1, a F102 and a F89A). They even ran up the engines of the HU1 and the F89A, but slightly unfortunately, the right man to run up the engines of the Connie was not there, so we could only admire its magnificent looks and not its glorious sound.

After that it was on to our next overnight stop in Butte Montana, where heavy, but wet snow fell during the evening.

The next morning, 19th April, saw us driving to Missoula, Montana. We arrived in pouring rain, so we made a tactical decision to visit the Museum of mountain flying there first, as it is entirely within a hangar. It was an excellent small museum, with a DC3 and a Beech 18, some superb propliner models and vintage cars. Two “good old boys” showed us round and were very enthusiastic about the place, sitting us down for a short video about “smoke jumpers”-brave guys who parachute down to get to very close quarters with forest and brush fires.

Round the back of the museum and on the airfield itself, was an engineless F27, which was duly photographed and when we came out of the museum the rain had stopped, so it was now time to visit resident Neptune Air Services.

We were greeted there by Shane Malone, Director of avionics. He was another very friendly host, pleased to see us and pleased at our interest in their old aircraft-indeed this was becoming a pattern, which would be repeated at almost all our ports of call.

As their name implies, Neptune fly Neptunes, in the firebomber role, though they also now have two Electras-see on. They had a considerable number of Neptunes, all bar one parked outside their large, modern, very well equipped and finished hangar. Their flyable aircraft were all immaculate in Neptune’s red and white livery. Their unflyable aircraft are all visibly ex-military and unfortunately, it is unlikely they will be converted to waterbombers, but will very likely be scrapped.

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Shane explained that this was due to the expressed desire of the US Forestry Service, to move towards an all-turbine firebomber fleet. He explained the problems this was causing them, because, whereas the piston-engined Neptunes (with two small auxiliary turbojets) cost around £100,000 per engine change, a turbine-powered aircraft would cost around £600,000 per engine change, with generally 50% higher operating costs. This is quite apart from the enormous cost of acquiring and then converting suitable aircraft.

Their position on this was not being helped at all by the USFS’s miserliness, in firstly awarding contracts to the lowest bidder, irrespective of their standard of maintenance and safety; secondly, in refusing to award three year contracts, but only making these annually renewable; and thirdly in refusing to give any financial assistance towards the costs of acquiring and then converting turbine-powered aircraft, nor guaranteeing long term contracts for these aircraft, once the companies have gone to the huge expense of buying and converting them. As Shane also explained, this short term contract policy meant they could not borrow money from their bank.

Indeed, these complaints about the difficulty of having the USFS as your number one client, were echoed at all the firebomber companies we visited and were contributing to great uncertainty throughout the industry.

Inside Neptune’s hangar was an immaculate red and white-liveried Neptune, undergoing maintenance and an Electra, which was being converted to the firebomber role. We were very impressed by the obviously high standard of maintenance at Neptune.

We then went over to the adjacent hangar of North Star Aviation, owned by Neptune, where our host was Kevin Merkel, who was equally pleased to see us as Shane Malone. Here, there were two aircraft: a turbo-DC3 and a Shorts Sherpa, both flown by North Star for the USFS and both immaculate. As with Neptune, it was obvious that this was a high standard operation. Kevin told us that the Dak had originally gone to the UK during the war under the Lend-lease programme.

Now came the best part of the visit: test flights by two of the Neptunes! But before this happened, there was a curious occurrence. It had become obvious that, amongst our party were several people whose main interest was collecting registrations, with the fact that the aircraft we were seeing were marvellous propliners, running a distant second to that.

It was early afternoon when Shane Malone told us they would be taking two of the Neptunes up for test flights. Would we like to prolong our visit to watch these? Well of course! Not so for the spotters however. They had collected all the registrations and had made their way back to the coach. They then suggested that we leave, so as not to miss lunch! Fortunately, the majority of the party were genuine propliner enthusiasts and this bunch of miscreants were outvoted. As we saw it, you can have lunch anytime, but you can’t see two Neptunes flying any day of the week.

