When Air Tanker 135 took off from Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m. July 29, 1977 the Mine Fire 16 miles to the south was threatening homes and burning thousands of acres of 60-year old brush in Tin Mine and Hagador Canyons on the southwest edge of Corona.
In a New York Times article about the fire, Corona was described as “a rural town”, and:
A force of 900 firefighters made a successful stand in front of the Village Grove development as flames from the 2,000‐acre blaze came within a football field of homes with price tags of up to $150,000.
Rose Bello was standing outside her house half a mile from the end of the runway at the northwest corner of Belmont Street and Mildred Avenue watching her three-year-old daughter Julie riding a bicycle with a friend. She saw the tanker flying very low, just clearing some power lines. When it passed over her home fire retardant was pouring from the plane.
“The noise was so loud it hurt my ears,” she told a reporter from the Daily Report. “I heard my little girl scream because [the retardant] was in her eyes and all over her clothes — she was just soaked.”
At the time the FAA required restricted air tankers like the C-119 to turn left off the Ontario runway to avoid the heavily populated center of the city. The aircraft had three engines. Two of them were props, Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones, a twin-row, supercharged, air-cooled, radial aircraft engine with 18 cylinders. After the C-119 retired from the military a third engine was added, a turbojet in a nacelle above the fuselage to supply additional power if needed on takeoff or while making a retardant drop.
The pilot, of course, didn’t plan to drop retardant from a very low level on four homes, six cars, children on bicycles, drying laundry, a corn field, and an assortment of trees and sheds. But shortly after take off one of the radial engines developed a runaway propeller, causing the engine to exceed the RPM limits. If not corrected immediately this can cause the propellers to fly off, possibly causing severe damage to the aircraft. When this occurs the pilot will usually reduce the power to the engine and shut off the fuel, a procedure that should prevent additional damage to the engine and the aircraft. But shutting down an engine, especially at low level while climbing and turning, may cause a stall. The pilot jettisoned the 2,000 gallons of retardant, about 9,000 pounds, to reduce the chances of a crash. The aircraft then gained enough altitude to turn and land safely back at the airport.
J.D. Davis, who took these two aircraft photos, was monitoring a scanner and heard the pilot ask to jettison the load on the runway, but the tower refused permission. The pilot headed toward a corn field near Ms. Bello’s home. That is where most of the retardant landed, plowing up several rows of corn, but part of the load was a little short.
Jim Stumpf was the Deputy Fire Management Officer and Aviation Officer for the nearby Angeles National Forest, the agency that ran the air tanker base at the airport. I asked him what he remembers about the incident:
When I arrived after about 40 minutes (traffic) everyone was really unhappy. CDF [California Department of Forestry] was on scene working clean up and I requested (Lower San Engine I think) to come to the incident to assist in the cleanup. A CDF Batt. Chief and I were directing the clean up and talking with a great deal of the affected residents assuring them that there were no long term effects from the retardant. It would wash off of adults, children, houses, etc. The clothes on the line could be rewashed without any problem.
If I remember, we spent several hours at the scene — CDF and I bought cokes and pizza for our respective crews. The local residents started consuming copious amounts of beer, wine and whiskey so it ended as a block party for all concerned. CDF and USFS turned down the offer to participate in the party. It started out bad and ended up a party. After our street and house cleaning all equipment was returned to their respective stations.
The following day I took Charity Burton to the scene (she was handling claims for the ANF). We talked to as many residents as possible and told them about the claims process. The best I can remember we didn’t get any claims. I drove through the neighborhood a few times on periodic visits to the tanker base, and even talked to some folks who thanked us for being responsive. All was well but they didn’t like tankers flying over their house.
Before the incident 70 individuals and two churches had filed two lawsuits totaling $11.70 million for damage due to noise from jets taking off from the airport, according to an article written in 1977 by Richard Brooks of the San Bernardino Sun.
Back then there were more air tankers than we have today, and they were not forced to move around the country as often following the latest hot, dry, and windy weather. The tanker crews that had been permanently stationed at Ontario perfected the tricky left turn while climbing off the runway, but tanker pilots from other areas were not always as diligent avoiding heavily populated areas. For the rest of the 1977 fire season only the permanent tanker was allowed to use Ontario. After that the base was permanently closed.
Ontario was the southernmost base that could support and refill large air tankers, so closing it reduced their ability to quickly and aggressively respond to fires in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego Counties.
In 1987 a C-119 (N48076) with the same tanker number, 135, crashed while working the Whalen Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Killed were Hawkins & Powers pilots Bill Berg and Charles Peterson, and mechanic Stephen Harrell. The crash was result of an inflight failure, with the right wing, the left wing tip, and the tail boom separating from the aircraft during a retardant run.
A big thank you goes out to J.D. Davis who supplied information about the incident and the C-119 photos.