With the end of World War Two, the United States Air Force has a surplus of bombers everything from A-20s to the B-29s. Most of these aircraft would end up. In 1947 the US Air Force and the Forestry came together to convert bombers into fire bombers, or aerial fire fighters. In 1953, several major fires in Southern California brought the need to re-explore better methods of control and management the fire. By 1956, aerial firefighting had become a reality. While it was demonstrated that aircraft were a valuable tactical resource for crews on the ground, it was also shown that the aircraft had many limitations as well. By the end of the 1950s various aircraft, mostly WW2 and Korean War surplus airframes, had found a new life as aerial firefighters. The very first US Water bomber was the Boeing PT-17 used in California. Willows Air Service was also California’s very first waterbomber contractor.
Hollywood flying legend Paul Mantz installed a plywood tank in a Grumman TBF for the Firestop series of testing at Camp Pendleton. The tank doors were released using electric bomb shackles. Pictured here at Ontario International Airport in 1957, Stan Reaver and Dick Munsell taxi in from a testing session.
Probably everyone’s flying scene is where two fishermen are on a boat and John Goodman with his PBY Catalina to scoop water up. As a flying boat the PBY became a fantastic aerial fire bomber, Rosenbalm Aviation of Medford OR was the first operator to the use of the Catalina in aerial firefighting. Coupled with it’s loiter time and lift capacity, the PBY proved to be an excellent platform as an airtanker.
Finally in the 50s the Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer became a reality. Testing and late introduction into the world of firefighting, the 4Y would have to wait a few years to see widespread use and in 1959 Avery Aviation tanked the first Privateer. Aside from the aircraft being used, advances in chemical
retardants was taking place as well. It was clear that through early testing, that plain water – while good, was not sufficient for the task at hand. Water drops needed to be executed perfectly to be effective and the wind more often than not made this impossible.
In late 1959, many airframes were undergoing modification for eventual use as a tanker platform and
in 1960 the available aircraft started to grow. Notable among these were the Grumman F7F, North American B-25 and AJ-1, Douglas A-26, Consolidated PB4Y-2 and
the huge Martin JRM-3 Mars. Canadian project, paid for by six lumber companies, who would later be known as Forest Industries Flying Tankers later into Coulson Aviation. In 1960, the J. M. Jackson Company purchased three North American AJ-1s from the US Navy’s Litchfield Park Arizona storage yard and flew them to Long Beach California for conversion. In June of that year, the first airframe was
tested over a fire in June, followed by a second test in August. Eventually, two of the three aircraft would see service and use throughout Southern California. With a tank capacity of 2,000 gallons and a cruise speed of 230 knots, the AJ-1s were a valuable resource on incidents that required tankers to come from an extended range.
By 1963, there were ten F7F airframes being used throughout the Western States, with seven of these
calling California home. The tank system saw the biggest change moving from wing mounted tanks to a single fuselage mounted tank in both 800 gallon and 1,000 gallon capacity.
The North American B-25 started seeing conversion in 1959 and by 1960, there were sixteen B-25 tanker ooperators in the State of California. Most carried 1,000 gallon tanks either belly mounted or fitted internally in the bomb bay. Early success varied with each operator, however, in July of 1960 there were four fatal crashes within days of each other involving the B-25. Subsequently, the B-25 was banned from use in the State of California. Testing was conducted at Edwards Air Force Base in 1963 to determine the cause of certain flight control issues which resulted in the limited use of the B-25 elsewhere around the Country and Canada. The last B-25 tanker was retired from service in 1992, in Alberta Canada.
The Douglas A-26 saw it’s first conversion in 1959 by Aero Atlas in Red Bluff Ca. By the mid 60s, somewhere between 50 and 60 A/B-26s were being used, some of them in California for a short time. The aircraft exhibited a 1,200 mile range coupled with a good airspeed and an initial 1,200 gallon capacity. By the late 60s and early 70s, a majority of the A-26s had either found their way to
Canada, other non-tanker ownership or the scrap yards. In Stephen Spielberg reboot of the 1989 movie, Always, Richard Dreyfuss is piloting an A-26 (GREAT MOVIE WITH GREAT FLYING SCENES)
Starting in 1960, the Boeing B-17 entered the second war in it’s career. Most having been surplussed by the late 50s, the 4 engine supercharged airframe proved to be a power hitter in the tanker world. By 1962, B-17s were in wide use in California and around the Nation. Aero Union and TBM Inc. stabled a number of these and were a common fixture around the State until the mid 70s. On average, a B-17 would carry 1,600 gallons of retardant although most were rated for 1,800 gallons. Considering the B-17 was built for war time punishment, the airframe proved to be one of the most stable and structurally sound tankers at the time. The B-17 that crashed, Nine-O-Nine spent part of her life fighting fires.
Later on in the 70s, as the DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7 aircraft along with their military variants became more affordable, many of these saw the conversion to tankers and proved to be excellent platforms. The DC-7s still serve in Canada and Oregon today.
In the latter years of the 60s and into the early years of the 70s, the Fairchild C-119 was finding it’s way out of the US military inventories and into storage. Early on, the airframe was eyed as to it’s use as a tanker. By March 1970, the various airframe models received STCs for retardant tanks and the addition of a jet pod located on top of the fuselage. Hawkins & Powers and Aero Union were the initial users of this aircraft, with Hemet Valley Flying Service eventually picking up Aero Union’s fleet of the “Dollar Nineteen”.
In 1970, there were growing concerns about single engined tankers, mainly the Grumman TBM. Crash history for the TBM was growing, while future maintainability and parts resources were growing slim. The CDF was looking for a replacement for the contract aircraft that had been serving the State for the last 20 plus years and the twin engined Grumman S-2A was evaluated and chosen as the replacement. The S-2A was already being used in Canada for aerial firefighting, thus with shared engineering data, Hemet Valley Flying Service built two prototypes that were placed into service by the beginning of the 1973 fire season. 1973 also saw the loss of three more TBMs and three F7F tankers in 1974, which quickly brought the S-2 program into full swing. Having settled on a tank design and system, Aero Union, Sis-Q and TBM Inc., joined Hemet Valley in conversions of the airframes. By the end of the 1974 fire season, 12 S-2As were in service Statewide, with another five coming from Bay Aviation Services in 1975. The move to the S-2 also signified the beginning of a State managed fleet of tankers, although maintenance and flight crews were still provided by the various contractors. To this day Cal Fire still operates the S-2T, a turbine conversion of the S-2.
As fires grew bigger, the US needed bigger machines. Once again, many changes were ahead for the
CDF air program as well as the private contractors. The decade brought with it the loss of more aircraft and many fine pilots and we would see the permanent grounding of several airframes. These years would also see the beginnings to introduce turbine powered aircraft into the industry with the addition of several new platforms. Some of the changes during the 80s were not without controversy and would thrust several contractors and the US Forest Service into a drawn out legal battle that would
last into the 90s.
In late 1987, there were plans laid to bring the Lockheed C-130A into the industry to replace the recently grounded Fairchild C-119s. Structural and component failures had forced the grounding of these after the loss of several aircraft. The C-130 seemed an ideal platform, however, the speculated history and acquisitionof the airframes provided a short window of use for this type. Eventually, after the loss of two separate aircraft from two separate contractors, this called an end to their use in the civilian market. However, they are still used today by Air Force Reserve Units from several States in
the MAFFS2 configuration. CalFire has also allowed Lynden Air Cargo, contracted via Coulson to use C-130s in the last few years!