We also could not understand the attitude of these people, having paid handsomely for the trip and travelled many thousands of miles, specifically to see these rare old aircraft, then to dismiss the chance of seeing them flying (our only opportunity to do this on the trip), because they had collected all the registrations and wanted to go and get lunch.

We therefore settled down (in dramatically improving weather, which was making the photographic conditions better and better) not far from the runway, to watch first tanker 06-there is a national numbering system for all airtanker/firebomber aircraft in the US (“Big foot”) and then 07 (“No crap”) take off, disappear for their test flights and then land some time later. A glorious sight and sound, even allowing for interference from the Neptunes’ auxiliary turbojets. Finally, it was merchandise time: Neptune had a fine range of T shirts, hats and mousemats and many of the party bought them all.

One thing I should make clear: Billings and Missoula are both served by airline jets, so consequently, security is at a high level, particularly since 9/11. However, if you are not going to a major airport and you book your trip in advance with the company you are going to visit, you can still get airside and, provided you are sensible, no-one will bother you. Quite the reverse with the places we visited-we were positively welcomed, for our interest in their “funny” old aircraft. So don’t believe all of the horror stories you hear about restricted access and heavy-handed security at airfields in the USA post 9/11.

So we left Missoula behind-in glorious sunshine. However, within minutes of our leaving, it was raining heavily, with poor visibility. Proof of what Shane Malone had told us: “If you don’t like the weather in Montana, just hang around!”

We now had a long haul ahead of us to our overnight stop in Spokane, Washington State, through some beautiful scenery, with the road and an adjacent railway line crossing and re-crossing many thickly wooded valleys with a wide river at their base. We travelled west through Montana, then for about 40 miles through Idaho, before crossing into Washington State and re-setting our watches as we passed into the Pacific time zone.

Next morning, 20th April, it was an 08.30 start to trail north through Spokane’s repetitive suburbs, to our first destination of the day-Deer Park. Here again it was a case of quality rather than quantity, with the centre of attention being a Catalina. There were also some reasonably interesting old light aircraft.

After a brief “vittaling” stop at a supermarket in Spokane, we set off on the long haul across seemingly endless flatlands,to our next port of call, Moses Lake. Once again our luck held with the weather-rain on the way, but clear when we arrived! Moses Lake is a huge ex-USAF base in the middle of nowhere. Its proximity was announced by a JAL 747 flying around on training flights. Here we saw four more Catalinas, all, alas, obviously stored for a considerable time and a very beautifully liveried and rare Douglas B23 Dragon. It too, sadly, had obviously been stored for a long time and we could get no information about it or the Cats.

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After this surfeit of Cats, it was on to Ephrata. This turned out to be a true “Nowheresville, USA,” being, like Moses Lake, in the middle of nowhere and deathly quiet. Photographic conditions however were perfect and our attention was first caught by three fabulous and very large WW2 vintage USAAC hangars, built entirely of timber-huge quantities of it.

We were only able to gain access to two of the hangars and inside these and out on the apron (no security fence here) were three Beech 18s, two of them with Methow titles and in good condition; and two DC3s, one of them propless. This one had Cascade titles and was generally in reasonable condition, apart from the absence of propellers.

The other aircraft was very obviously a relatively recent import from Israel-the IAF colours were intact. We were able to go inside this aircraft and I can only describe the interior as “very military indeed,” with hard bucket seats in the freight area-I bet this aircraft could tell a few tales, if only it could talk.

Then it was on to our overnight stop in Richland, Oregon. Not far from Ephrata, we spotted a Convairliner in the middle of the countryside, but unfortunately time did not allow for a stop.

22nd April dawned bright and sunny in Richland and we were up early for the long haul to Redmond, Oregon, through some great scenery, with distant snow-covered mountains. I was struck, during this journey, by how much scrubland there was in Oregon and Washington State. I asked Phil, our coach driver, why all this land was not cultivated. His reply was that it simply does not get enough rainfall.

