A Star is Born

When air tankers had their day

I heard it before I saw it. The 1900 horsepower, 14 cylinder Pratt & Whitney rotary engine has a sound all its own. 

It’s a Grumman TBM Avenger, coming in for a landing at the Columbia, California, fire air attack base. The TBM was a carrier-based torpedo bomber, the heaviest single-engined aircraft of World War II. It is coming in at treetop level out of the Sierra foothills and headed directly at me. The year is 1962.

Using hand signals, I guide the plane to where I stand, at the far end of the runway. I chock the wheels. The pilot leaves the engine running as my cousin Ron and I pull the big hose over and insert it into the plane. We open the nozzle and fill the tank with 400 gallons of red borate slurry. 

I was 15 years old and it was my first real summer job. Working with my cousin, we operated the borate mixing equipment and filled the planes with retardant. Ron and I work as fast as we can. The pilot gets paid by the hour ($100 an hour in 1962) but the Sonora Flying Service gets paid by the load, delivered to the fire. 

After loading the Avenger with slurry, I pull the chocks from the wheels and give the pilot the go-ahead signal. The pilot revs up the engine, does a 180 degree turnaround and, within seconds, is airborne again. 

For a 15-year-old kid from the San Fernando Valley, loading air tankers at an air attack base in northern California was pretty glamorous, exciting, high-wage work. How did I get there? I was there because air tankers were part of my family. 

Five years earlier, my uncle, Bob Roberts, and his partner, Mel Coeur, were co-owners of the Sonora Flying Service. They had been urging the U.S. Forest Service and the California Division of Forestry to establish firefighting air bases in strategic locations for initial attack of wildfires. They had outfitted an open cockpit Stearman bi-plane with a 150 gallon tank for just such a role.

The USFS called it into service in June of 1957, and the Sonora Flying Service made the first-ever air attack on a wildfire. The fire in the Stanislaus National Forest was held to just three acres. The Forest Service was impressed, and the Columbia airport became the first fire attack base in the U.S. Later that year, Uncle Bob would purchase two TBM Avengers and outfit them with 400-gallon tanks. A new firefighting industry was born. 

The original firefighting role for the air tanker was to get to a fire while it was small and keep it small until ground crews could get there. But that’s not how it played out. The money was just too good for that.  

Years later, on a Forest Service fire crew, an old timer told me the USFS fought fires by pouring money onto them. Well, if you want to pour money on a fire, air tankers are an efficient way to do it. And the bigger the tanker, the more money it can drop. 

A good example are the DC-10 super tankers, originally designed by Oregon’s Evergreen Aviation. They cost more than $10 million each and run more than $75,000 a day to have them on standby. Hourly rates for flight time exceed $12,000, not including the pilots and retardant. 

Are they worth the money? Critics point out that giant tankers make for great photos and video clips, but aren’t worth the cost. With the new reality of mega-fires destroying entire communities, there is increased demand on buying into the next generation fleet of super tankers. There is evidence from the federal Office of Management and Budget that they are largely ineffective and, to make matters worse, the fire retardant they drop is lethal to fish and kills streams.

I believe there is a role for air tankers in fighting wildland fires. Just as in that initial drop in 1957, they can be effective at initial attack on a fire to prevent it from getting bigger. They can also make strategic drops to protect structures or other high value assets. But those roles require precision, not massive, high altitude drops from supertankers.

On a fire it was sometimes referred to as a CNN Drop. Fire management would bring out the star power and drop a load of retardant at a location near the media. Shots of a big red plume dropping from an airplane provides a dramatic image for the press. It’s been that way since 1961, the year the tanker industry got its big break, the year Hollywood made the air tanker a star. 

It’s a hot, windy, November day in 1961. My brother Walt and I are up on the roof of our house in Sherman Oaks looking towards the Santa Monica Mountains. The smell of  smoke is in the air. The sound of sirens comes from all directions. We can see large columns of dark smoke rising from the nearby hills. The deep rumbling of World War II warbirds fills the air.

The Bel Air Fire was the largest brush fire in Southern California history at that time. It would destroy over 400 homes. But this was not just any place, and these were not just any homes. 

This was L.A., the home of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. These were the homes of the rich and famous, of movie and TV stars. Movie stars Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor would lose their homes.  

Our house is under the flight path between the air attack base at the Van Nuys airport and the fire. From our rooftop perch we watch the WW II warbirds — TBM Avengers, a PBY Catalina and a B-17 Flying Fortress — as they fly in and out of the smoke. The planes are owned by Uncle Bob.

Celebrities’ homes were burning. News photos included Richard Nixon standing on his roof with a garden hose, in slacks and a dress shirt and tie. Stars shown defending their homes included Kim Novak, Maureen O’Hara and Robert Taylor. Images of movie stars with garden hoses defending their homes made national news. And with them came a new celebrity, the air tanker. This was the tanker’s debut performance on a national stage.

 WW II bombers, flown by WW II pilots were making precision air drops that saved the homes of the rich and famous. Hollywood gratefully responded in the only way it could.             

Spectacularly dramatic scenes, right out of a war movie were broadcast and seen on the nightly news in living rooms across America. Hollywood knew how to create a star, and that’s what it did. From that moment on, no wildfire story would ever be complete without a tanker drop.

Back on the roof, Walt and I notice the big four-engine B-17 coming out of the smoke, aimed directly at our house. It comes in low and directly over our heads. We yell and wave our arms and the big plane’s wings dip side to side as it passes overhead. It was Uncle Bob heading back to Van Nuys for another load of borate.

Not long after that, the Sonora Air Service would morph into Intermountain Aviation, owned by the CIA. That same B-17 would take on a whole new life flying spy missions. In 1965, as part of its “skyhook” cover identity, it plucked James Bond out of the ocean at the end of the movie Thunderball. 

Decades later, at the Evergreen Aviation museum in McMinnville, I noticed the B-17 on display. Could it be the same plane? Evergreen Aviation officials confirmed it was. All of the assets of Intermountain Aviation had been absorbed by Evergreen, including the B-17. I could hardly believe it. I was looking at the very same plane that dipped its wings over Walt and I so many years before.

We lost my brother Walt to AIDS in 1988, and I miss him dearly. I think about him every day. For those precious few moments, standing in front of that old plane, he was there with me again, back on that roof, two kids whooping and hollering, as that big old Flying Fortress saluted us as it flew over.  ν

Bob Warren retired in 2012 as the regional business development officer for Business Oregon for Lane, Lincoln, Linn and Benton counties. Prior to that, he was a senior policy advisor to Gov. Barbara Roberts and district aide and natural resource advisor for Rep. Peter DeFazio.

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