Looking back at Air Tanker 127, a PB4Y-2

PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127, N6884C, at the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting, Greybull, WY, May 26, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In our continuing series of looking back at photos of historic air tankers, today we are featuring Tanker 127, a PB4Y-2 Privateer (N6884C, B. 59701). All of these photos of the aircraft were furnished by the Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base except for the one at the top of this article.

Unlike many of the aircraft that were converted into air tankers from what would now be 50 to 70 year old former military war birds, Tanker 127 still exists today and can be seen at the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting west of Greybull, Wyoming. Just looking at the external appearance of T-127 it almost appears like it could take to the air again, at least when viewed from a distance. But apparently it has had quite a bit of cosmetic surgery done on its nose.

Consolidated Aircraft produced 739 PB4Y-2s from 1943 until 1945, mostly for the U.S. Navy, but also for the U.S. Coast Guard. Its primary function was as a long-range patrol bomber. Defensive armament included twelve .50-in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns in six power operated turrets (two dorsal, two waist, nose, and tail)

PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127, N6884C, in flight near Reno, 1976.

The Navy and the Coast Guard retired the model in 1954 and 1958, respectively. In the 1950s and early 1960s many of the PB4Y-2s were converted to a drone configuration as P4Y-2Ks to be used as targets.

PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 ,N6884C, August, 1975 at Reno-Stead AFB. Photo by J.B. Handwriting on the back of the photo says, “The new N6884C formerly N7962C.”

According to Warbirdregistry.org, this aircraft was “up for disposal, circa 1959”, and was later owned by Allied Metal Industries, International Air Applicators, Rosenbalm Aviation, Hawkins and Powers Aviation, Pride Capital Group LLC, and Bob J. Hawkins/D & G Inc.

PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127, N6884C, July 1976. The handwriting on the back of the photo says, “Nose is T-33 canopy cut and turned upright. In fact this nose is new (2 yr) for N6884C and may be from 92 Charlie.”

Quite a few PB4Y-2s were converted into air tankers but their firefighting careers came to an end after the second in-flight major structural failure of Hawkins & Powers air tankers in 2002. The first was T-130, a C-130A working on the Cannon Fire near Walker, California on June 17, killing all three crew members after both wings folded upward and separated from the aircraft.

The second was T-123, a PB4Y-2 on the Big Elk Fire east of Estes Park, Colorado on July 18. From Wikipedia:

The aircraft, operating with the call sign Tanker 123, was loaded with 2,000 US gallons (7,600 L) of retardant. At the time of the accident, it was in a left turn to line up for its eighth drop of the day on the Big Elk fire. While still in the 15–20° left bank, witnesses on the ground and in another tanker observed the left wing separate from the aircraft and “fold upwards”, followed almost immediately by the initiation of a fire. The aircraft continued to roll left, impacting the ground at a 45° nose down attitude, starting a large fire at the wreck site. Both crewmen were killed in the crash.

After those two crashes and five fatalities, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel to evaluate, “the airworthiness of aircraft that were operating outside of their original intended design”. After the report was released in March, 2003 the USFS and BLM  declined to renew the contracts on nine C-130A and PB4Y-2 airtankers. In a 2003 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Larry Hamilton of the BLM testified, “The report also identified a lack of training in contemporary aviation management areas that has contributed to an unacceptable accident rate.”

In 2002 44 large air tankers were on exclusive use contracts but after the two accidents the fleet atrophied, reaching a low of 9 in 2013. In 2014 “next-generation” air tankers began receiving contracts and the numbers increased, with 10 to 20 on EU contracts, but only 13 in 2018. The USFS has been using Call When Needed air tankers much more often than before, even though they are much more expensive to operate. The 2017 average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127, N6884C, at Reno, July, 1976. Photo by Babcock.

PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127, N6884C, at Reno-Stead AFB.
PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127, N6884C, at Stead AFB, August, 1975. Photo by Babcock. The handwriting on the back of the photo print says, “Notice the ‘company car’ “

The video below honors T-123, the tanker that crashed in Colorado in 2002.

UPDATE July 8, 2019:

JD Davis sent us the two photos below. Thanks JD!

Tanker 127 at Hemet July 1980
Tanker 127 at Hemet July, 1980. Photo by JD Davis.
Tanker 127 at Hemet July 1980
Tanker 127 at Hemet July, 1980. Photo by JD Davis.

11 thoughts on “Looking back at Air Tanker 127, a PB4Y-2”

  1. T-127 was the first heavy tanker I flew in, and first tanker I had an engine failure in, too. The nose in the black and white picture looks to me like it always did, at least when I knew it. The article. says the nose plexiglass is a T33 canopy, though my understanding was that we had a F86 canopy on there. It may have been different plastic than when the. other picture was taken. I miss the PB4Y. I enjoyed working on it, and enjoyed flying it. I enjoyed most of those I flew with, and missed out on flying with some of the greats who operated it before my time. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to operate it before it was retired. On occasion, I see the former T-121, which is gradually morphing back into a WWII configuration, a sad change I think, given that it spent more of its life as a tanker than other roles.

  2. My Grandpa used to build the PB-4Y2 during the Second World War. He worked for Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego. I never knew what the PB-4Y2 was until I started fighting fires. He was a radio man on all the aircraft built during the era. The B-24 Liberator, the PBY-Catalina and the PB-4Y2. I am grateful for what he did. He also taught me Ham Radio.
    73 DE WM7Y, Eric.

  3. I also had the privilege of seeing it in person in the air and on the ground at Stead Tanker Base. I always wondered if grandpa worked on this plane.

    73 DE WM7Y

  4. My grandmother was one of the aircraft workers in San Diego before and during WWII. Her small frame meant she could work in ‘all the tight places’. That began my interest, which grew when I became a wildland firefighter. Thanks for a great article, with some photos I’m seeing for the first time. I’m sharing some other photographers’ photos I’ve had for awhile.


    and http://www.aafo.com/hangartalk/showthread.php?7864-PB4Y-Water-drop

  5. On a lighter note, T-121 has been pretty much restored to flying status by Gosshawk Aviation in AZ. Unfortunately, it’s been stripped of tanker status and reconfigured to USN/ US Coast Guard livery. Beautiful restoration.

  6. My father flew a PB4Y-2 in the 1960s out of Wenatchee Wa (Wenairco) I’m fortunate to have many fond memories of those times, and respect for those who flew them,as well as those who maintained them.

  7. As an aircraft engineer, former aircraft mechanic and general aviation pilot I am curious as to what your big concern is with using parts from a wrecked aircraft, assuming all appropriate inspections are done. Engines are frequently rebuilt after prop strikes and a wing could have hundreds of valuable nonstructural parts. You have brought up the issue three times in this discussion so I am genuinely interested in knowing your concerns about it.

    1. In this particular case Chris the issue is the perceived disrespect and disregard by company owners for the deaths of it’s employees. If Hawkins & Powers reclaimed parts from the wreckage of Tanker 123 for reuse, then the company made a business decision over a moral one.

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