For me, as a convinced “heavy” fan, Redmond was the high point of the entire trip. There were no less than five(!) DC7s present, all of them belonging to TBM-Butler Aviation. Two of these were undergoing intensive maintenance, to ready them for the shortly forthcoming fire season. These were Tankers 60 and 62 and also operational was Tanker 66. All were in very attractive liveries and obviously very well looked after. The other two aircraft were a spares ship and an engine test bed. There were also two C130s present, one in camouflage and one in a highly attractive livery, but both out of use.

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We were given free rein of TBM-Butler’s area and the bright sunshine, with the snow covered Cascade Mountains in the background, made for perfect photographic conditions, of which the party made full use.

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Again, TBM-Butler were very pleased to see us and could not have been more welcoming. This led to the high point of the visit, if not the trip. All four engines of Tanker 60 were started up and run for about five minutes, each one being run up to maximum power! The party were about twenty feet away from the aircraft while this was done and the sight and sound were absolutely glorious. Unforgettable and this in 2004! The last time I saw a DC7 under power was the mid-1970s.

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Finally it was merchandise time again, with many of the party buying T shirts, hats and pens. Then it was a short journey to the pleasant nearby town of Sisters, for a lunch stop, before continuing to our overnight stop at Salem, Oregon, through spectacular scenery in the Cascade Mountains, with the high needle pointed and snow-covered shape of Mount Washington clearly visible at many points, as well as going past scenic lakes, rivers and pine forests.

23rd April saw another early start, for the short trip to nearby Aurora airport, the home of Columbia Helicopters. Although not propliners, the assembled Chinooks and Vertols were interesting and Columbia were kind enough to start the engines on one of the Chinooks and run them for several minutes. We also found another Catalina, elsewhere on the airport and a brief stop was made to photograph this.

Then it was on to McMinnville aircraft museum, a very impressive building both inside and out, containing the largest propliner, if not the largest aircraft, ever built (is the An225 bigger?, the massive Hughes H1 Hercules flying boat. This is a truly colossal and hugely impressive aircraft, though not easy to photograph within the confines of the museum building.

Other propliners here were a DC3, an ex-Evergreen C130 and a Ford Trimotor. There were dozens of other aircraft at the museum, all in immaculate condition and these included a B17, a Spitfire, a ME Bf 109, a P38 Lightning, a DH9, a Beech Staggerwing, a Mig 15, a Convair F102 Delta Dagger and many other warbirds. The visit was rounded off with a visit to the museum’s excellent shop.

Next it was on to the Tillamook Air Museum. This is housed in a former airship hangar, an amazing, huge building, the survivor of one of three. Outside it is the one and only B377MG Mini Guppy, powered by its original Stratocruiser R4360 engines. It is painted with “Tillamook Air Museum” on one side of its fuselage, acting as a giant billboard; and with the name of its final operator, Erickson Sky Crane, on the other side.

We had a flight to catch later that afternoon from Portland, Oregon, so we were a bit strapped for time, hence a quick dash round the exhibits followed. Propliners present were another DC3, another Catalina and almost qualifying as such, a Neptune. There were also numerous warbirds, all under cover and many of them in flying condition.

Because of the size of the museum’s building and despite the large collection of aircraft, it is only using about a third of the floor space of this enormous building. Just how big the building is can perhaps be imagined by the photos of a light aircraft flying through it in the early 1950s, that the museum has. We rounded off the trip with a visit to the again excellent shop.

Then it was off to Portland airport, firstly through more beautiful scenery-thickly wooded valleys, before crawling through the city of Portland at rush hour on its clogged freeways.

At the airport we boarded a dull 737 of Southwest Airlines for our flight south to Reno, Nevada. We were favourably impressed by the width of the seats and the amount of legroom on this budget airline.

