Frank Prentice, one of the early air tanker pilots, passed away

He was the last surviving member of the air tanker program that began in Willows, California in the 1950s

Frank Prentice in air tanker 21
Frank Prentice in air tanker 21, waits while the aircraft is reloaded at the Ukiah, California airport, probably in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Prentice Danley.

Elizabeth Prentice Danley sent us the sad news that her father, Frank Prentice recently passed away. She said he was the last surviving member of the air tanker program that began  in Willows, California back in the 1950s. “To his last days he enjoyed seeing the photos published at Fire Aviation,” she said.

This is the obituary:


Pioneer Air Tanker pilot, former Ukiah resident and original owner of Ace Aerial Service, Frank Prentice, 93, passed away July 16, 2020, at his country home near Chico, CA.

Frank lived in Ukiah from 1960 to 1971.  He was one of the founding members of the first Air Tanker Squadron of pilots flying for the Mendocino National Forest based at the Willows, CA airport.   The group included seven pilots from the Sacramento Valley flying Boeing Stearman 75  and Naval Aircraft Factory N3N’s, converted into agricultural, and then air tanker planes.  The first strike was in 1955 on the Mendenhall fire in the Mendocino National Forest.  By 1956 the seven elite agricultural pilots were flying the converted planes with 170 gallon drum of water/borate and other fire retardants over forest fires all over the state.

In 1958 Frank contracted with California Division of Forest (CDF) and eventually moved his family to Ukiah, establishing Ace Aerial Service as an aircraft maintenance shop in 1960. He continued to fly air tankers during that time.

With billowing towers of smoke and ash obscuring their view, he and his team carried out precision strikes until the fires they were fighting were extinguished.  This practice remains an invaluable technique in wildland firefighting today, and would not have been as widely used or evolved had it not been for the first Air Tanker Squadron.  Frank was the last surviving member of that historic crew.

In 1971 Frank moved back to Willows/Chico area to farm his in-laws’ Walnut & Almond orchard, leaving professional aviation behind.  He and his wife, Lila, were joined by their three children in establishing an impressive legacy near Willows & Chico.

Frank & Lila celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in November of 2019.  Frank is survived by wife Lila, Chico; Elizabeth Ann Danley (Wade), Willows; Marilee Susan Doolittle (David), Butte Valley; F. Steven Prentice (Yolanda), Chico.  They have 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, with #13 due in November.

Services are pending when his ashes will be flown over the orchard at a later date.


Frank Prentice air tanker 21 1956
Frank Prentice in air tanker 21 in 1956. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Prentice Danley.
Willows air tanker history plaque
Plaque at the Willows, California Airport honoring the early history of using aircraft to fight vegetation fires.

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