On arrival at Reno, we found that it is true that there are gambling machines all over the airport-as soon as we stepped out of the jetway, they were there. We ignored them however, collected our luggage and then found our new coach and driver, also called Phil. He then drove us to our overnight stop in Carson City-in name a hotel, but in reality a twenty-four hour casino with a hotel attached.

24th April dawned bright and sunny-perfect photographic weather, with even snow-capped mountains in the background. We then drove to Carson City airport. This was nirvana for fans of that mighty American flying boat, the Grumman Albatross. There were no fewer than eleven of these mighty machines at the airport, including an aircraft familiar to UK airshow-goers, the USS Currituck colours example. There was also a lone, but very smart Widgeon.

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The Albatrosses were in variable condition, from A1 in the case of the Currituck aircraft, to downright shabby, but even these looked capable of flying again. All the Albatrosses were in the care of Campbell Aviation.

Our host, Tom Weaver, then took us on a guided tour of many of the hangars at the airport. There were no more propliners, but plenty of warbirds, all in immaculate condition, with their owners proud to show them off and all pleased to see us. Aircraft seen included a T28 Fennec, a Cessna Bird Dog, two Mustangs, a Harvard, a Stearman, a Jet Provost-looking rather out of place amongst all the American piston-engined hardware.

After this, we went back to our hotel and were free for non-aviation activity for the afternoon. I went for a walk through Carson City, which, to my surprise, turned out, once one got away from its brash main street, to be a very well preserved late Victorian town, with many fine buildings along wide, tree-lined streets.

25th April was another day of brilliant sunshine and our first port of call was not far from Carson City, Minden-Tahoe, where we visited firebomber company Minden Air Corporation. Lyn Parker, head of the company and his wife, were our hosts.

There was only one of their aircraft present, an immaculate Neptune, tanker 48. Again, the clear message was one of an uncertain future, due to the miserly attitude of the USFS and Lyn told us that one aircraft they were evaluating for possible use as a firebomber in the future was the Bae 146/RJ100-horrors!

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As at Neptune Air Services however, he was very wary of taking on a turbine-powered aircraft, because of their much higher operating costs compared with piston-engined hardware, citing 200 gallons per hour fuel consumption by the Neptune, when using only the piston engines, rising to 700 per hour when using the two auxiliary jet engines. Sadly, Minden had lost a Neptune in a crash a short time before.

Before leaving Minden-Tahoe, we went over to the main apron, where we had spotted a Mustang amongst all the light aircraft.

Then it was a long drive through the Carson Mountains, through snow again and past pine forests and frozen lakes, with a distant view of the Sierra Nevada, into the baking heat of California-93F! Our destination was the small private airfield at Ione, owned by Sanders aircraft.

There was only one propliner here, an immaculate tricycle gear Beech 18, in US Navy colours, but Sanders also have an amazing collection of warbirds, all of these in superb condition, unless undergoing maintenance: six Sea Furies, some belonging to Sanders, some with them for maintenance; a Tigercat, a Harvard and a Yak.

Both hangars here, like nearly all that we saw on our trip, were in spotless condition, indicative of the very high standard of maintenance undertaken in them.

26th April was even hotter than the day before: 94F. This sort of temperature, we were told, was unusual for this part of California in April-it was normally about 20F cooler.

Our overnight stop had been in Sacramento. We made the short journey from there to the ex-USAF base of McClellan, where we were greeted by Bill Mason of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. They operate a large fleet of OV10 Broncos, S2A and S2T Trackers, though sadly this is to be the last season of operation for the S2As, due to the usual problems of ever rising maintenance costs.

We walked up and down the serried ranks of their fleet and then through their hangars-again, these were spotless. We also paused for a group photograph.

After this, it was a very short drive to the museum at the airbase. The first aircraft we saw was a C54, at present kept separate from the other aircraft. This was in excellent condition and finished in a camouflage scheme. The main museum area was in the open air and contained a large number of aircraft, very well displayed and all in good condition, with an information board in front of each one, detailing the history of that particular aircraft.

Centrepiece was an EC121D. Other propliners present were a C119, a C45 and a C131, all in USAF or USN colours and all providing welcome shade from the by now baking heat. There were also some classic jet fighters and helicopters. We then drove north to our final overnight stop, in the town of Chico.

Next morning, the final day of the trip, 27th April, the temperature had gone up again, now to 95F. We drove the short distance to Chico airport and were met by our host, Terry Unsworth, expatriate British head of locally-based firebomber company Aero Union.

We were given free rein to go through their hangars and section of the apron, Aero Union even laying on a van to take us from one end of this to the other. Again, the hangars were spotless, reflecting the high standard of the operation and all their operational aircraft were in excellent condition and very smartly attired in their very attractive livery.

The company currently have two operational DC4s, but another one had just arrived back from a twenty-two year stint of service in New York State, for possible conversion to a firebomber. We were able to go inside this aircraft-an impressive old workhorse. A surprise was an ex-Reeve Aleutian Electra, still in full RAA colours, but being converted to a firebomber for Air Spray, another airtanker company.

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Photo © Michael Blank

The mainstay of the company’s large fleet now however, are Neptunes and Orions, a large number of which were on the apron and in hangars. There was also a Neptune still in its military colours. This is a non-flying example, used as an engine test bed and Aero Union were kind enough to start up and run one its engines for several minutes-another memorable experience. After this, it was merchandise time, with, in addition to the usual T shirts and baseball caps, calendars.

Before leaving, we had a quick look at a small “museum” area (nothing to do with Aero Union). This comprised a wingless Antonov 2 in poor condition; a Lodestar, in somewhat better condition; a Yak 50, in reasonable condition; and a Neptune, in reasonable condition. Chairs were needed to photograph these, so poorly were they displayed.

Then it was on to our final visit of the trip, to the museum at Travis AFB, many miles to the south of Chico. The lady officer who met us was none too welcoming, but we were able to see all the exhibits, albeit in something of a hurry, as we were running out of time, with the museum due to close imminently, for the afternoon.

The museum had an excellent collection of propliners, comprising a C124 Globemaster, a C118, a C119 Flying Boxcar, a DHC 4 Caribou, a C123 Provider, a C131, a C45 and a AT11. Although all of these are kept outside, they did not seem to be suffering for it, probably because of the hot and dry climate. Seeing such a fine collection of propliners marked a fitting end to the tour.

Leaving Travis, we spotted a C54 in use as a gate guardian and many of us were able to photograph this, albeit from the moving coach. We then sped down an eight lane freeway to San Francisco, where we were able to see the Golden Gate Bridge. We also passed through the downtown area.

So that was it. After a farewell dinner for many of the party, we then bussed out to San Francisco airport the next morning to catch a Northwest 757 flight to Detroit, with a swift connection there to another DC10 of theirs, for an overnight flight back to Gatwick. Both flights were absolutely on time. At Gatwick, the party split up, at the end of a memorable tour.

Finally, special thanks to Colin Watson, our Tour manager and to Ian Allan, for organising the trip and ensuring we got access to all the airfields.


Just two weeks after our return, came the shock news that the USFS, overreacting to safety concerns which the firebomber companies had already more than addressed, had decided not to renew their contracts for all the old “heavies,” thirty-three aircraft in all, effectively grounding them. This meant that nearly all the fabulous firebomber aircraft we had seen on the trip might never fly again-a horrifying prospect, but also very bad news for householders and businesses across the US, left with no effective defence against the terrible damage and threat to life that forest and brush fires can cause.

Needless to say, the firebomber companies are not taking this threat to their very existence lying down. A vigorous fightback campaign, both at grassroots level and through their political representatives, is now underway, to get this irrational and kneejerk reaction decision reversed. Neptune, TBM-Butler and Aero Union are at the forefront of this and we can only hope that their efforts will meet with success, so that their glorious old aircraft can continue their economically and socially vital work long into the future.

Editor’s Note:

Fortunately for both residents of wildfire-prone regions of the United States and for enthusiasts of propliners (your editor falling into both categories), many of the grounded tankers have returned to service. Aircraft not yet recalled include the three DC-4 aircraft. If any reader of this article can offer further updates on the current status of these remarkable aircraft, please let us know.

Written by
Michael Blank

Michael Blank is a 47 year old property valuer from Manchester in the UK, who has had a passion for propliners since planespotting days in the early 1970s. He traces his enthusiasm for these aircraft back to an August 1962 flight (at the age of 4), with his parents, on an Air France Super Constellation, from London to La Baule in France, preceded by a flight from Manchester to London on a BEA Vanguard. Sadly, he has no recall of these flights or the return journey, but feels sure these planted a seed which came to fruition in the early 1970s, when he first became seriously interested in aircraft. He also had his enthusiasm for propliners increased by a number of other flights on these aircraft in the 1960s-more BEA Vanguards, a BEA Viscount, a KLM Electra and a Balair F27. Apart from propliners, his other interests are photography, history and Bridge.

7 User Comments:
Username: CurtissC46 [User Info]
Posted 2005-03-13 11:05:36 and read 32768 times.

Very good interesting report.
Well done and lets hope they keep flying.
Visited some of these places myself.
Keith B

Username: DIJKKIJK [User Info]
Posted 2005-03-13 14:20:36 and read 32768 times.

Nice Article, Michael!

It is good to know that somewhere in this unforgiving world, the oldies still survive and thrive.

May they keep doing so!

Username: Jtitilah [User Info]
Posted 2005-03-14 08:43:49 and read 32768 times.

Thanks for the armchair roadtrip!

Too bad you didn't make it to Santa Rosa (Charles Schultz)!
I get to hear the firebombers everytime they take off over my house! Love it.

Sorry to read about the bizzare USFS action. Those planes have saved many lives!

Username: WGW2707 [User Info]
Posted 2005-03-15 01:28:28 and read 32768 times.

Sorry to read about the bizzare USFS action. Those planes have saved many lives!

Fortunately some of them are back in service, but the USFS is definitely not America's most intelligent federal agency. Without wishing to make any implications not relevant to the USFS, my general impression is that the USFS has historically lacked a clear focus as to what it is supposed to be doing-should it be pro-environment, pro-land usage or what? It does a large number of jobs, and does them generally poorly, as a visit to any region under its jurisdiction will show. It's been like this for at least the past two decades as far as I can tell, and probably longer.

When, like me, you live in a wildfire-prone region, knowing that the government agency that directs the aircraft that play a vital role in controlling these fires is as arrogant and incompetent as the USFS is, is not a comforting thought. My entire town was nearly barbecued in the Southern California wildfires of late 2003, so I definitely had to take the USFS comments of this story to heart.

I thought the author of this story did an absolutely world-class job of bringing together the different elements of the saga of the US firebomber fleet into a cohesive and delightful story, and I'm glad that this was the first article edited by myself on airliners.net.


Username: CV990 [User Info]
Posted 2005-04-01 11:50:37 and read 32768 times.


I really enjoyed the report you did about those old water bombers. Some of the photos you showed were not new to me! During 2003 I was with my family studying in Fresno and has you know they have a fairly small airport with a few regular flights every day, not a big deal but for a fan from Portugal anything out of european airplanes was good, but soon it started to be boring, always the same CRJ's from America West, Horizon, Delta, United, always the same MD80's from AA, always the same 727100/200, 757 and 767 from FredEx, UPS and Airborne Express, always the same F-16's from FresnoAG!!!! Until one day in Spring when I saw what it looked like a old DC-6 airliner.... well actually it was a DC-7, tail number 61. It was the first time I saw one and I was really pleased to see it, latter another old Douglas airliner arrived, this time a C-54, tail number 65, latter it came a very rare DC-6, tail number 68, and then during the summer there were days that Fresno Airport was completely buzzy with those old airliners fighting fires at Yosemite Range.... it was just a delight to see, ear those piston airplanes just comming and going like bees! I remember seeing DC-7 tail number 66 with basic Denver Ports of Call livery, 2 ARDCO C-54 in pristine condition, tail numbers 161 and 162, at least 2 P2V5's Neptunes, very very interesting! After the season was over and when I was flying back to Fresno from a trip to Canada in the final moments of landing I saw what looked like a small airfield close to Visalia, I could spot 3 C-130's and a C-54. Before I left San Joaquin Valley in December I said to myself I had to see that airfield, and I did it, I saw there two C-130A's, another ex: USAF for spares and the good old C-54 tail number 65 that was starting to do a big inspection, I took some photos for the posterity and I'm glad that In 2003 I could watch such a great panel of old airliners! And my kids too, they loved to see those old airplanes!
Thanks for sharing this magic moments with us!

Username: Aviopic [User Info]
Posted 2005-04-23 12:36:55 and read 32768 times.

Very good and interesting report.
Well done Michael. {bigthumbsup}

Hope to see you around some day.
Willem(you know who)

Username: Jtitilah [User Info]
Posted 2005-05-20 16:08:19 and read 32768 times.

Here's a real time update of the air tanker issue in Nevada

Fire agencies unsure of air tankers’ availability

Jeff DeLong
5/19/2005 10:43 pm

Nevada’s fire agencies approach the 2005 fire season armed with roughly the same resources as last year.

They also face the same nagging uncertainty as to how much they can depend on the nation’s fleet of heavy air tankers.

“Our big concern is the availability of those big air tankers,” said Bob Ashworth, fire program coordinator for the Nevada Division of Forestry.

A year ago, citing safety concerns, the government canceled contracts for 33 air tankers. The action was taken after the crashes of three C-130 tankers, including one that broke up in mid-air while fighting a fire over Walker, Calif., south of Reno in 2002, killing a crew of three.

After detailed safety inspections, the government has so far brought 11 big tankers into service for the 2005 fire season, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. It’s possible another nine P2-V tankers will be put into action in the summer, Davis said.

Otherwise, the country’s firefighting forces will depend on an aerial armada of the 11 big tankers, more than 70 single-engine air tankers and 700 helicopters, Davis said, adding the government believes those resources to be sufficient.

“We have the resources to take care of initial attack,” Davis said.

Locally, Minden Air Corp. operates one P2-V tanker that has been returned to service but the aircraft will be moved around the country as needed, said Mike Dondero, fire and aviation chief for Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Aircraft that will remain staged in the area through the summer include two single-engine air tankers, or SEATS, one flying out of Minden and another out of Stead. Three other SEATS will be based in Ely, Elko and Las Vegas.

SEATS performed well during the Waterfall and Andrew fires, which combined burned 23 homes in Northern Nevada last summer, said Bob Knutson, an assistant fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management.

The growing fleet of SEATS appear to be performing well, Davis agreed. Their limitations — a SEAT can dump only 800 gallons of fire retardant compared with a big tanker’s 3,000-gallon load — are balanced against their attributes. SEATS can fly lower and slower than the bigger tankers, making for more accurate drops over rugged terrain.

The small planes could prove particularly efficient in battling the low-altitude grass fires that many expect to be a problem in Northern Nevada this summer, Davis said.

Local aerial firefighting resources also include two Minden-based NDF helicopters and a Forest Service helicopter based in Bridgeport, Calif.

Statewide this summer, the BLM will staff 50 fire engine crews and the Forest Service another 20.

Copyright © 2005 The Reno Gazette-Journal

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